Mortal Engines movie review: Peter Jackson delivers a visually stunning spectacle
Director - Christian Rivers
Cast - Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Leila George, Jihae, Stephen Lang
Rating - 3/5
It’s always cool when a movie opens with a custom-made version of the studio’s logo. Warner Bros - easily the studio that is most enthusiastic about these experiments - have always let director Zack Snyder have a free run at playing around with their famous ‘WB’. His flat yellow-on-black for Watchmen, and the ornate theatre of the absurd opening for Sucker Punch are classic examples. Disney, too - for all their prudishness - routinely create custom versions of the Magic Castle for their films; most remarkable recent examples of which include Beauty and the Beast and Tomorrowland.
There’s barely any logic to this - besides, of course, drawing attention to something that is usually ignored - but it adds a subliminal sense of importance to the film. If they were willing to spend on this, you think to yourself, then they must really think they’re on to something with this movie.
The custom designed globe that spins across the screen at the beginning of Mortal Engines is one of the many signs - besides the sequel-bait ending and certain characters just refusing to die - that Universal has high hopes for the film. Not only did the spring for a new logo, they also ensured that it provides valuable backstory - we watch as bombs are detonated across the Earth, consuming everything in blinding purple light. So even before the globe has settled into its final position, the plot has already kicked into gear.
Watch the Mortal Engines trailer here
It makes sense for them to have done this; there’s a lot that needs to be explained in Mortal Engines. But that’s the nature of the beast. Films such as this, set in dystopian futures, are obligated to exposit crucial details about how their world works. They always seem to have a bunch of side characters whose entire purpose of being is to interject with important information for the audience, usually at the most inopportune moments - in the middle of a battle, or while a couple is having a passionate we-just-saved-the-world kiss.
On several occasions - especially in its early, formative moments - it seems as if Mortal Engines has shut its motor off, only to dump a tankful of exposition about its futuristic dystopia. But without these information dumps, we’d be lost. Why, for example, are there giant machines hurtling across the earth, you’d think to yourself. Why, despite these awe-inspiring engineering marvel, does the technology of this ‘future’ seem like it belongs to the industrial age? We’d never have known - or at least, we’d have spent a lot of unnecessary time wondering why - had Mortal Engines not had the lack of pride to have someone conveniently explain it to us. Sometimes it’s okay to treat the audience like children - especially if the film is, in fact, made for kids.
Here’s taking a stab at what happens: Many hundreds of years ago, there was a war to end all wars, brought about by humanity’s growing nihilism and cruelty. It was a time when children looked to yellow Minions for entertainment and iPhones robbed us of our will to learn. These artefacts are now kept in museums, as rusty reminders of how easily we could slip. The survivors of that war rebuilt their lives - quite literally - aboard majestic, moving vehicles. Some could be as large as entire cities, with stacks of levels representing social hierarchy. Others could be as small as a bungalow - fodder for the bigger monsters.
It is a wonderfully designed Steampunk world, intricately crafted and brimming with social and political subtext. But debutant director Christian Rivers’ talents lie squarely in how he unleashes visual spectacle, and not in telling an emotionally engaging story.
As far as expensive feature debuts go, the scale of Mortal Engines must surely make it one of the biggest. The only other examples I can think of are probably Joseph Kosinski’s $160 million Tron: Legacy, Carl Erik Rinsch’s $175 million debacle, 47 Ronin and Robert Stromberg’s middling Disney fantasy, Maleficent. Interestingly, what unites all four filmmakers - besides, of course, the reports that they were in over their heads - is that before making these epic movies, they’d developed a reputation in technical departments. Kosinski had roots in architecture, Rinsch in visual effects, and Stromberg in art direction.
Rivers, meanwhile, got his start as Peter Jackson’s storyboard artist in the director’s 1992 zombie comedy, Braindead, and then graduated to designing previz sequences (digital versions of scenes) in Jackson’s King Kong and supervising visual effects for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. It is so clear that Rivers utilised these skills on Mortal Engines. The action is beautifully staged, directed with enough patience for us to appreciate the scale of these majestic machines. Rivers knows exactly when to push into an actor’s face, and when to let the audience soak in the scenery. But how do you pre-visualise a dialogue scene? You don’t. And that is where the film’s gets stuck in fourth gear.
The screenplay, written by Jackson with his frequent collaborators, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, is smeared with cheesy lines. “We didn’t start this war, but we’ll end it,” one character who has barely been on screen more than 30 seconds yells. Sure.
But the ‘war’ itself is, as you’d expect, thrilling to watch. The World War II allusions in Mortal Engines aren’t restricted to Hugo Weaving’s dictatorial politician, but also in how Rivers shoots the dogfights in the third act. You can see every penny they spent on screen, because they certainly didn’t spend any money on hiring stars - Weaving is easily the biggest name actor in the cast.
The Icelandic actor Hera Hilmar plays the heroine, and orphan named Hester Shaw, and nothing I tell you about her or her tragic motivations will in any way make you want to watch the movie. Her love interest, played by the otherwise very energetic Robert Sheehan, is equally bland.
But Mortal Engines is hardly the sort of film you watch for the acting. It’s like Snowpiercer for kids - set inside a closed society that acts as a microcosm of our world, and its people. It’s like Titanic - a story about the fragile nature of human hubris. But above all, it’s a fun time at the movies, an uncommonly smart and vibrant film for children, to save them from those pesky Minions.