Co-produced and co-written by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, this adaptation of Philip Reeve’s sci-fi novel series is set in a world many thousands of years in the future. Earth’s cities now roam the globe on huge wheels, devouring each other in a struggle for ever-diminishing resources.
Does the film succeed in bringing this crazy concept to the big screen? Critic Liam Maguren says it absolutely does.
Set in a futuristic world where massive cities on wheels swallow small cities on wheels, Philip Reeve’s four-book Mortal Engines series basically screamed: “Film me!” Who better to hear that roar than the powerhouse production team who made the gargantuan Lord of the Rings a cinematic reality? Making his directorial feature debut, Peter Jackson’s long-time colleague Christian Rivers has constructed a beautiful, burly, bustling blockbuster that visually magnifies a crazy concept.
The story centres on Hester (Hera Hilmar), a rugged outsider looking for vengeance but who ends up side-by-side with bumbling historian Tom (Robert Sheehan) instead. Their relationship plays out generally as expected, though there isn’t quite enough bond-building to fully capitalise on it and the dialogue occasionally begs for more comedic punch—especially given their polar-opposite personalities.
Hester makes for a likeable lead, however, starting off as a basic badass before the tragic flashback narrative explains how she became this way. She and Tom know how much deception hurts, so it’s truly endearing to see their mutual trust grow during the two-hour runtime.
Hugo Weaving gives a typically gravitational performance as Thaddeus Valentine, a man with genuine care in his heart but armed with a ruthless assertion to get his agenda completed. As charismatic as he is, however, he’s out-swaggered by Jihae in a breakthrough performance as the rebellious Anna Fang. She’s as suave as her James Dean haircut suggests, but punctures through that persona with effortless empathy for Hester, especially when the young lead starts looking beyond her singular quest for revenge.
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Let’s not kid ourselves, though. It’s the incredibly rendered world and crazy central concept that make Mortal Engines run. The scale of the London vehicle alone flips the mind, engulfing the screen with a gluttony of sweeping camera moves and massive interior sets that give an astonishing visual impression of an impossible piece of architecture. Even the communities that exist underground, in the ocean, or amongst the clouds are gorgeously realised. One fight scene, in particular, makes great creative use of its unique space.
It all makes for an enjoyably bonkers illustration of greed, colonialism, nationalism, cultural absorption, and the human values needed to prevent this fantastical future from simply being… ya know… the future.