Have you ever found yourself lying awake in bed at night wondering what the love child of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars might look like? Well if that sounds like you then a restful night sleep will be on its way after Mortal Engines hits the big screen: this sensational steampunk smash from the filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit interweave narratives from everything George Lucas to Stephanie Meyer, and not always for the better.
Following the '60 Minute War', Earth’s crust has been shattered and mobile 'traction cities' roam the desolate terrain. When the mysterious Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) makes her way onto 'London' and is swiftly forced back into the outland after stabbing the ambitious - though somewhat dubious - historian Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) for reasons unknown, she is lumped with the unworldly Londoner Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Together they must find a way to survive, to uncover Thaddeus’ sinister tech-filled plot, and not kill each other before they do.
With its epic set-up and blend of genres - steampunk, fantasy, adventure, dystopian, YA, and romance all in one - Mortal Engines lends itself to a variety of films, comparisons are to its disadvantage. This is especially evident when it comes to the characters, of which there are just about too many. The naïve Tom is slow to believe his home city could ever be anything but perfect, the villainous Thaddeus is charming but so blatantly evil, and Leila George’s Katherine (daughter of Thaddeus) is wiped of any character she might have possessed in the novels rendering her arc entirely pointless. We’ve seen genuinely unsavoury villains, compelling characters ‘coming to consciousness’, and well-played side characters in so many other franchise films, so it’s hard to connect with those of director Christian Rivers’ world who are underwhelming at best.
The films lead, Hester, too is repeatedly undermined by narrative decisions: this bad-ass female lead is quickly taken down a peg and must be cared for by her newfound male friend, romance blossoming between them before you even have to time to make a dent in your popcorn. It is a real shame too, seeing that her character is one of the most unique aspects of the film: her relationship with the memory of her mother, with Shrike (Stephen Lang), and with the broken land itself help mould her character into one of new depths that, thanks to Hilmar’s solid performance, you can’t help but engage with.
However, despite the fact this film may have been more suited for a release a few years ago - when cinemas were ripe with dystopian adventures - it is unfair to deny how spectacular Mortal Engines is. Is the plot predictable? Yes. Does that mean it is innately bad? No. Characters are given time to shine and in the case of the stand-out supporter Anna Fang (Jihae) show off, and there are emotional moments scattered through the show-stealing action sequences to keep the characters grounded. But it is the action sequences that are the real feats of the film; they are relentless and exciting, combining traditional battle tropes with their distinguishable world look with steampunk air-ships battling it out Star Wars style.
The world created by Rivers and production designer Dan Hannah (a key WETA veteran) is deeply rich and wildly interesting. Blending CGI with practical effects, each frame is filled to bursting with elements of this strangely familiar post-apocalyptic world. It’s here that you’ll be reminded of this film's LOTR association. Mortal Engines is nothing new, but everything it does is done well; performances are strong, the score is awe-inspiring, and aesthetics are even better than you might imagine. Rivers’ fantasy film works hard to bring the magic back to the epic-YA genre and succeeds in doing so through sheer will, if nothing else.