Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines
Mortal Engines
Directed by Christian Rivers
Starring Robert Sheehan, Hera Hilmar, Ronan Raftery, Aaron Jackson, Stephen Lang, Jihae and Hugo Weaving
In UK Cinemas December 8th, 2018

by Joanna Orland

Based on the YA novel by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines envisions a steampunk version of London; a giant roving machine that consumes smaller towns and villages in its pursuit of resources and domination. An ambitious concept to film for any director, Mortal Engines placed in the hands of first-time director Christian Rivers misses the mark in many ways, albeit plays to Rivers’ strengths as a former storyboard and visual effects supervisor for Peter Jackson.

Visually and aurally, Mortal Engines is amazing. What you’d think to be an unfilmable concept is laid clearly out on screen with great imagination, impressive visual effects, wonderful sound design and clarity that makes this convoluted idea as clear as day. Technically, it is a feat of epic proportions, but its obsession with being ‘epic’ is also what lets the film down, notably in the form of its musical score. The over-the-top generic ‘epic’ score is not only bland, but it is so over-used in the film, I don’t think that a scene goes by without some underlying music attempting to tell the audience how to feel. Perhaps the primarily unknown cast don’t have the acting chops to convey the emotion on their own and the score is an attempt to heighten this – but it fails on a scale as epic as it is trying to feel. Especially as the sound design is fantastic, to saturate the film with this score very much ruins the cinematic experience.

As mentioned, the cast is relatively unknown for the most part, with the exception of the always-excellent Hugo Weaving. But, the two main leads (Robert Sheehan, Hera Hilmar) along with Korean actress Jihae have enough presence to carry the VFX strong adventure. While Sheehan is competant enough in his co-lead role as Tom, he is actually less charming in this than he is in anything else I’ve seen him in – perhaps his charm is of the Irish variety and without his usual thick accent, it fades into the background. Hugo Weaving does most of the work here in an archetypal villain role reminiscent of Darth Vader in arc and ideas. In fact, much of the story mirrors Star Wars, so much so that it often feels like an homage.

While Star Wars can sometimes get bogged down in its politics (note the prequels), Mortal Engines uses political allegory magnificently, leaning into it rather than shying away. East vs West, cold war era ideas, Imperialism and even a few Brexit jokes are ingrained into the core concept. As the character development and emotional depth is hollow in the film, the allegorical aspects fill the narrative void.

Perhaps Mortal Engines would have benefitted from a more experienced director, especially if Peter Jackson had decided to helm it himself rather than remain behind the scenes as co-writer and producer. Alas, this isn’t the film we got. It’s better than some other modern YA adaptations (The Golden Compass, the latter Hunger Games, Divergent) but does not reach its own potential, nevermind the heights of enduring series’ like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. I’m not even sure the remaining three novels will get their chance at adaptation after the lacklustre version of the much-loved first.


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