Building Tension isn’t paid off (Mortal Engines review)

Produced by Peter Jackson, Mortal Engines is a film about giant cities on wheels that drive around and attack one another. While the bizarre concept is perfect Peter Jackson territory, this fantasy adaptation spoils its fantastic special effects with a cliché screenplay, poor performances and a lack of interesting personality.

The film is based on a novel by Philip Reeve, written in 2001. However, the truth is that he was clearly inspired by Terry Gilliam’s short film ‘The Crimson Permanent Assurance’, that played before Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, about a group of accountants who sail their accountancy firm around the cities. In this story, a giant London vehicle drives around, led by Thaddeus Valentine, played by Hugo Weaving. Causing conflict is Hester Shaw, a fugitive assassin who has a personal vendetta against Thaddeus.

It must be said that the special effects and design of this film are outstanding. The design of the London city is glorious, with shards of the Shard spiralling the outside, references to the London underground inside, and St. Paul’s Cathedral standing proudly at the top of the monstrous vehicle. The whole film feels very steampunk, with coal smoke and turning gears characterising the huge cityscape trucks.

It’s obvious this is a film produced and co-written by Peter Jackson because it has all of his usual fantasy film troupes. The narrative takes place in a very ‘lived in’ world; there is clearly a rich history that is rarely touched upon by the story, but the attention to detail makes the film’s setting utterly believable, however bizarre.

It’s unfortunate that with a rich and eye-catching world to play with, the characters and performances are less than exciting. Hugo Weaving is entertaining as the films villain, and Hera Hilmar does her best to play the hero, but most outstanding is Robert Sheehan, cast as a historian of London’s Museum who gets swept up in the story and has to help save the city. When I say he’s outstanding, I unfortunately mean outstandingly bad. Uncharismatic and charmless sum up his performance, and it’s clear he was totally miscast in this role. If Eddie Redmayne was even more of an annoying bumbling nerd, this would be it.

Accompanying the acting issues are a number of horribly misjudged filmmaking choices. The main, most key one, is the insistence that our two lead characters must fall in love over the course of about three days, because the narrative demands it. Characters going from polar opposites who hate each other, to people who would die for one another, is a cliché that needs to stop as it is utterly unrealistic and eye-rollingly overused. Another horrible crime was that the film decided a hilarious joke would be to include models of the ‘Minions’ in the British Museum, claiming they are ‘ancient American deities’. How on earth does a huge ambitious fantasy film expect our respect when it is willing to include a cheap joke about this decade’s most annoying yellow thing? (after Donald Trump’s wig, that it)

Worryingly, the film seems to have slight political significance. The land of city vehicles rose after Earth was destroyed by huge weapons of mass destruction were released in the ‘Sixty Minute War’. With such powerful weapons at every nations disposal, the war was short lived and utterly devastating. Another worry was that Hugo Weaving, leader of London, said that ‘we need to demonstrate the power that London has’ despite the fact that it was a lie to fool the people. Brexit parallel anyone?

This film is worth watching. It really is. There are brilliantly exciting visuals and a rich deep world that has been very well created. Unfortunately, to see them you also have to sit through some horrendous performances, and the most boring third act I’ve seen since Venom.

5 Stars

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