Movie review: Mortal engines

December 14, 2018

‘MORTAL Engines’ is co-written and produced by Peter Jackson of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, based on the young adult novel by British writer Philip Reeve which was first published in 2001 and, like “Hunger Games” and “Divergent”, had several sequels. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic future where people now live in movable cities that can roam around through traction treads, with the bigger cities, like London, gobbling up smaller towns to steal the resources of its inhabitants.

The compelling opening sequence shows London chasing a ragtag smaller town that tries to escape but London still gets to corner it and swallow it entirely. It’s like a gigantic garbage truck consuming whole a smaller toy car. A young museum historian, Tom (Robert Sheehan), is a proud Londoner and idolizes their leader, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). But then, he meets Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a resident of the town they just ate who tries to kill Valentine. At first, he defends Valentine, until he himself becomes of a victim of Valentine’s duplicity.

It turns out that Hester’s mom was killed by Valentine himself. Valentine is a megalomaniac who is trying to recover weapons from the past in a plot to dominate the whole world. Tom and Hester then become unlikely partners in their attempt to get rid of Valentine and save the world from his evil intentions. Along the way of their adventure, they meet other characters, including the Shrike (Stephen Lang), a terrifying Terminator-looking creature who originally saves Hester then becomes her mortal enemy; the fearless Asian rebel pilot, Anna (Korean star Jihae), who bails them out each time they get into trouble; plus several other rebel pilots who all help them and offer their lives in the finale.

The lavish production design is spectacular, from the movable city that London is, with its towering dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, to the caterpillar structure used by scavengers who hunt for possible slaves that look like they escaped from the set of “Mad Max”. There is a palpable sense of decay and desperation as you watch them on screen. What sets the movie apart from other sci-fi fantasies we’ve seen is its use of low-tech rather than high- tech. This is not a movie where people have high powered weapons or do superhuman feats by whim or by just snapping their fingers.

Hugo Weaving is the only actor familiar to us here. He’s best known for his role as Agent Smith in “The Matrix” films. He’s not really as threatening here as the villainous Valentine simply because he doesn’t look as demented as he should be. The younger actors are all newcomers and Hera Hilmar (a discovery from Iceland) as Hester does have an engaging presence in a lead role reminiscent of Jennifer Lawrence in “Hunger Games” and Shailene Woodley in “Divergent”.  But she has a more extraordinary back story than any of them that makes “Mortal Engines” a riveting personal tale of survival and revenge against her mom’s murderer.

She has ugly scars on the left side of her face given to her by Valentine that give her so much character. Richard Sheehan as Tom appears more like just a sidekick cast to assist the heroine than as a romantic leading man. Leila George gets an even weaker role and does next to nothing as Valentine’s blonde daughter who is repelled by her dad’s nefarious activities as a fiendish monster.

There are many well conceived and well staged action set pieces, but the most exciting one is the climax with the final showdown between the heroine and the villain she’s been pursuing. It coincides with the attack on China which is a bit protracted we found it quite cumbersome after a while and wished they’d make the pacing faster. The special effects are truly elaborate and can be quite seamlessly eye-popping. Peter Jackson as producer entrusted the direction of this movie to his assistant of 25 years, Christian Rivers, who won the Oscar best visual effects for “King Kong”. Here, he does a more than just efficient job in the technical department but seems somewhat lacking in coming up with more slick storytelling.