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Mortal Engines Movie Review

Tech and the City

Editor's note: we get a lot of pitches and screening invitations here at BPBS, and much as we'd like to - being the movie buffs that we are - we can't cover everything. Sometimes it seems easy to rule out an upcoming release based on a trailer, so when I saw a big-screen preview of "Mortal Engines" and rolled my eyes at what looked like an overblown sci-fi mess, I mentally crossed it off our coverage list, assuming it would be awful, end of story. Well, it turns out that BPBS co-founder and former reviewer Joe Lozito thought otherwise, and as we caught up with each other at a recent Christmas party he made a strong case for "Mortal Engines". What's an editor to do? Ask for a review, that's what! Here's a film that brought Joe out of reviewer retirement, so you know it has to be something special - and he may even convince me to see it (though he's still had no luck on the "Taxi Driver" front...).


"Mortal Engines" is the first adaption of Phillip Reeve's quartet of novels. There isn't likely to be a second - at least, if you believe the film's negative reviews which, judging from the box office, most people do. To be sure, there are plenty of reasons to poo-poo this film, even sight unseen. For one thing, there's the previously bullet-proof pedigree "From the people who brought you The Lord of the Rings films," which nowadays retains a bit of the stank from the bloated "Hobbit" trilogy. Add in the fact that Peter Jackson hands over directorial reins to his long-time storyboard artist, Christian Rivers, and there's enough reason to be doubtful.

Then there's the story itself, about a post-apocalyptic future in which thousands of years have passed since a "big event" that decimated the world's population, prompting the remaining survivors to put their cities on wheels and start roaming the wasteland gobbling each other up. Biggest city wins. They call it "Municipal Darwinism" (c'mon, that's pretty great). Finally, there are the troubling geo-political implications of the story. London consuming other cities? Entering Europe and then trying to find a way to exit? While the best sci-fi is based in metaphor, it's far too short a hop from this set-up to British Colonialism and the current state of the EU.

For better or worse, political statements seem low on the list of the filmmaker's priorities. More important is the realization of Mr. Reeve's world and the infrastructure that supports it. And it's there that the film soars in a way that is reminiscent of the best of sci-fi films. "The Fifth Element" comes quickly to mind due to the fast-pace and vibrant color palate.

The most disingenuous criticism of "Mortal Engines" revolves around the rote nature of the plot.  Yes, the plot is fairly trope-heavy, but no more so that the vast majority of blockbusters out there. And at least it's not about a "Chosen One" for once (ahem, "The Matrix" and countless YA adaptations, I'm looking in your direction). This is just your typical "little guy (or gal) takes on the establishment" story. In this case, the little person is Hester Shaw (played by Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), a scarred traveler who has it out for London's leader, Thaddeus Valentine, for reasons that will be made abundantly clear.

If the fact that Hugo Weaving plays Valentine doesn't immediate tip you off to the direction the plot is headed, well good for you! You'll be more surprised than most of the audience.

Hester's partner/meet-cute love interest is Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan, "Killing Bono"), who works in the London Museum and scavenges for the kind of valuable "old Tech" that the movie has a lot of fun with (wait'll you see the "Museum of Screens" or the "American Deities"). One piece of this Tech is the typical MacGuffin that will become very important to the plot later.

Mr. River's experience as a visual artist shows. The detailed realization of these "traction cities," as they're called, and the world they inhabit is thrilling. In the novel, Mr. Reeve likens them to layered wedding cakes, and sure enough, London looks like a ramshackle amalgamation of classic landmarks - with St Paul's Cathedral rising high at the top - piled on top of each other, just barely holding on.

There are several supporting factions at work here. Too many to get into. But the most interesting is a bounty hunter that's part zombie, part Terminator, part Robocop. The backstory of this character, named Shrike and voiced by Avatar's Stephen Lang, and his connection to Hester, gives the plot its unexpected heart.

Is "Mortal Engines" a perfectly unique and transcendent bit of sci-fi storytelling? No. But does it deserve the kind of social media-fueled schadenfreude that gives angry internet mobs their raison d'etre? Absolutely not. For those willing to look past all that, "Mortal Engines" is a thrilling first entry into Mr. Reeve's inventive world. And it might just make you mourn for the fact that there will not be another.


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