Film Review: Mortal Engines

Despite some likeable young leads, much of this effects-heavy filming of Philip Reeve’s young adult novel is dreary, pretentious nonsense.

Producer Peter Jackson has been trying to get a movie made of the book since 2009, and while the script is adapted by him and his Lord Of The Rings collaborators Fran Walsh and their pal Philippa Boyens, the actual directing was handled by first-time feature maker Christian Rivers. Rivers has been working in the technical department of Jackson’s movies for years, starting his career at just 17 years of age.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rivers doesn’t seem to care much for the actual people here, but shows a real keenness for the special effects. Which is fitting, as about 99% of the action isn’t real – and usually looks it.

A witty opening shot has the Universal’s traditional Earth logo covered in catastrophic explosions as we get our first impression of the legendary ‘Sixty Minute War’, and then we cut forward 1000 years or so to find a world where land masses have shifted and London is now a huge, improbably wheeled machine hundreds of feet high. Influenced by Steampunk, Japanese animation (especially Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle), 20th Century military technology and so many better movies, this contraption lumbers and thuds almost as much as the plot.

With gargantuan engines somehow powered by ancient technology (from computers to toasters), the algae-eating characters aboard this thing include the young and lowly-classed Tom Natsworthy (Irish player Robert Sheehan, still best-known for UK TV’s Misfits) and his glamourous and well-to-do friend Katherine Valentine (Leila George). She’s the daughter of the malevolently ambitious Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving as another of his endless list of bad guys), and while it might have been nice for his villainy to be kept secret, it’s in the trailer. So no spoilers are necessary.

Thaddeus is attacked by a mysterious, scar-faced stranger named Hester Shaw (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), and soon she and Tom are cast into the outlands, where they eventually find themselves in league with a cool fighter named Anna Fang (Jihae) aboard a massive, Empire Strikes Back-ish cloud city that’s just itching to be burnt down. They also naturally bond, and Hester (can you really root for a heroine named Hester?) tells him all about her traumatic past, some of which leads to an obvious and lame twist.

With computer generated cities, battles, countryside, bombings and fires, Mortal Engines relies upon its target audience – young adults – to be youthful enough to not have actually seen films like Star Wars and The Terminator from which it draws so much.

But given there are four Mortal Engines books, we may still see a quartet of New Zealand-shot movies concerning the further adventures of the survivors here. Or maybe we could all just grow up?

Mortal Engines (M) is in cinemas from December 6

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