It’s about 1,200 years from 2018; much of the world has come to an end; large cities are somehow mobile having been put on giant, tank-like wheels; they survive by literally feeding on the resources of smaller towns and villages, which are also mobile; and East and parts of Africa are the only ones holding them back, mostly because of a Shield Wall.
Based on Philip Reeve’s successful Young Adult fiction series, Mortal Engines begins with much metal-clanging promise, and one must marvel at the expertise in imagining those cities on the move. London is the biggest of these ‘Traction Cities’, and is rendered on wheels with St Paul’s dome right at the top of its metal mass, and the Nelson’s Column lions at the front. Director Rivers has often worked with Lord of the Ring’s Peter Jackson, and the latter has pitched in both as producer and writer here. In those first few scenes, there is something of Jackson’s felicity with imagining other worlds, while the idea of small individuals fighting big capitalism is always a win-win in the reel world.
Hester Shaw (Hilmar) also makes an impressive entry as the woman steering the latest city that London is about to devour — with her piercing blue-green eyes watching keenly over the red scarf that covers most of her face. As the action moves from the race between London and Hester’s city — cheered on by the seemingly always blood-thirsty Londoners — to the goings on in London itself, we are introduced to other central characters with as much ease. There is the deceptive Thaddeus Valentine (Weaving, playing to form), who is hailed for being the man who has saved London from dying, and is expected to continue doing so with his secret Energy Project. There is Tom Natsworthy (Sheehan), the eager aviator-turned-historian who is somewhat of an expert on ‘ancient tech’ (as in tech of our current world, including mobile phones, computers and flash drives), a much-needed commodity given the new world’s lack of energy resources. The Minions turn up as American artefacts.) And then there is Valentine’s daughter Katherine (George), who has her heart in the right place.
Mortal Engines continues to hold our interest as Hester tries to kill Thaddeus, for having murdered her mother (an archaeologist called Pandora), and is thwarted by Tom, who soon finds himself on the run from London along with her. Both relative newcomers, Hilmar and Sheehan chart the usual course of jousting-turning-to-friendship-to-love credibly.
However, not soon after, the two are back on the run, either scampering aboard some moving city, running away from another, being shot down by a third, being sold as slaves on one etc, etc. In the middle, a resurrected man trained to be a hunter, called Shrike, shows up, on Hester’s heels. The two have a back story that could have been a film in itself, but in the rushed job on screen, it is almost comical. South Korean singer Jihae appears as the head of a Resistance group, and while her first fighting scene is cool, the latter are just repeats.
After a while, the scenes are a blur, of metal, machines, and loud music. It’s obvious director Rivers had to pack in a lot to see this series started, but by the time he ends, the prospect of some more of this to follow seems daunting.
With London exhausted by a never-ending Brexit drama, it almost seems cruel to put it through this battering.