After civilization ended in the Sixty Minute War, cities were placed on wheels to avoid geological disturbances. But with resources running low, these traction cities began feeding upon smaller towns, old tech especially treasured. When wastelander Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) boards London and attempts to assassinate its historian Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) thwarts her, but upon learning the truth about the man he revered, he joins Hester's campaign to stop London's "Mortal Engines."
From the producing/writing team behind "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson), giving their "King Kong" Oscar winning visual effects supervisor Christian Rivers his first stint in the director's chair, comes the big screen adaptation of Philip Reeve's book series. The Weta world builders once again create a fantastical realm, this time based upon our real world modified by 1,000 years of Municipal Darwinism. It looks something like "Road Warrior" if that film's gas guzzling vehicles were now instead cities and towns housing entire populations.
The stories these fantasy franchises are built upon tend to have commonalities and this one is no exception, but it does have some intriguing characters, including lead Hester Shaw who also benefits from one hell of a one-two punch of a back story. Also notable is Anna Fang (Jihae), the Leader of the Anti-Traction League with a bounty on her head who flies about in her red Jenny Haniver which looks like the junk it was assembled from crossed with a kite. The film bogs down a few times, suffers from some clunky crosscutting and a drawn out climax, but it is actually more entertaining (and certainly less self-indulgent) than at least one of "The Hobbit" trilogy.
Tom quickly learns Thaddeus is not who he thought when the man pushes him off a balcony and into the conical maw which ejects London's waste. Having never been outside of London, he's astonished to find himself in the muddy tracks of it within The Great Hunting Ground (once known as Europe). Hester is none too pleased to see him despite his attempt to save her, but grudgingly relents, recognizing his helplessness (she shares a package of Twinkies, 1,000 years past their expiration date). She is injured, though, helping Tom escape Scavengers and they both land in a Scuttlebutt, a crustacean-like vehicle lying beneath the earth's surface. When Tom refuses to escape without her, Hester informs him she would have left, but their bond has begun to cement. When Fang arrives at a slave auction to save her, Tom is also taken on her word.
Meanwhile, back in London, Valentine's daughter Kate (Leila George) is beginning to sense something's not right with what her father is doing in London's Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, a suspicion confirmed by engineer Bevis Pod (Ronan Raferty). We also witness Thaddeus travel to an offshore prison and release the last of the 'Lazarus Army,' a part corpse/part machine named Shrike (Stephen Lang) intent on killing Hester over a broken promise.
One of the biggest surprises of "Mortal Engines" is how this Terminator-like being's story is developed, ending up as one of its most moving characters. We learn that Hester, a red kerchief covering half her face to hid the deep scar which divides it, is intent on avenging the death of her mother, Pandora Shaw (Caren Pistorius), murdered by Valentine for something Hester was too young to recognize. Her scar signifies his attempt on her own life, but it is her history that is what has attracted Fang. The world of "Mortal Engines" keeps opening up, the East's philosophy an entirely different way of living than the tractionized West.
The production team avoid the Victorian steampunk of the book, instead creating worlds repurposed from their pasts. London is a hulking, six story marvel with vestiges of the familiar such as tube stations, St. Paul's and the London Museum (which sports an exhibit on 'The Screen Age') and the class structure of an ocean liner, crowds gathering on its 'bow' to cheer the harpooning and harvesting of smaller towns. The story's message, that humankind fails to learn from its own history, might have been regarded by the filmmakers, whose rendition of Valentine's quantum energy weapon looks an awful lot like the Eye of Sauron.
I had low expectations for "Mortal Engines," anticipating another in the line of "Mortal Instruments," "Maze Runners" and "Divergents," but don't be too quick to throw this one on the scrap heap. "Mortal Engines" is worth a look.
Robin did not see this film.
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