2018, PG-13, 128 min. Directed by Christian Rivers. Starring Hera Hilmar, Stephen Lang, Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Dec. 14, 2018
For the past 26 years, special effects artist Christian Rivers has faithfully storyboarded the horror and blockbuster films of director Peter Jackson. Now, Rivers is making his feature debut with Mortal Engines, the long-awaited adaptation of Philip Reeve’s award-winning young adult novels of the same name.
Mortal Engines takes places centuries in the future when humanity has risen from the planetwide devastation suffered during the suggestively titled 60-Minute War. Now humans travel the planet in enormous mobile cities, gobbling up the weaker populations and stripping these towns of their resources. When London leader Thaddeus Valentine (Weaving) is stabbed during one such assault by the mysterious Hester Shaw (Hilmar), what follows is a race across land, earth, and sky for one of the few superweapons still available in the world.
Just in case the concept of enormous, battling vehicle-cities isn’t goofy enough for you, Mortal Engines raises the stakes by thoroughly anthropomorphizing each city. It opens with a prolonged chase scene between London and a mining town; this pursuit unfolds like a nature documentary, with a smaller, wounded animal lunging for freedom with its last breaths. When there are no more towns left to flee, Rivers’ movie switches gears and adopts the visual characteristics and narrative beats of a George Lucas film, pitting a force of small fighter craft against a slow-moving doomsday device. You’ll see plenty of film critics describe Mortal Engines as a steampunk Star Wars, and even that fails to do the movie justice. Everything in here – from undiscovered family connections to Seventies-era tactical computers – is meant to tie back to that classic franchise.
And these visuals are absolutely necessary, because the film is entirely devoid of likable or relatable human characters. The most interesting thread belongs to Shrike (Lang), Hester’s half-synthetic caretaker who relentlessly stalks her across the planet. If Mortal Engines is the filmmakers’ riff on the Star Wars franchise, then Shrike is their homage to Bride of Frankenstein, an abomination of science that wants little more than to love and be loved in return. Jackson has always favored characters who walk the line between piteous and dangerous in his work, and Shrike is a welcome addition to the Gollums and Milton Dammerses of the world.
Ultimately, Mortal Engines is the kind of non-summer blockbuster that seems destined to find a few ardent defenders. Too unfocused to be good, too packed full of ideas to be entirely bad, it should become quite the cable television staple in just a few years' time.