12 Dec 2018

Review - Mortal Engines

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 12 December 2018

Review - A film whose reputation - and size - have preceded it, Mortal Engines is one gigantic blockbuster, hoping to turn into a franchise.

To add a frisson to this gamble, it is also the latest from local boy Sir Peter Jackson - or, to be more accurate, his loyal apprentice Christian Rivers.

The film is based on a series of young adult books of the Steampunk movement of a few years ago. Steampunk is essentially a sort of clockwork sci-fi, where people tidy up after a recent apocalypse (oh, recent apocalypses, what would movies do without you?) by cobbling together new gadgets out of old tech.

The boffins at Weta love Steampunk, incidentally, and many of them have created big illustrated books on the subject, along with cute, expensive Steampunk toys.

It's a design style so dominating that it doesn't leave much room for a story, you'd think - especially when you saw the film's first trailer.

The premise of the film is that after the apocalypse - the Sixty Minute War - all the cities on Earth were put on wheels and sent out hunting. They called it Municipal Darwinism, and the biggest and baddest predator was the city of London.

That's right. The city of London. On wheels. Do you have any idea how ridiculously big that is? Thankfully with some movie magic, the size of London On Wheels seems to vary depending on need.

Right. Enough setup, let's meet our hero or heroine: trouble is, Mortal Engines can't quite make its mind up who the lead is.

Is it the mysterious, lightly-scarred Hester Shaw with her fetching red scarf? We meet her stalking obvious villain Valentine, played by Weta favourite Hugo Weaving.

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw in Mortal Engines.

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw in Mortal Engines. Photo: YouTube / Fair Use

Hester's thwarted, however, when working-class idiot Tom Natsworthy calls out to warn Valentine. Having failed to stab Valentine -  Valentine killed her mother! Hester dashes off, Tom is amazed.

One of the requirements of a hero in a fantasy novel is ignorance - usually the guy who has to have everything explained to him before he can, I don't know, save the world or whatever. So is Tom our hero?

Anyway, after some villainous exposition, Valentine tosses both Hester and Tom over the side of London to fend for themselves in the post-apocalyptic desert.

With a bit of time on their hands, Hester fills in a bit of backstory about her Mum and Mum's boyfriend Valentine. Yes, that Valentine.

It seems years ago archaeologist Mum tripped over some magic doodah (the words "Acme McGuffins" written on the side) that Valentine was so anxious to have he murdered Mum for it.

No sooner has Hester told Tom this than a third nominee for the role of "star of the movie" turns up: it's action woman Anna Fang, who all these years has been looking for Hester.

Mum told Anna to find Hester? Bear in mind that Hester was eight years old when Mum was killed, so I'm not sure how much help she was meant to provide, but wait, look over there!

Back in London, Valentine's attractive daughter Kate takes it on herself to do a bit of heroine work herself, thus running up a total of four potentially central characters all working independently.

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Photo: Supplied


The trick with making up worlds - which is what most fantasy series are mostly about - isn't in the details, it's in making all this stuff make sense: with characters we're prepared to invest in, tied to a gripping story.

When it works - the Marvel Universe, Harry Potter, the first Star Wars films and of course Lord of the Rings - it's marvelous.

When it doesn't - the DC Universe, Fantastic Beasts and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - it's both exhausting and boring.

In Mortal Engines, director Christian Rivers and his team at Wellington's Weta factory have conjured up enough detailed gadgets to fill a dozen films. They thought they could get away with brilliant art direction, and didn't need any big-name actors to carry it. They were wrong.

The result is too much steampunk, not enough characters to care about.

Where's Viggo Mortensen or Jennifer Lawrence or even Sir Ian McKellen when you need them?

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