Peter Jackson

Mortal Engines

14/12/18

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.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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They Shall Not Grow Old

 

27/11/18

I’ve come to this one rather late in the day, partly because of other commitments and partly because I really wanted to wait until I had the opportunity to see it on a cinema screen. I’m glad I waited.

Peter Jackson’s First World War documentary is, of course, a considerable technical achievement, featuring state-of-the-art colourisation processes – but it’s also a powerful evocation of a brutal military campaign. Using archive footage from the Imperial War Museum (much of it getting its first public airing here), They Shall Not Grow Old is primarily the chronological story of the British ‘Tommy,’ following his tortuous path from enlistment to armistice.

Jackson cannily holds back the film’s trump card for a good twenty minutes or so. The images we are first presented with are in a square framed ratio, those speeded-up monochrome visions that we’re already familiar with, the kind that somehow contrive to demote the Great War to the level of a Charlie Chaplin comedy routine. We watch as ranks of new recruits skitter haphazardly across the screen, marching as though auditioning for Mack Sennett. We see countless numbers of young men answering the call of duty, doing their basic training, boarding troop ships to cross the channel, and still Jackson holds back.

And then there’s a spellbinding change when battalions of troops arrive at the Western Front to prepare for the upcoming conflict. Quite without warning, the pace suddenly slows, the screen floods with naturalistic colour and we hear the sounds of mobilisation – the relentless trudge of boots through mud, the rumble of engines, the whinnying of horses – and off in the distance, the forbidding rumble of explosions, the nagging rattle of gunfire. It’s a chilling transition, one that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. Quite suddenly, one hundred years of history have evaporated in the blink of an eye and I realise I am looking at real people, many of them just teenagers, who turn their mournful, apprehensive faces to the camera as they stumble by, knowing they are almost certainly going to their deaths.

It’s the film’s most unforgettable moment.

Which is not to denigrate the rest of it, not at all. I listen to the accounts of real veterans who went through the ordeal and somehow survived; and I’m shown the inevitable consequences of war: the heaps of dismembered, bloated bodies; the shattered buildings; the splintered trees; the twisted hell of No Man’s Land. And through it all these young men continue to grin for the camera, give it a sly wave, mumble a quick ‘Hello Mum,’ as they pass by. I feel humbled by seeing them and by experiencing just a little of what they had to go through.

How does the rest of that famous stanza go? ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them.

And we do – now. But back then, when those men returned, no one wanted to acknowledge the truth of what they had been through. And I’m still not sure we’ve learned the lessons that would prevent such a horror from ever happening again.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies

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15/1/15

I very nearly didn’t bother with this – which is sad, because I’m a major Peter Jackson fan. I’ve followed him from the early splatter films like Brain Dead and Bad Taste, through the triumph that was Beautiful Creatures and the LOTR films, which were my birthday treat for three consecutive years. I’m also one of the few people who loved his version of King Kong. Like many though, I couldn’t understand why a slim volume like The Hobbit has been amped up into a trilogy and I didn’t much care for part one, though I had to concede that part two was considerably better. And finally, here we are at the end of the whole cycle and the completist in me just had to have his day and catch this on the big screen.

And you know what? This is a beautifully and lovingly crafted thing, every frame a potential work of art. We pick up right where we left off with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) decimating Lake Town and the various factions with a claim to the gold of Lonely Mountain, preparing themselves for the mother of all battles and… and yet, you can’t quite escape  the feeling that you’ve been here five times before and no matter how wonderfully it’s rendered, no matter what amount of intricate detail goes into every aspect of the story, it’s feeling tired and it’s time for Jackson to move in a new direction.

LOTR and the Hobbit films have been a major undertaking into which the new Zealander has poured so much of himself, founding special effects company Weta along the way and bringing motion capture to the forefront of contemporary cinema. It seemed churlish to complain that he’s stuck in a groove.  What will he do next? I wish he’d give himself a small budget and go back to his roots, film a short and snappy horror flick, though I seriously doubt he will. When you’ve commanded major budgets and casts of thousands, it’s no doubt hard to go back to basics… and yet, there’s part of me that thinks it would reinvigorate him… think Sam Raimi and Drag Me To Hell. As for the Hobbit trilogy, well Jackson has tied everything up nicely and put it all to bed. He deserves a  major pat on the back for his fortitude.

Just keep him well away from the Silmarillion!

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney