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Mortal Engines – film review

December 27, 2018


Steampunk epic worthy of more attention.

Reviewed on Sunday 23rd December 2018

Directed by Christian Rivers. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Philip Reeve. Starring: Hera Hilmer, Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide and Stephen Lang. Running time: 128 mins.

One thousand years in the future, after directed energy weapons have devastated     the earth; gigantic wheeled cities trundle across the wasteland – plundering smaller wheeled settlements for their ancient tech and natural resources. One such roaming behemoth – the City of London – has crossed over into Eastern Europe with the view of breaching a heavily-fortified shield wall into Asia – where a veritable paradise exists; where boundless resources await ripe for the picking. Only a trio of disillusioned young rebels (one with an ax to grind) can thwart this nefarious plan.

Based upon the first of a series of young adult novels published in 2001, producer/co-writer Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) originally purchased the film rights to Philip Reeve’s steampunk opus not long after – but was only recently able to get the film made.

Longtime Jackson collaborator Christian Rivers (primarily known as a storyboard artist and pre-vis director on Jackson’s Middle Earth films) – here takes the director’s chair in his feature debut and his previous experience has clearly held him in good stead. He not only presents a confidence in his staging of large scale action sequences (where we know exactly where we are spatially at any given moment), but he also knows how to capture the quieter and more emotional beats. My only quibble with     his direction is that he does tend to shoot the hand-to-hand combat scenes far too close – so it is difficult at times to tell what is going on. This minor issue aside, however, I would be very interested to see what this promising new director does next.

While the two leads aren’t nearly as deep or well-defined as the main protagonists in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, there is a certain chemistry between them (which is more than can be said for Luc Besson’s Valarian; another film which this one at times resembles – particularly with regards to its highly-detailed world-building and sumptuous visuals).

The film’s post-apocalyptic steampunk aesthetic is impressively (and flawlessly) realised; with a terrific sense of verisimilitude – allowing us to completely buy into this outlandish world of predatory wheeled cities. And unlike Jackson’s needlessly lengthy and bloated King Kong remake; sporting a comparatively short two hour running time, Mortal Engines barrels along at a pacey clip and never outstays its welcome.

Hugo Weaving, as primary villain Thaddeus Valentine, makes for a formidable and dastardly adversary – without ever tipping over into pantomime moustache twirling. While Stephen Lang (best remembered as the lead baddie in Avatar) here provides a finely-nuanced mo-cap performance as re-animated cyborg Shrike. Initially presented as an unstoppable and tenacious killing machine; something akin to The Terminator, Lang is able to imbue this admittedly terrifying and creepy character with a considerable amount of understanding and even sympathy.

It’s a real shame this film has failed to do well at the box office – as it really does deserve more attention than it has received. Perhaps over time it will be rediscovered and re-evaluated as something of a cult classic; thus enabling its longevity in the years to come.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Wallis Cinemas Mitcham, Adelaide, December 23rd 2018 

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → film reviews

  1. Nice review Greg- interesting (and encouraging) to read that you quite liked it, as so many reviews have been negative. I’ve missed it over here with one thing and another going on so shall have to catch up with it when the disc eventually comes out (end of April in the UK, seems a way off for a film that flopped so badly, I’m surprised it isn’t being brought out earlier). The first teasers really had me interested and it’s a shame life got in the way of me catching it at the cinema.The premise looks intriguing and the visuals really something to get excited about. Pity the characters and story don’t really live up to that promise, but that can be said about so many films (particularly blockbusters) these days.

    Its funny sometimes what ‘clicks’ with the public and what doesn’t. If it ain’t Harry Potter or Star Wars or a superhero flick it seems to be a hard sell these days (and Solo would argue even a galaxy far far away isn’t the guarantee it used to be) so Mortal Engines has plenty of company, Its just a worry that studios pump so much money into some of these films (even I have to cringe at what BR2049 cost, and I LOVE that movie as you know) that these failures, particularly for original properties, have a further cost in all those projects that don’t get made because studios are shy of the risk.

    As I mentioned in my blog several days ago, I have to worry regards the prospects of Villeneuve’s Dune. Its not as if the original Lynch film was a hit.


    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Ian. Although to be perfectly honest – I do get a perverse joy out of trumpeting movies everyone else flatly refuses to see out of hand (especially when they are genuinely worth seeing, like this one). I was actually surprised that virtually all of the movie podcasts I listen to religiously – flat-out ignored this film on its opening weekend and reviewed Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse instead. Indeed, so little fanfare accompanied the release of Mortal Engines here in Oz – that I didn’t even know it had been released until two weeks into its run. Luckily I still got to experience it on a fairly large screen – before it vanishes altogether. It saddens me that audiences these days seem so disinterested in taking risks – being influenced by what is perceived to be cool – rather than being open to something new (which may actually end up being cooler). And yep, after the triumph of BR2049 – I’m definitely excited about Denis’ Dune. Even if it flops – at least we live in a universe where it exists. 🙂


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