Film Review: Mortal Engines (NZ/USA, 2018) suffers from an ensemble cast who fail to elevate the stereotypical material above expectation

As much as Peter Jackson‘s name is plastered all over this, Mortal Engines is in fact NOT a Jackson joint. Yes, the Lord of the Rings helmer is the most likely reason this film was greenlit (he serves as both co-producer and co-writer) but long-time Jackson collaborator Christian Rivers, who served predominantly as a visual effects supervisor on the majority of Jackson’s filmography, is behind the camera here – on debut no less – so perhaps it’s time credit is paid where it’s due.

That gripe out of the way, Mortal Engines, as loud and as ambitious as it is, is not the start of another YA-aimed franchise – as much as it clearly hopes to be. Rivers showcases visual flare behind the lens, and the effects and scope of the film are where it is most successful, but special effects do not a good movie make, and Mortal Engines sadly suffers from an ensemble cast who fail to elevate the stereotypical material above expectation.

A Morgan Freeman-esque voice-over informs us at the front-end of the film that we are thousands of years in the future, and civilisation essentially wrecked themselves with a war that resulted in cities now being constructed as giant wheeled contraptions that roam a post-apocalyptic landscape searching for whatever resources are still lying around; apparently in this future cracked iPhones and brand-name toasters are seen as scrap gold.

The city that gets the most traction is London, now an oversized steam-powered roller that’s joined together with its own self-contained rail system and uneven streets. Due to the importance of history, and his own knowledge of it, the obviously-villainous Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) has soared through the ranks to become the city’s unofficial leader. Opposing our scene-chewing Valentine and his roaring city is the mysterious Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, sadly not possessing the type of charisma one needs to lead a film, let alone a franchise), a scarred and resentful orphan whose own backstory gives her all the reasons we expect as to why she’s so hellbent on taking Valentine down.

The story itself is far from being overtly original, and the majority of the cast all seem rather untested in the ways of a big budget epic (Weaving is at least having fun, and South Korean musician Jihae makes something of an impression as a well-tailored resistance leader, but Hilmar and “love interest” Robert Sheehan are too bland to sustain interest) but I imagine those ingredients will be overlooked, and therefore forgiven, for the film’s admittedly impressive visual structure. There’s a wealth of design on hand, and both Rivers and Jackson deserve their credit in painting a familiar landscape with a fresh brush.

Whilst I suspect younger audiences will perhaps lap up Mortal Engines, the majority of theatre goers are likely to view this with a sense of deja vu. A sprawling civilisation overseen by a tyrant roaming a wasteland whilst two opposites find love?  I guess “Mad Max’s Hunger Games of Star Wars” was too long a title!

TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mortal Engines hits cinemas across Australia today