A thousand years after a nuclear holocaust, the earth has been reduced to a vast wasteland in which gigantic ‘traction cities’ roam the earth in search of smaller moving towns to be devoured and converted into much-needed fuel. Most powerful amongst the travelling behemoths is ‘London,’ currently controlled by Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who, we soon discover, is a thoroughly bad egg, hellbent on appropriating what’s left of the world’s meagre resources, no matter what it takes.
When London absorbs its latest conquest, (a Bavarian hamlet, since you ask) it takes on board a masked young woman with a grudge. She is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who seeks revenge on Valentine for something that happened back in her childhood. But her assassination attempt is foiled by young Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an employee at the London museum… yes, there still is a museum, plus a rough assemblage of some of the city’s salvaged tourist attractions, all arranged higgledy-piggledy across its skyline. (It’s at moments like this when I can’t help pondering how anybody could have managed to convert a city into a Mad Max-style vehicle of such enormous scale – I mean, where did they start? But perhaps I’m missing the point.)
When Tom and Hester find themselves expelled into the wasteland, a relationship develops – but then they become involved with the Anti Traction League, based in what’s now simply known as ‘the East’ on the far side of what just might be the Great Wall of China. The league travel in fantastic airships and are masterminded by Anna Fang (Jihae). Meanwhile Hester is being hunted by an undead creature called Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang), who is pledged to destroy her and…
If this is starting to sound somewhat complicated, let me assure you, that it is – and that’s rather a pity because – as you’d expect from something that’s been produced by Peter Jackson – the world-building here is frankly astonishing and I can only speculate about the millions of New Zealand dollars that must have been lovingly poured into this enterprise. But, as is so often the case in films of such immense scale, the human characters are somewhat dwarfed by the process, only periodically managing to poke their heads up from the general grandeur to try and capture attention. Christian Rivers handles the directorial reins but this has Jackson’s fingerprints all over it and, not for the first time, I find myself yearning for those early low budget horrors he used to make, back in the days when he was skint.
Mortal Engines is based on a quartet of books by British fantasy author Philip Reeve. The first volume was published in 2001 and this project has been stuck in development hell for a very long time. I’d love to be able to report that it’s a great success, but something seems to have been lost in translation from book to film. While a story this complicated can work brilliantly on the printed page, it doesn’t always come through on the screen. I don’t mean to say that this isn’t worth a viewing. There’s stuff in here that will have fantasy fans enthralled. There are exciting chases, wonderful touches of invention throughout and, as I said before, it all looks good enough to eat – but sadly, that’s not enough to make this project fly as convincingly as it should.