Mortal Engines

Enjoy the ride

What happens when Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens—the filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit—get a hold of the futuristic steampunk world of Mortal Engines, a 2001 young adult novel by Phillip Reeve? You get an adventurous and visually gorgeous two hour movie with a touch of thought-provoking ideas.

Set hundreds of years after the “Sixty Minute War,” during which the use of powerful quantum weapons resulted in geological upheaval, giant predator cities roam the Western world on wheels, ingesting smaller cities and devouring dwindling resources. Haunted by her mother’s murder, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) seeks out the man who killed her, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), Head of the Guild of Historians in London, the largest and fiercest of the traction cities. Along the way, she reluctantly joins forces with London outcast Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) and Anti-Traction rebel leader Anna Fang (Jihae) to stop Valentine from unleashing another cataclysm upon the world.

Reeve’s post-apocalyptic steampunk world is gorgeously displayed on screen—complete with Victorian aesthetics, steampunk architecture and machines, and retro-futuristic inventions like lighter-than-air airships—by first-time director Christian Rivers, who was a visual effects supervisor for Jackson’s Tolkien trilogies and won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for his work on Jackson’s King Kong. From the boxy iron spy glasses and retro propaganda posters to the sweeping shots of a huge floating city and the massive brass-mixed-with-marble-columns city of London rolling over trees dwarfed by its massive tank-like treads, Rivers builds a believable and incredibly impressive world.

Mortal Engines is a fun, enjoyable film whose world I’m still thinking about days afterwards.

While not all the characters are as fleshed out as they could be (one of them quite literally), Hilmar makes Hester believable and engaging enough to pull us along with her as her personal story dovetails into a more epic one. Jihae, who portrays the serious mission commander in National Geographic’s Mars series, looks like she’s having fun with the swashbuckling Fang, and Weaving gives us a dislikeable (if somewhat one-dimensional) villain. I’m not as fond of Sheehan’s Natsworthy, but then I wasn’t overly fond of the character in the book either.

As the characters adventure through this visually stunning world, the film also touches on some timely themes relevant to our own—not the least of which is “Municipal Darwinism,” a philosophy under which the weaker cities perish while the stronger grow ever more powerful. The film comes at the unsustainability of the philosophy in a couple different ways. Visually, the costs of Municipal Darwinism are powerfully represented by sweeping shots of the deep ruts left by the traction cities, crisscrossing like scars across a barren and resource-depleted earth, while Hester’s facial scars represent a more personal toll. Interestingly, the characters react in different ways to a culture and system dominated by the philosophy. Some seek isolation or a peaceful way of life in “static” cities behind a giant wall. Others, like Fang, actively resist. A few, like Valentine, ruthlessly seek ways to remain in power as resources dwindle. But most—especially those who benefit from the system—seem ignorant of or refuse to acknowledge the costs or unsustainability, something that should give us pause as this is an all too common response to similar philosophies in our own world.

The film also weaves in some other themes, like the value of history (and how we humans never seem to learn from it) and the effects of prejudices associated with economic and social classes. And it’s more personal themes—like the struggle to find meaning after great loss and the power of love to heal and comfort—allow for a few touching, even moving moments in the film.

Mortal Engines isn’t perfect. Its flow is uneven at times, some of the characters are a little flat, and performances can get a little melodramatic. But I don’t think it deserves the negative reviews or the poor box-office performance that it’s experiencing. Mortal Engines is a fun, enjoyable film whose world I’m still thinking about days afterwards.

So, if you’re looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of the holidays, hop on board and enjoy the ride.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action

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