Jacob Richardson | 12/12/2018
A weak story and occasionally horrid acting doesn’t do justice to the incredible world-building of this film.
We are introduced to a post-apocalyptic world, where some cities ride on wheels and consume each other to survive. One of the most powerful roaming cities, London, crosses the channel and lands in mainland Europe under the guidance of the nefarious Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). As they go to consume a small German market town, a mysterious young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) steels on board and tries to kill Valentine. After a failed assassination and a chase, she and a young London man, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), find themselves stranded without a city; fighting off murderers, scavengers, a relentless undead killing machine and more to try and stop Valentine from enacting a horrific plan.
Directed by Peter Jackson’s protege, Christian Rivers, Mortal Engines is undoubtedly a messy film. The characters are sometimes very poorly defined, with Valentine in particular being a cardboard cut-out villain with no real motivation outside of ‘being evil’. The plot, too, tends to avoid all of the really intriguing elements and strings, instead following a fairly standard and linear story in the big new weapon, mass destruction, and team of heroes trying to take it down structure.
The lead actors, too, often underwhelm. Hilmar comes across particularly weak, often struggling to give her character any dimension outside of a burning rage. The more emotional scenes fall flat because of this, and Natsworthy’s affection for Shaw comes across as unwarranted. Weaving, despite being a tremendous actor, gives his pantomime villain no shades of good, and as such we get a very one note performance. Sheehan does well, but his character is effectively a hanger-on. Sheehan gives him some shades, and his performance is certainly fun, but he is also probably helped along by the story, which fills in some more complex backstory for him.
The fun really comes from the world-building of the story, and some of the more out-there supporting players.
The rolling cities create some really great visuals, and Rivers plays well with that visual. He has our heroes scurry along incredibly deep tracks from a rolling London, he comes up with really interesting ideas around hidden moving towns. The floating city is astoundingly graceful, and the walled city towards the end is stunningly beautiful. Further, the wider world is incredibly interesting. References are made to the state of things in other areas of the world; other interesting inventions, etc. References are also made to what caused the apocalypse, and the little snippets we get of that hold your attention rapt.
This is coupled with a series of intriguing side characters who make the film pass enjoyably. The first is the undead assassin, Shrike (Stephen Lang). Acting like a glowing green Terminator, Shrike hunts Hester Shaw down relentlessly, and getting an understanding of his latent memories, his interest in Shaw and his emotional arc is brilliant. Anna Fang (Jihae) is far and away the standout, ever since she appears in a flowing red cloak and with some A+ facial shades. She is uber cool, and throws a striking contrast to the bumbling Natsworthy and dirty, guerilla-esque fighter Hester.
In the end, it is an undoubtedly polarising film. Either you lose yourself in the world, the visuals and some great supporting characters, or you passionately dislike the movie. While we would expect most viewers will fall into the latter category, if you fall into the former this is definitely worth a watch.
Rabidly ambitious, and never quite successful, there is still plenty here to like if you can put your brain to the side for a while.