Saturday, 29 December 2018

Review: Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines (3D)
Cert: 12A / 128 mins / Dir. Christian Rivers / Trailer

~SM: "Tell us about the film, tell us- just dip us slightly into the world of Mortal Engines."

~PJ: "It's a movie that's based on a book written by Philip Reeve who's… it's actually the first book in a series of four…"

Peter Jackson, interviewed on BBC's Wittertainment show, 01 December 2018.

Peter 'Braindead' Jackson there, not the director of this film but the exec-producer with more media clout than first-time-feature helmsman Christian Rivers. Peter 'Rings' Jackson who, when asked to set the scene for listeners new to the fantastical world of Mortal Engines, needs to point out first and foremost that it's based on a book. On a set of books. Peter 'Hobbit' Jackson who thinks that the first thing you need to know, the first thing before anything else he's going to say, is that this hasn't just been dreamt up in a writers' room.

Because when you say 'well that sounds utterly implausible and quite possibly a little bit shite and I'm not sure if I'm going to gamble the thick-end of £15 finding out', Peter will be like #YeahButBookMate.

Because when you say 'Peter, did they send you to this interview because nobody would give a toss about Mortal Engines if its cast or actual director had come on the show?', Peter will be like #YeahButBookMate.

Because when you say 'But Peter, you love All The Books so much you butchered the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and expanded out The Hobbit novella to include a musical number about doing the bastard washing up, and besides everybody knows that adaptation is probably one of the least reliable ways to make a good movie, and besides it's not as if 'being a book' is any guarantee of quality in itself because as anyone who's ever set foot in a Waterstone's will attest, the literary world is fucking awash with incredibly mediocre fantasy fiction and do you honestly, genuinely think you have anything to add to this genre on a cinematic level when entertainment behemoths like DC are struggling with their own fucking content? Really, Peter?'

Peter will be like #YeahButHaveYouSeenMeltyCGIsoldiersYouCantCriticiseThatBecauseRespect?


Now, as astute readers may have already gathered, your humble correspondent did not enjoy Mortal Engines. I really don't like saying '[x] is not a good film', because statements like that aren't productive and everything comes down to the viewer's own subjective view. But in the case of this two-hour pileup of a movie, I'll make an exception: Mortal Engines is not a good film. In fact after what I've witnessed, I'd be amazed if the book is really any good either, because if it uses the same story, characters and excruciating dialogue as its cinematic cousin, all it'll be workable for is as a doorstop, paperweight or hamster bedding.

The plot (if you still need a recap) involves a post-apocalyptic world in which cities roam the land (mainland Europe, it appears) on wheels with furnaces in their bellies, devouring smaller mobile towns and villages they come across. Resources are scarce and hope comes in the form of mob-led survivalist greed. London (apparently now the area of a village albeit with St Paul's cathedral at the top) is commanded and course-directed by Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a thinly veiled despot clinging onto power by any means available to him. When historical administrator Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) finds himself unwittingly exiled from the city, he crosses paths with Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and her cybernetic mentor/stalker, a young woman who's desperate to desperate to get into London for very different reasons.

Something something, 'look at the graphics!'; something something, 'wow The Man is bad!'; something something, 'hang on isn't this just Star Wars?'. Still, it was released bang in the middle of pantomime-season, so somebody got that right at least...


Yes, this is effectively V for Vendetta by way of Terminator: Genisys by way of The Zero Theorem by way of The Great Heep. And it's every bit as narratively incoherent as that sounds.

You'd be forgiven for expecting a film with this much exposition to make more sense, and the script is even more mechanical than anything the effects teams have to offer (the superb visuals can't make up for the rest of this gibberish). Any time not spent explaining the backstory is used to throw out plot-boomerangs for the third act. Mortal Engines is an over-earnest, overproduced neo-steampunk melodrama, probably fine for audiences young enough to have seen absolutely no fantasy cinema, ever.

Don't worry, there are light-hearted quips in it as well. "Hey careful, you nearly knocked over that priceless historical cultural artefact!" exclaims a character as someone brushes roughly against a table containing a battered, three-foot high reproduction of two Minions. That, and almost winking at the camera when referencing the obscure antiquity of USB plugs, are the level of scripting we're at.


Still, it looks like cinematographer Simon Raby is a fan of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, so you can spend the time between plot-bursts playing "spot the Star Wars shot". And I don't just mean the many Original Trilogy setups. There are nods to scenes from The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, Rogue One and even the coaxium implosion from Solo, here. But it's the third act which really has a boner for the Death Star battles (the first, the second and Starkiller Base). And I'm not ashamed to admit that I laughed out loud during the "I am your father" scene. It'd be impressive if the whole thing wasn't so transparently needy.

I suspect that at one point, this was a biting satire on British colonialism, rampantly stripping away anything in its path with righteous flag-waving indignation. It's faintly ironic that since the final movie is neither as insightful, impressive nor important as it thinks it should be, that's still arguably the case.


Mortal Engines is a bad film. Please prove me wrong. The only saving grace may be how ultimately forgettable it is. I'm sure that's what younger members of the cast are pinning their futures on, at any rate.

Although on that subject, I love that Hugo Weaving had declined reprising his role as the Red Skull in Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War because he thought he'd "done [his] dash with that sort of film".

Well, quite.

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Necking three bags of Haribo, two litres of Sunny Delight then reading the novel by turning over two pages at once.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Sure, why not see the same mess only smaller?

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
This is Christian Rivers' first feature film.
At least he has that as an excuse

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
That's quite likely.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Senator Malé-Dee is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
The only reason that's not a 1 is because the film looks good.
Which is of absolutely no consolation.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
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1 comment:

  1. I loved the LotR films but cannot abide the Hobbit, and this looks like another dud.

    Oh Peter, go back to low-budget horror!