Perhaps one of the most unique films of 2018, Mortal Engines brings you to a post-apocalyptic world where humans settle themselves in large, moving “traction cities”, constantly looking to the past for “old tech”, or rather, higher tech items. Directed by Peter Jackson’s long time protege, Christian Rivers, and based on a novel by the same name, Mortal Engines indirectly promised elements of Jackson’s previous work, with the likes of King Kong (2005) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But first, a little introduction to the casts. The group is helmed by Hera Hilmar as the mysterious girl with a grotesque scar, enough to leave you biting your nails at the first glimpse of her unmasked face. And yet, many fans of the novel went gung-ho and claimed that Rivers’ interpretation of Hester Shaw, the girl in question, is not ugly enough. Please, guys, I wouldn’t want to see Hester Shaw joining the ranks of a Predator in an ugly-meter reading. Just think back of Jackson’s interpretation of the beautiful Legolas, and you will know any scar more horrible than the one in the film will not make it to the final cut.
On the other end, as you would have guessed, Lord Elrond himself was being casted as the leader of the post apocalyptic London, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). And somewhere in between, Robert Sheehan played as Tom Natsworthy, a geeky resident of London who allies with Hester after a twist of events. And yeah, who can ever forget Anna Fang (Jihae), that ‘cool’ anti-tractionist rebel who tagged along Hester and Tom’s (mis)adventures. Done. I’m cutting off the space for the rest of the casts, save for Shrike (Stephen Lang), the undead machine who looks like a crossover from Marvel Cinematic Universe or Terminator. I will get on to the reason for the cut later.
Out of curiosity, I did some (very short) reading on the plot of the novel. Without surprise, the first half of the film mimics the story in the novel, almost exactly. It is quite obvious, that the second half of the film ventured out on its own, and started to act like Anna Fang in the movie. What’s the similarity between those two, you asked? Both are equally capable of raising eyebrows.
Perhaps during the first half of the plot, where Rivers had a blueprint story-line to strictly adhere to, the film felt more lively and whole. Undeniably, the scenes of London chasing down smaller towns are entertaining and equally as intense to watch. Those who had watched Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) would likely agree. While the idea of a gigantic predator city devouring a smaller city whole is definitely not an easy one to pass on to the audience, especially to those who have not even heard of the novel before, the team did a great job crafting the chase sequence. The decision to interpret the destructive tracks left by London as sizable hills and valleys added a nice touch and sense of authenticity to the post-apocalyptic world.
The dominance of Shrike in the second act of the film added yet another facet of intense drama into the already well-paced plot. The fact that the protagonists are always overwhelmed by Shrike’s presence and the projected sense that they are constantly on the run did a supposedly good job of keeping the audience on the edges of their seats. But it is the moment that the film wander off the tracks set by the novel, that the movie begins to gloom. A forceful halt on Shrike’s vengeance, and the brazen attempts by the plot to glorify destruction shifted the tonality of the story telling, and in no time it began to sound like Bayformers, where huge explosions and fires razed through everything good that the film initially had done. The plot’s adventurous side, apparently, did more harm than good.
To be fair, at certain times, thoughtful arrangement can be felt, for instance when the scenes enticingly cross cut to give way to a grand revelation prior to the climax. I never lost interest at any point of the film, but yet, it was also not that immersive that I lost track of my surrounding at any given point. It does have a few twists and turns that added slight element of surprise, but generally, it is predominantly messy, with the rise of immature ideas as it approaches the end of its screening time.
By the time you make it to the final act of the film, and most probably noticing the small presence of Star Wars vibe, you will most likely feel that the casts’ performance was lackluster, too. I mean, even Hugo Weaving doesn’t appear to be too convinced in the film. While he certainly delivered as Thaddeus Valentine, his performance paled in comparison with his iconic roles in the past. Hera Hilmar did a great job of projecting that ever-present aura of inner strength, but really, sans that, her performance was quite average. The rest of the casts are pretty forgettable, without any meaningful character arc to boot, and hence, my earlier decision of not dwelling deeper into them. Jihae’s play as Anna Fang was not only flat, the fact that the plot extensively glorified her character made her outrageously funny. In an unintended way, unfortunately.
On the contrary, CGI construction is certainly a powerhouse, and is undeniably the pièce de résistance of the film. Oh my, I’ve never seen an explosion displayed in such a terrific manner, never mind however they may call or name it. Hester’s lesser-known digital scar is yet another testament to what Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital can achieve. Because, according to Rivers, the silicone prosthetic doesn’t cut it nor give enough depth to the scar, they had to resort to VFX construction for that controversial scar. Interpretation of London and the rest of the cities, moving or static alike, are really a product of stretching the limits of imagination, and are visually stunning.
And to my surprise, the advent of technology has enabled us mortals to play around with the before-after effects of the VFX trickery. I did have loads of fun playing around with it, and you can try it out yourself here. Don’t worry, I’m not leading you to a landing page to buy my e-Book. I don’t have any to sell to you, at least for now. And truthful to Jackson’s style, the colors presented in Mortal Engines are pleasant to the eye, very much like the color palette which you can absorb from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Or just take a glimpse on the theatrical poster, even. That can easily be the most beautiful film poster of this year.
On a final note, the score did give me a mixed bag of feelings. I don’t expect the tunes to be as captivating as Wonder Woman’s war cry, but still, overall, the impression of the scores is a tad underwhelming. Maybe, it is just an unfortunate combination of mediocre sounding themes, with too much repetition to establish it as the signature score that will be remembered. And as a result, it did induce more pain than pleasure to my ears.
Addict Verdict, AV:
Stunning visuals and an obscene amount of pleasing VFX are perhaps a testament that Christian Rivers’ attempt of Mortal Engines was heavily backed-up by an invincible VFX team. Though hampered by washed-out casts performance and chaotic screenplay towards the end, fans of Jackson may argue that the film does showcase spectacular CGI to bring enough entertainment value to the masses. While I completely agree with that, sadly, if you try to reach deeper beyond all the CGI firepower that the film has, it is unlikely that you will ever find any soul within.–The Film Addict