Just when you thought the YA genre is as good as dead (see this year’s much-maligned The Darkest Minds for further proof), here comes Mortal Engines — a post-apocalyptic YA tale based on the award-winning 2001 novel of the same name by Philip Reeve.
But what sets this movie apart from most YA movie adaptations out there is the filmmaking team that involved behind the scenes. The same team who brought us The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogy including Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens — all served as both co-writers and co-producers of this movie. Even though Jackson isn’t personally in charge of the directing duties, his longtime protege Christian Rivers is no slouch either. In fact, he has collaborated with Jackson as part of the special-effects team since 1992’s Dead Alive, handling multiple roles from storyboarding to visual effects department.
Set during the post-apocalyptic future where cities are operated on wheels, the movie follows a partially-disfigured young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and her quest to kill Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), the man who responsible for the death of her mother Pandora (Caren Pistorius). But her personal vendetta is unexpectedly sidelined when she got entangled in a bigger scheme involving Thaddeus’ plot to destroy the world with a weaponised machine using centuries-old technology. Soon, Hester joins forces with an aspiring aviator Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) and the leader of the rebellious Anti-Traction League, Anna Fang (South Korean singer-turned-actress Jihae) to stop Thaddeus at all cost.
From the technical point-of-view, Mortal Engines looks visually stunning. Dan Hennah’s production design, which includes everything from the motorised city of London on wheels to the floating metropolis suspended above the sky with inflated gas bags, are all vividly realised that even the movie’s overreliance of CGI is forgivable.
While some of the fight and shootout scenes tend to be ruined by incomprehensible editing, Christian Rivers still does a good job in other action-oriented moments. This is particularly evident during the elaborate opening chase sequence, all thrillingly staged that complemented well with Tom Holkenborg’s (Junkie XL) rousing score.
The premise itself is actually intriguing, which blends Mad Max with steampunk influence. The execution of the plot, however, is a mixed bag. It is understandable that the book itself is only 293 pages long and theoretically speaking, the movie’s two-hour length seems sufficient enough. But the problem is, there are too many characters and subplots within the worldbuilding-centric storyline to focus on, making the two-hour running time rather streamlined for its own good. Extending the movie’s length would be a wiser choice, which helps to provide ample rooms for both characters and story development. Which is why some scenes, such as Stephen Lang’s cyborg role as Shrike whose father figure-like relationship with Hera Hilmar’s Hester Shaw feels like a missed opportunity.
As for the characters, Icelandic actress Hera Hilmer (TV’s Da Vinci’s Demons) delivers an adequate performance as the vengeful Hester Shaw. It’s just too bad her chemistry with Robert Sheehan’s otherwise effective turn as Tom Natsworthy are lacking the necessary sparks between them. Hugo Weaving’s role of Thaddeus Valentine is nothing more than your standard-issue antagonist character, while Jihae pulls off a decent performance in her otherwise underwritten role as Anna Fang. What surprises me the most is Stephen Lang’s minor role of Shrike, who gives the most lasting impression here.