FILM REVIEW – MORTAL ENGINES. With Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Stephen Lang. Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson. Directed by Christian Rivers. Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action. 128 minutes.
It’s obvious why the ads for MORTAL ENGINES prominently mention “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” Peter Jackson, who helmed those series, was one of the writers and producers on this. However, there the connection ends, because unlike the Tolkien adaptations, this is no twee fantasy. It is squarely in the science fiction sub-genre of “steampunk,” positing a post-apocalyptic world utilizing a lot of retro- tech. Based on the YA novel by Philip Reeve, this is a dystopian and visually inventive movie that – with no big names in the cast – may have a hard time finding its audience.
The setting is many centuries in the future after a destructive war that has laid waste to much of the world. Several cities have become mobile, gobbling up smaller enclaves and their resources. Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), is an important official in the mobile London, surviving an assassination attempt by Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) at the start of the story. Hester escapes and is forced to team with Tom (Robert Sheehan), a historian of artifacts who has been betrayed by Thaddeus.
The story gets complicated (although not difficult to follow) as Hester and Thaddeus head for a final showdown. Added to the mix is Shrike (Stephen Lang), a horrific creature pursuing Hester who proves to be one of the most complex characters in the story, and Anna Fang (Jihae), who will prove crucial in the fight against Thaddeus. Although the book was followed by several others, the movie gets us to a definitive ending, leaving the door open for sequels but not requiring them.
What makes it fascinating even for those unfamiliar with the source material (like this reviewer) is its stunning visual design. From a vast city rolling across desolate wastelands, to the “technology,” which is based more on trying to recapture what was lost from the past rather than inventing something new, what we’re shown is never less than fascinating. Not since “Black Panther” have we seen a movie so determined to take us into a world we’ve never seen on screen prior to this.
As the smooth villain of the piece, Weaving walks the line between his character’s public image and his actual motives to make clear why people might be fooled into believing him. As the film’s protagonist, Hilmar may be the first Icelandic actress to become an international star. She’s feisty as Hester, able to show her vulnerabilities while remaining a strong and tenacious heroine. This may turn out to be the break for her that “Hunger Games” was for Jennifer Lawrence.
It’s odd that a movie without stars and based on a novel most viewers won’t have read would get released at this time of year, where it will have a limited time to prove itself. Yet “Mortal Engines” has enough going for it that, should it succeed, could not only help its star, but launch a franchise where so many other efforts have tried and failed.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.