Mortal Engines is definitely one of those films where the audience must suspend disbelief and simply go along for the ride. Adapted to screenplay by Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Peter Jackson (who also shares production rights) from the first of Philip Reeves’ quartet with the same title, Mortal Engines is a steampunk adventure story, set in a post-apocalyptic London that is motorised and travels on wheels. A fantastical hybrid of recognisable landmarks, with St Paul’s Cathedral its crowning centerpiece, this transformed “traction city” searches for resources to quench its insatiable energy needs, absorbing (by force) other smaller, weaker cities in its wake.
Hugo Weaving plays the role of Thaddeus Valentine well, the power-hungry Head of the Guild of Historians who stops at nothing to achieve his ends. His daughter, Katherine (Leila George) only becomes aware of her father’s evil plans further into the story. To most he is the driving force behind the St Paul’s Energy Project, which is advertised everywhere as a wonderful concept for the benefit of all. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), however, is well aware of his selfish and violent disposition after witnessing, as an eight year old, the murder of her mother, Pandora, by him. Valentine also gives Hester her distinctive facial scar in his attempt to kill her.
Hester becomes intent on avenging her mother’s death and when she manages to board London as a fugitive, she crosses paths with Tom (Robert Sheehan), who thwarts her attempt to end Valentine’s life. Tom works in the London Museum and has a wonderful knowledge of “old tech”, voraciously scavenging items from the past to keep as historical artefacts, before they’re crushed, melted and fed into the greedy bowels of London’s engines. Hester and Tom, unwillingly, become entwined in each other’s adventures and this sub plot also serves as the romantic undercurrent to Mortal Engine’s story.
There are definite political messages in this film. America, “The dead Continent” no longer exists on the global map after years of being ravaged by war. The “traction cities” of Europe, parts of Asia and North Africa could suggest post-colonialism or even the uncertain mess that is the European Union and Brexit. Thankfully, this is not overplayed in the movie and it’s primarily a breathtaking romp through various territories by our protagonist, with Hester at the helm of the “anti-traction league”, the ultimate bildungsroman character, and Valentine at the helm of the ever-moving city of London.
Jackson seems to have spared no expense as producer, and the amount and quality of special effects is glaringly obvious. One’s eyes follow each camera angle intently, trying to absorb all the details and mechanisms of the film. When the order “Prepare to ingest!” is given to absorb another traction city, it’s almost a command for the audience, too. There are moments of light humour to break up the tumultuous speed of the plot, as well as the dramatic sub plot between Hester and Shrike (Stepehen Lang), an undead ‘Stalker’ soldier, a remnant of the global wars. Shrike is meant to instill fear in anybody in his path, but I actually found him, at times, comical. The echoes of the animated corpse narrator from the TV series Tales From the Crypt were strong, whereby horror fuses with humour to entice the viewer into the story. By the end of Mortal Engines, though, Shrike and Hester’s relationship is presented as quite touching.
Mortal Engines should satisfy the fans of steampunk and futuristic fantasy as well as the reading audience of Reeve’s novels. Visually, it is fast-paced and sumptuous and Hugo Weaving plays the villain well (listen out for a clever intertextual reference to The Matrix) so that we are on the heroes’ and heroines’ side at the climactic end. It’s certainly no Lord of the Rings, but I’m sure it will spout successive instalments in the Mortal Engines‘ franchise, much as its London continued to expand and move forward.
Mortal Engines is now showing in cinemas