Mortal Engines

 

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Peter Jackson’s big-budget adaptation of Philip Reeve’s literary quartet is yet another post-apocalyptic torment.

 

Mortal Engines

The Big Smoke crashing into Europe

 

The engines in question are cities on wheels, giant infrastructures of moving parts that trundle across post-apocalyptic wastelands. The baddest city of all is London, ruled with an iron fist by Hugo Weaving’s Thaddeus Valentine and Patrick Malahide’s Mayor, Magnus Crome. When Crome barks ruefully, “we should never have gone into Europe,” he discharges the film’s only genuinely comic line. This Europe of the future is an alien world of vast troughs and snowy mountaintops, which looks more like New Zealand than any of the pastoral byways you’d find on the Continent. But then following a catastrophic war, the landscape has been dramatically misshapen, the planet’s surface pitted with volcanos and precipitous gorges.

 

The main man behind this bloated adaptation of Philip Reeve's dystopian quartet is producer and co-scripter Peter Jackson, who’s handed over the helm to Christian Rivers, the unit director of his Hobbit trilogy. The foreigner’s aspect is apparent from the depiction of London, a gargantuan Heath Robinson tank potted with red telephone boxes and soldiers in bowler hats. Throughout the film’s seemingly endless running time, the humour feels forced, from the cabinet display of a pair of tarnished Minions in the British Museum to the laboured badinage of the two leads. The latter are the rebel outlander Hester Shaw (Iceland’s Hera Hilmar), who has grown up without her mother, and the Londoner Tom Natsworthy (Ireland’s Robert Sheehan). When Thaddeus pushes both of them off his moving metropolis, the young couple are forced to muddle along at ground level, surviving on food packaged thousands of years previously. They are a mismatched pair who squabble most of the time, but we know how these movies turn out…

 

The clichés comes so thick and fast that it’s hard to tell whether or not the film is meant to be a spoof. While an air of doom looms over every frame, one senses the shadow of Terry Gilliam just out of arm’s reach. Much like in the former’s more memorable work, there is a look of retro-futurism here that permeates the movie. Indeed, ancient artefacts known as “old tech” are highly sought-after, the better to maintain and improve the rival civic engines. But the visual references spread far and wide, from Mad Max: Fury Road to Howl’s Moving Castle.

 

It’s an ugly, ungainly shambles, with uncharismatic leads and Hugo Weaving playing his villainy like a bass guitar (as he does). The plot is also largely incoherent, allowing for no emotional traction, while the endless explosions strive to punctuate the tedium, but merely add to it. In the supporting ranks, the South Korean-born multimedia artist Jihae cuts a striking figure as a rebel pilot and there's a sympathetic cyborg called Shrike, that's part-machine, part-cadaver. But these are meagre pickings in a monotonous epic with dialogue that would make a sixth-former cringe.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang, Colin Salmon, Mark Mitchinson, Regé-Jean Page, Menik Gooneratne, Frankie Adams, Caren Pistorius, Poppy Macleod, Sophie Cox, Philip Reeve.

 

Dir Christian Rivers, Pro Zane Weiner, Amanda Walker, Deborah Forte, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson, Screenplay Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, Ph Simon Raby, Pro Des Dan Hennah, Ed Jonno Woodford-Robinson, Music Junkie XL, Costumes Bob Buck and Kate Hawley. 

 

Universal Pictures/ Meda Rights Capital/WingNut Films-Universal Pictures.

128 mins. New Zealand/USA. 2018. Rel: 8 December 2018. Cert. 12A.