It may be derivative. It may be loud. It may remind you of Mad Max: Fury Road-lite, but the new film from the Peter Jackson epic factory, Mortal Engines, does have a certain sense of old-fashioned Saturday matinee fun, and on a purely visual level it’s quite enthralling. Although the movie most people will find themselves comparing this to is indeed Mad Max, for me it had echoes of an early-’60s Jules Verne fantasy with Vincent Price called Master of the World (a film crying out for a remake. C’mon, Quentin, I know you loved it).
I’m not exactly sure why, but that is what I thought of in watching this film set a thousand years in the future in a postapocalyptic landscape where once-great standing cities are now on wheels. In fact the opening sequence, in which the London (yes, that London ) is chasing a smaller metropolis on a thrilling ride through the vast wasteland in order to swallow it up only so London can become bigger and more powerful, is a stunner that hooked me right in. Unfortunately not all of what follows is as compelling, but this movie — which Jackson produced and wrote with cohorts Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens (Oscar winners all for The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) — has its moments. It is competently directed by Christian Rivers, a disciple of Jackson’s who has worked for the uber-producing since writing him a mash note when he was just 15 and Jackson had just done one of his earliest movies.
Plotwise we are meant to believe that the world ended in a cataclysmic nightmare in the 21st century. Now the world is relegated to moving cities, a mobile culture where the strong get stronger. In the center is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), an evil figure who has huge ambitions to basically take over the world, and to no good end to boot. A woman who is on to him, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), comes to the London, after a great deal of effort to get on board, with a plan to kill him in return for killing her mother. Tom Hatsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a subservient worker who reports to Valentine on the old artifacts he collects in the London Museum (they included rustic iPhones, laptops and a couple of Minions), befriends her and instantly knows too much for his own good. After Valentine disposes of her down a large garbage shoot, Tom is also quickly dispatched. The two land off the London and into the desert wilderness, where they are determined to find their way back to the London, stop Valentine and save the world before it’s too late. Other intriguing characters turn up in their harrowing journey including Shrike (Stephen Lang), whose name keeps coming out as Shrek, a terminator/zombie type who has a past with Hester that is revealed slowly, and best of all a cool-looking Anna Fang (Jihae), a rebel pilot who wears neat tinted designer eyeglasses.
This is all based on the four-volume YA book series by Phillip Reeves, but it has Jackson’s stamp all over it, including perfectly accomplished special effects and nifty production design (the use of London landmarks in new truncated form is a dazzler). If it doesn’t hit the heights of their Rings trilogy, it doesn’t hit the depths of Valerian either. It’s the kind of crazy-quilt sci-fi fantasy world that studios regularly turned out for young boys to salivate over in a cheaper form before these epics started costing well north of $100 million. Jackson’s box office following will have to count for something to make this a financial success before it gets lost in the crowd this holiday season. That’s doubtful, but it has its charms, even in a convoluted kind of way. I wasn’t nearly as bored as I thought I was going to be. Deborah Forte, Amanda Walker and Zane Weiner produced in addition to Jackson and Walsh. Universal releases it Friday in the U.S. Check out my video review by clicking the link above.
Do you plan to see Mortal Engines? Let us know what you think.
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