Written by Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens, this ambitious sci-fi fantasy about a post-apocalyptic future where predatory cities roam the planet runs out of road very quickly
"We should never have gone into Europe. It’s the biggest mistake we’ve ever made!" thunders Lord Mayor of London Magnus Crome (a great Patrick Malahide) in this bonkers adaptation of Philip Reeve’s young adult fantasy sci-fi epic Mortal Engines.
Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens talk to RTÉ Entertainment
Earlier in the movie, there’s also a nice dig at Trump’s immigration policy but what this strange and lopsided movie has in decent and pertinent one-liners, it lacks in the vision thing.
It’s the first feature by Peter Jackson collaborator Christian Rivers and he has a whole range of possibilities to play with. With a mind-boggling detailed future world, a teeming cast of characters, and a story arc that has a multitude of modern parallels, Reeve's YA books have long been crying out for their own film franchise.
Looking like the mongrel offspring of LOTRs, Mad Max, Avatar, and maybe even David Lynch’s Dune, Mortal Engines is eye-popping stuff but Rivers never seems fully in command of the cast or the sheer tottering scale of the endeavour. The wheels come off very early.
We are in the far flung future and Earth has become a largely desolate Pangean super-continent after an all too believable "Sixty Minute War" many centuries earlier. Humanity has reverted back to a nomadic existence; roaming the vast tundra and steppes in "traction cities" on giant wheels, picking off smaller mobile "settlements" in a cutthroat battle for dwindling resources and new citizens.
Quite literally dominating the landscape is a mobile London and it is the only truly impressive part of Rivers’ movie. A kind of Gormanghast or Minas Tirith on massive wheels, this mobile metropolis is topped off by St Paul’s Cathedral with a series of Jules Verne-like tiers below which reflect modern London's strata of social classes.
Inside, it’s all a futuristic Victorian milieu cross-pollinated with Swinging London. The London Eye is a transport hub decanting people with names like Pandora Shaw, Chudleigh Pomeroy, and Bevis Pod (Irish actor Ronan Raftery) onto upper and lower levels while far below at the working end of the city, massive gates swallow up the municipal prey, and new citizens are assimilated, their possessions picked over.
Hera Hilmar and Jihae talk Mortal Engines
Here we meet Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a metropolitan dandy who spends his time sifting through the long buried ancient tech picked up by the marauding city and then curating it in the London Museum. Battered toasters are now prized possessions and statuettes of cartoon character Minions are venerated like ancient terracotta statues in much the same way we fetishise old pop culture artefacts now.
London is clanking and groaning its way across what used to be Europe on the way to invade the last great human settlement, the mighty walled city of Batmunkh Gompa, which appears to be located somewhere around the Russian Steppes. Leading the war cry is revered archaeologist Thaddeus Valentine (Jackson regular Hugo Weaving), a man who clearly loves his city and isn’t going to let anyone or - any lesser - town get in his way. In fact he wishes to do away with the whole concept of "municipal Darwinism" which has been the way of the world since the Sixty Minute War.
Valentine, a revered public figure with a dark past, is also searching for a vital piece of ancient tech (the One Ring of the piece, as it were) and young master Natsworthy’s talent for foraging could become very handy. Into all this comes a feral young woman called Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) who has been roaming the badlands bent on revenge and with her own less than charitable designs on London. She had a terrible facial scar and it is much more than just skin deep.
Mortal Engines director Christian Rivers talks to RTÉ Entertainment
Of course, this is a film full of secrets and Hester is being hunted down with the same relentless drive as the Terminator by a "Resurrected Man", a half human half robot called Shrike, played in motion capture by Stephen Lang.
Beyond the city walls, dirigibles and billowing airships dot the sky like a Roger Dean album cover and hard ass renegade aviatrix and Anti-Traction League leader Anna Fang (US actress and singer Jihae) flies the Jenny Haniver, the Millennium Falcon of the piece.
Peter Jackson and LOTRs screen writer Philippa Boyens wrote the script and whereas the declaratory and hammy acting of LOTRs suited that sub-Shakespearian/Arthurian myth perfectly, in Mortal Engines the lifeless dialogue and wooden acting smack of a big budget B movie. Patrick Malahide does bring some class and gravitas to proceedings as the magnificently named Magnus Crome and as the power mad Valentine, Weaving is the most interesting character here.
It’s visually impressive and ambitious and it’s also a solid cautionary tale about the environment and a grim satire of our possible future but what it lacks is any real chemistry between the leads or a much needed sense of the ridiculous.
There are several more books in the series and while we’d relish the idea of Cork and Dublin getting into a massive ding dong on the plains of Kildare, for now at least, Mortal Engines is either a grandiose folly or a future camp classic.