Mortal Engines Review

Mortal Engines (2018) Movie Review By Philip Henry

Mortal Engines

Director: Christian Rivers
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson; based on the novel by Philip Reeve
Stars: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving

Peter Jackson has been doing a lot of the publicity for this film which has misled a lot of people into believing that he directed it. He didn’t. He produced it and co-wrote it with his long time collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, but it’s very evident once you’ve seen it that the man who made us weep for hobbits was not calling the shots on this set.

The first major stumbling block you have to get over if you want to stand a chance of enjoying this film is its premise. OK, so there’s been some apocalyptic event – we see the bombs going off all around the Earth as the Universal logo plays out – and then a thousand (?) years later we find all these major cities and towns are now on wheels, chasing down smaller towns and cities, and devouring them for their resources. But here’s the problem, we never find out how we got from one set of circumstances to the other. I can only surmise than in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic world, someone said: “I know, let’s use what little remaining resources we have left to put all our cities on wheels so we can drive them around huge, flat open plains of land like big monster trucks.” What would be the purpose of doing that? None of it seemed even remotely feasible to me. I would hope we get some sort of credible reason in the novel, but I haven’t read it so I can’t be sure.

Robert Sheehan, star of Channel 4’s Misfits, Dublin-based crime drama Love/Hate and Killing Bono finally gets his shot at a blockbuster and he seems perfectly at home in this huge-scale production, it’s just a pity he doesn’t have a better role to play. The same goes for Hera Hilmar, probably best known for her role in DaVinci’s Demons, who is very good as our main heroine looking to get revenge on evil Agent Smith. Sorry, I mean Hugo Weaving.

The story starts off well enough with various social and political themes being put into play, but the film feels like three shorter films tacked together. Act I is the set-up and exposition, while Act II goes off on a strange Terminator/ Frankenstein arc, and then Act III looks at lot like the finale of The Two Towers. It’s a huge story that’s pulled in too many directions for the running length of a single film, meaning we never get to connect properly with the characters or become invested in a single storyline before it’s hijacked by the next one. Despite the pretty modest 2hrs 8mins runtime of this film, it feels much longer. There were at least two occasions where I felt I was witnessing the big finale set-piece, only for another one to start up after it.

On the positive side, the film looks beautiful. The CG landscapes and travelling cities are expertly rendered and the production design and costumes land somewhere between steampunk and Middle Earth. Unfortunately it’s not enough to distract from the fractured nature of the script. I can’t help thinking in the hands of a more seasoned director (like Jackson) this might’ve been something really special, but looking up Christian Rivers’ CV online I find he’s only directed one short and one segment of a horror anthology. There’s no way he was ready for this.

As it stands, this film feels like a pick n’ mix grab bag of other successful franchises – you could almost go through and count them (and I’m sure someone on YouTube will). They’re not even subtle about hiding it. I actually laughed out loud when The Empire Strikes Back was ‘referenced’ because it just seemed like another franchise the director had ticked off in his list of rip-offs for this film.

There are four books in this series and I suppose Jackson & Co. were hoping this film would spawn sequels but early box-office numbers weren’t good so I think these huge travelling cities may have run out of fuel already.

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