Director: Christian Rivers
Writers: Fran Walsh, Phillips Boyens, Peter Jackson, Philip Reeve (based on the novel by)
Starring: Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmarsdóttir, Robert Sheehan, Jihae, Leila George D'Onofrio, Patrick Malahide, Ronan Raftery
The fantasy genre is a difficult one to pull off. This is especially true when the fantasy world you wish to create and explore deviates further and further from our reality and our current understanding of the world. It is genre often explored through the medium of books, and for good reason; whereas a modern day drama or topical crime thriller is instantly relatable, when it comes to fantasy worlds with strange new landscapes filled with weird and wonderful creatures, intriguing new cultures and perhaps even different laws of physics, time and space is needed to allow the audience time to orientate themselves to a vastly different narrative world. Masters of on-screen fantasy have understood this concept, and have produced extraordinary and sweeping tales such as Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean (the first three at least) and the long-adored Game of Thrones.
Despite being adapted from four novels written by Philip Reeve, the creators of the on-screen adaptation of Mortal Engines have, frustratingly, deigned to grasp this understanding and the film has ultimately suffered for it. Crammed into just over two hours worth of footage, - a run-time at least a third of what it should have been - Christian Rivers' feature-length directorial debut upsettingly feels rushed and half-hearted despite an obvious attempt to produce a vibrant and colourful fantasy world.
In that, at least, the film succeeds. Set several thousand years into our future, humankind now finds itself cruising the Earth's surface in huge city-sized vehicles carrying thousands of survivors. In classic survival-of-the-fittest fashion the bigger roving 'predator-cities' track down and devour the smaller ones, and the 'haves' and 'have-nots' are pitted against each other in a dystopian future which is seemingly always on the move.
The fact that the visuals leave you wanting so much more only adds to the frustration. This is without a doubt a well-imagined world well-realised, and the futuristic but dystopian aesthetic of the clunky steampunk machinery, blended with the classic and iconic imagery people around the world have come to associate with England's capital creates an odd dissonance between familiarity and unfamiliarity. Mortal Engines is built on scale, and is complete with fleeting images of maps which deserved to be studied, vast plains and mountain ranges that deserve to be traversed and wondrous static and moving cities, of varying decadence, all of which deserve to be explored. Unfortunately, very little studying, traversing or exploring happens beyond that which is unrelated to the central narrative, with the film's primary focus simply being to get to the end.
Sat at the helm of the mobilised version of London we have Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine, archeologist and Deputy Lord Mayor of the city. Despite normally being a sure-thing when it comes to turning in a decent performance (and no stranger to the fantasy genre), Weaving looks dreadfully bored throughout a significant portion of this film, probably due to the tediousness of regurgitating many lines and monologuing gestures from his time as Elrond in LOTR.
Robert Sheehan on the other hand definitely wants to be here but, although talented in other things (i.e. Killing Bono), doesn't really have the acting chops to carry a film of this scale. His suitably likeable portrayal of Tom is enjoyable enough to follow as he embarks on his adventure across the wastelands of Europe to stop the destructive plans of his previous home of London, but he feels like more of a side character than a lead, and is unlikely to be burned into your memory after the credits began to fall.
Icelandic Hera Hilmarsdóttir, meanwhile - the only main character to be given a story line which isn't solely set in the present - is a much more ferocious lead, but still needs more time for her character to be fleshed out in a more organic way. Any backstory of hers is half-heartedly shoehorned in, when it should have been a purposeful deviation from the plot, during which we could have truly begun to understand what motivates her to act as she currently does.
Across the board, each and every member of this cast suffers from a serious lack of characterisation, and there is an overwhelming number of story-lines in far too little a space. Jihae probably suffers the worst as the rebel Anna Fang, an undeniably intriguing but ultimately two-dimensional character who serves as little other than a mechanism for moving the plot forward, and possesses only a semblance of a personality outside of her goal to over-throw those in charge of the predator cities such as the aforementioned London. D'Onofrio and Raftery are similarly wasted, and their subplot would have been far more memorable if it had been explored in more detail within a lengthier version of this story.
Undoubtedly, the film's attempt to fit (way) too much into 120 minutes is a problem which permeates every aspect of the film, and will likely leave any viewer feeling more than a little underwhelmed. Many lovers of fantasy are willing to invest many hours into a brilliant tales of love, war and conquest, and would happily have sat through an epic triple-film version of Mortal Engines. Unfortuately, due to either a lack of faith or a lack of ambition the story of Mortal Engines has ended way to prematurely.
In one line: Here we have an epic, sweeping and visually stunning tale of war, love, betrayal and revenge which is sadly condensed into such a tiny space which offers too little opportunity for exploration of both its characters and setting they populate.