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"MORTAL ENGINES"
(2018) (Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Science-Fiction: In a post-apocalyptic future in which cities ride on wheels and attack and consume each other, one young woman sets out on a quest to avenge her mother and stop a megalomaniac from gaining power.
PLOT:
In a post-apocalyptic world, giant cities on wheels roam the scarred landscapes looking to ensnare and consume smaller towns and add their weapons and technology to their increasingly scarce resources. Hester Shaw (HERA HILMAR) puts herself in harm's way when the giant City of London gobbles up a small mining town she has just arrived in. But it's all part of Hester's plan to gain access to London where she mounts an assassination attempt on its evil leader, Thaddeus Valentine (HUGO WEAVING), who killed her mother years earlier.

She fails and is cast out of London. But not before a young historian named Tom (ROBERT SHEEHAN) overhears Hester vowing to get even with Valentine for the death of her mom. To bury the truth, Valentine pushes Tom off the rolling city, too, and leaves him and Hester for dead. He also sets free a frightening cyborg-like creature named Shrike (motion-captured by STEPHEN LANG), who has his own reasons for wanting Hester dead. Meanwhile, Valentine's daughter, Katherine (LEILA GEORGE), begins to suspect her father is up to no good and begins to investigate a secret project he has been working on for years.

She discovers that he has been collecting atomic energy parts from Earth's failed civilization a thousand years earlier to power London and develop a fusion weapon that will give him dominion over the world. Meanwhile, Tom and Hester have teamed up to survive on the Earth's surface and are eventually rescued by an outlaw named Anna Fang (JIHAE), who once knew Hester's mother and believes what the woman once told her: that Hester is the only one who can put an end to the genocidal power grab that Valentine has spent years preparing to mount.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Peter Jackson has forgotten how to do...subtle. And, yes, I know that pretty much the entire country of New Zealand was involved in the making of "Mortal Engines" and not just the famed "Lord of the Rings"/"Hobbit" filmmaker. Heck, Jackson didn't even direct this flick. He co-produced it and co-wrote it. But his visual style, flair for spectacle, and love of his home country's gargantuan landscapes permeate this movie. It may have directed by some dude named Christian Rivers. But you're making your box office offering to the Church of PJ.

But "Mortal Engines" suffers some of the same mistakes that plagued his "Hobbit" movies. There is an over-reliance on computer-generated effects, rendering every human character, plot, and subplot small. The film goes from a visual feast you drink with your eyes to the waterboarding equivalent of relentless spectacle you can't look away from and you can't turn off at the same time. You don't watch "Mortal Engines." You submit to it. It feels designed to wear down its viewers rather than entertain and enthrall them. A shame, because when it is good, it's really quite good.

Good, interesting characters get lost in the spectacle, literally crushed by it in a couple of examples. The stuff that I really love about this movie is so good and compelling, in fact, I am still giving a mild recommendation. But only on one condition. If you are ever going to see it, see it on the big screen! I would never, ever want to watch this on a phone or a laptop, even a 70-inch flat-screen TV. It would be like watching fireworks on a TV. It's just never the same as seeing such eye candy larger than life, filling up your entire field of vision, and in person.

The film is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth where we maniacs blew it up a thousand years earlier in a nuclear war. Instead of talking, intelligent apes rising from the ashes to damn us all to Hell, the surviving humans did what any post-apocalyptic survivors would do. They slapped the remnants of their cities, towns, villages, and colonies on flatbeds, gave 'em wheels, and now they ride across the barren landscapes looking for food, fuel, and other resources. The big "Traction Cities" dominate, scooping up the smaller "static settlements" and immediately confiscating their "Old Tech," their weapons, their food and water, and assimilating their small populations into the larger whole. One not-so-subtle PA message tells the most recent batch of survivors to be captured that "In some cases, children WILL be separated from their parents temporarily." Oh yeah.

The opening, pre-title sequence is stunning and focuses on the massive London on wheels running down a small mining colony on wheels, harpooning the hamlet, and gobbling it up into its massive underbelly. It's very reminiscent of the opening of the original "Star Wars" with the Star Destroyer pulling in Princess Leia's Blockade Runner (with a little of the submarine capture in "The Spy Who Loved Me" thrown in with some obvious "Mad Max" elements, too).

Jackson and Co., for the most part, got the casting right for this flick. I always like new faces who I largely haven't seen too much of before getting a chance to dress like they're going to Comic-Con and do cool things like sword fight and pilot Steampunk-inspired airships. Hera Hilmar is the lead here, playing a young woman named Hester who saw her mother murdered as a young girl, lived as a ragged scavenger in the Great Hunting Grounds with a cyborg, and has vowed revenge ever since. She's a combination Rey, Jynn Erso, and Sarah Connor. But the hodgepodge of influences and inspirations works as it does above. Hester has spunk and grit. Hilmar borrows from the Kristen Stewart School of Acting where she doesn't smile once until the very end of the film. With Stewart, I think it's in her contract. With Hilmar, it's more a choice. But with her facial scarring and sad back-story, it's believable.

She is given able support by the very likable Robert Sheehan as Tom, a London historian who falls for her and joins her on her quest for vengeance; newcomer Leila George as the goodhearted daughter of the film's main villain; and South Korean music star Jihae as a fugitive revolutionary named Anna Fang. Anchoring the film is Jackson favorite Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine, a historian who has been amassing spare parts over the years from a nuclear superweapon known as MEDUSA that he plans to use to seize power and become a genocidal dictator. Things go bad when you ain't got Target and McDonald's!

But the character dynamics take a back seat in the film's third act when we are introduced to a giant walled city (basically this film's Helm's Deep) that Valentine sets his sights on destroying with his newly operational weapon of mass destruction. Suddenly, we're supposed to care about this city and the denizens of it when it hasn't played a factor in the first two-thirds of the film and none of the characters have any connection to it. More importantly, we don't have any connection to it!

If it had been London on Wheels attacking, say, Paris or Dublin or Sydney that had opted to not go mobile and instead build a post-apocalyptic utopia behind a Great Wall, then that would have been one thing. But suddenly, the film stops being about Hester's revenge, Tom's return home, and Valentine's comeuppance and becomes a giant, CGI battle sequence.

There are also about a dozen to 20 peripheral characters who seem to have had larger roles in some longer version of this screenplay, but proceed with their scenes completely unaware that they have been axed from the film for long stretches. Valentine's daughter disappears for very long stretches, as does a friend of Tom's named Bevis Pod (!), as does a character named Harold who is a sniveling social climber in all of two scenes, as does Tom's virtuous boss at the Museum of London, as does ... the list goes on. At least two people give up their lives in the final battle with great fanfare and spectacle, and the audience collectively asks, "Uh who were they?!"

And don't get me started on Junkie XL's obnoxiously loud, way overdone music score for this film. Where was Howard Shore?! The music absolutely punishes you in this film, giving moments both big and small -- whether it's Tom retrieving a jacket or an entire city blowing up killing hundreds -- equal weight. Junkie XL works his percussion and horns sections here like Quintus Arrius works Charlton Heston and the other slave rowers in "Ben-Hur."

Maybe this should have been a limited TV series on Netflix or Amazon Prime or some other outlet. There is a LOT of material here based on the Philip Reeve series of novels. Too much for one film. I do admire its ambition, sense of scale, and appealing main cast. I wasn't bored. So, for that, I rate "Mortal Engines" a 5.5 out of 10 (T. Durgin)




Reviewed December 11, 2018 / Posted December 14, 2017


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