Starring: Hera Hilmar (Da Vinci’s Demons), Robert Sheehan (Misfits), Hugo Weaving (The Matrix), Jihae (Mars), Stephen Lang (Avatar)
Director: Christian Rivers
Writers: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings)
Runtime: 2 hours 8 minutes
Release Date: 8 December (UK), 14 December (US)
As the years go on, the comparisons between Peter Jackson and George Lucas only grow more and more apparent. After each bringing to the screen iconic film trilogies that defined their generations, both filmmakers have failed to live up to their legacies. They both eventually put out prequels to their beloved films to controversial results, and have mostly spent their time since producing for others and pushing new filmmaking technology; remember 48-frames-per-second, anyone? But after a brief hiatus, Jackson is back and making another attempt at adapting a high concept novel to the screen. Producing and co-writing the film (with Christian Rivers in his feature directorial debut after working in storyboarding and pre-vis on many of Jackson’s pictures), Mortal Engines is a chance for Jackson to prove he still has a worthwhile post-Lord of the Rings career. The result? A resounding “…meh?”
Having not read the book series by Phillip Reeve, I can only judge Mortal Engines as a film rather than an adaptation, but I can understand why the novel was popular and had great potential for a movie just from watching. I say “potential” because Mortal Engines never seems to get its own engine revving efficiently. Whilst the story world itself is respectfully imaginative, the story and characters are functional at best. If you’ve heard at least one fantasy adventure plot in your life, Mortal Engines will sound eerily familiar, whilst fans of the genre should be able to calculate every plot turn beat for beat. Normally, interesting characters would compensate for this and add unique flair to differentiate itself from its contemporaries, but they are just as perfunctory as the narrative. Everything can just be summed up as “it’s fine”. The story is structured and paced decently, there’s no embarrassing dialogue or ridiculously out-of-field plot turns, and it smartly doesn’t sequel-bait and remains a functional self-contained story. There’s nothing in Mortal Engines that flat-out doesn’t work, but not being bad doesn’t equal being good. It just means it’s unremarkable, and I should not be saying that about a post-apocalyptic steampunk adventure that features a cockroach-mobile and a zombie cyborg. If there is anything to say is at fault, I believe it’s that the movie just takes itself too seriously. There is an inkling of humour and even some socio-political satire to the text, but everything is presented so matter-of-factly that it just falls flat. If the film at least had a good sense of humour about itself, it would have been easier to forgive its reliance on tropes.
Casting a big-budget movie without many recognisable stars is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows the actors to better assimilate into their characters, making the world more believable to an audience instead of pulling them out of it because they recognise so-and-so from some gossip rag. On the other hand, it means you lose a major selling point when you don’t have something to attract an unfamiliar audience in, and it especially doesn’t work when the actors you have cast aren’t particularly compelling. Hera Hilmar does a decent enough job as protagonist Hester Shaw, avoiding typical YA heroine tropes by giving her a more embittered anti-hero streak, but her performance doesn’t grow in line with her character. Even after learning more of her backstory and seeing her grow to be more trusting and heroic, she remains too impenetrable to fully embrace her as our protagonist, and Hilmar’s stoic performance shoulders a lot of that blame.
Robert Sheehan doesn’t exactly help either as Tom Natsworthy, playing the “nebbish sidekick who learns heroism through adversity and also falls for the badass lady who saves him constantly despite saying she doesn’t care about him just as constantly but who still falls for him too anyway” so rigidly to the script that you can predict his arc right from his first scene. Jihae is just as plagued by blandness as rebel leader Anna Fang, whilst Leila George and Ronan Raftery linger in an underdeveloped subplot that only exists to provide further exposition to the villain’s plot. Speaking of, are you at all surprised that Hugo Weaving is playing the bad guy in this? Yeah, I didn’t think so. The only character that has anything really going for them is Stephen Lang as the aforementioned zombie cyborg Shrike, with an interesting characterization and a compelling relationship between him and Hester…that the movie quickly squanders just as it gets interesting. I don’t know. Book readers, does this ever become important again in the sequels? Because I would watch the hell out of a movie just about Hester and Shrike.
Though it has a similar attention to detail and breadth to its world, Mortal Engines certainly doesn’t try to ape the aesthetic of the Middle-earth movies. Instead, it clearly borrows a lot of inspiration for its design from Studo Ghibli movies, specifically Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky. It’s certainly a well-accomplished spectacle to bring these vibrant and ostentatious designs to live-action, and it only makes we wish this amount of effort were in service of a more interesting story. However, in terms of execution, Mortal Engines is certainly more in The Hobbut camp than Lord of the Rings, mainly down to a similar overuse of CGI that creates a disparate uncanny valley feeling between the live-action and computer-generated elements, and even the elements that are live-action have a warped design sensibility that makes them feel CGI even though they’re not.
I’ll be honest here: I saw Mortal Engines only yesterday, and I’m struggling right now to even remember the most basic details. It is just that unmemorable. It certainly isn’t a film made without effort, but only enough to function rather than thrive. In a crowded holiday release schedule, and without a relevant IP or compelling stars to carry it, Jackson’s dwindling clout isn’t anywhere near enough to keep this film afloat amongst more distinctive competition. It honestly feels like a film released about a decade too late; put it out around the same time as The Golden Compass or The Spiderwick Chronicles, and it might have stood a better chance. But in 2018, with so many better releases coming to screens every month and a huge catalogue of past similar films to discover or revisit, Mortal Engines doesn’t deliver anything you couldn’t get better elsewhere.
FINAL VERDICT: 5/10