Posts Tagged ‘Robert Sheehan’

As I believe I have said, it feels like we’re having an embarrassment of riches when it comes to big studio movies at the moment – for the past three years, the other studios have clearly been running scared of the power of Disney’s fully armed and operational stellar conflict franchise, but with them having opted to take a break this December, everyone else seems to be crashing in – there’s a DC superhero movie, a Transformers movie, a sequel to a well-loved family favourite, various animated films for tinier audiences, and so on. Joining a crowded marketplace is Mortal Engines, not directed by Peter Jackson even though his name is all over the publicity. This film has nothing to do with Stanislaw Lem, by the way, but it’s an adaptation of a well-regarded YA novel by Philip Reeve.

I have to say the initial omens do not seem to be great for Mortal Engines, if only because this is a lavish fantasy film with a budget somewhere north of $100 million, and it’s ended up showing only twice a day in a very small auditorium in Oxford city centre’s most mainstream multiplex. I went to see it on the evening of the first day of release, and only eight people were there, including myself. These are not the kinds of numbers that bust blocks.

The film itself is a piece of big-budget steampunk actually directed by Christian Rivers, set many centuries after a brief but devastating war using quantum bombs toppled civilisation as we know it. In the aftermath, the various surviving towns and cities ‘mobilised’ themselves (according to the opening voice-over), which basically involved sticking caterpillar tracks, balloon tyres, and little scuttly legs under them. Now these ‘traction cities’ roam around all over the map, and a peculiar ecosystem of municipal Darwinism has evolved, with the larger cities acting as predators, hunting down, gobbling up and assimilating the smaller ones.

Much of the action is set in London, which is now a multi-tiered juggernaut topped by St Paul’s Cathedral, rumbling across mainland Europe devouring any civilised settlement in its path. Noteworthy citizens of the city include zealously visionary engineer Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), non-threatening young historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), and Valentine’s daughter Kate (Leila George – to be honest, this character is a bit less crucial than the others in plot terms, but I feel obliged to mention her simply because George is such a remarkably pretty young woman – yes, my shallowness runs deep). As the film opens, London is pursuing a small German mining town, aboard which is the mysterious Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a scarred young woman who is passionate and empathetic but also feisty and resourceful (so there’s a few more boxes ticked, if nothing else).

After a lengthy chase, the German town is dragged into the bowels of London to be disassembled and melted down, its population forced to join that of the larger city. Things take an unexpected turn when Hester, on coming face-to-face with Valentine, coldly tries to murder him: it seems she’s been trying to get onto London for months, for this sole purpose. When Tom stops her attempt at assassination, she lets slip a few facts about Valentine’s shady past before fleeing the city – and as Tom now knows too much, Valentine kicks him out as well. The duo, who initially hate each other in a way that only characters scheduled to end up together are capable of, are forced to wander the wasteland while Valentine proceeds with his evil plan (yes, of course he’s got an evil plan, as flagged up by some fairly clumsy exposition near the start of the film)…

The first thing I must say about Mortal Engines is that you are never in any doubt about exactly where all the money has gone: this is an extremely lavish-looking movie with some tremendous production designs and art direction. The only problem is that it often feels just a bit too obviously designed and directed – this is one of those movies that feels like it’s taking place in its own bubble world. Not that it’s necessarily completely original, of course – the idea of a city on wheels trundling inexorably across the landscape dates back at least to Christopher Priest’s brilliant 1974 novel Inverted World, while you could argue that the whole premise of this film owes something to that of James Blish’s Cities in Flight stories. Personally, I couldn’t help thinking of the Crimson Permanent Assurance from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – but then again, a lot of steampunk films get me thinking of Terry Gilliam and Brazil.

No disrespect to Christian Rivers, who oversees a big and complex film quite competently, but I couldn’t help thinking that Mortal Engines would have been a lot more interesting (not to mention better) if it had had someone like Terry Gilliam in charge of it. As I said, the film opens with a city pursuing a small town across the landscape, but the film seems to have no awareness of its own absurdity – it’s all played absolutely straight, with a kind of earnestness that will probably strike a chord with the teenage audience it seems to be aimed at, but which most of the rest of us will most likely find a bit wearisome. There’s obviously potential here for some kind of subtext about the nature of modern society and some low-key social satire, but it’s one that the film eschews almost entirely in favour of its tale of attractive young people on missions of great import.

The plot of the movie is very undistinguished, broadly speaking: for quite a long time it’s not really clear who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, what they all want, what the stakes are, and so on. When this does come into focus it turns out to be nothing particularly interesting or innovative – this is one of those films that feels like it was written in accordance with a spreadsheet or a tick-list. Here’s the strong-willed young heroine, here’s the love interest, here’s some exposition, here’s an unconvincing romance. Here comes someone from Asia in a significant supporting role (on this occasion it is the South Korean singer Jihae) so they can sell the film in that market, here comes a painstakingly diverse bunch of minor characters who it’s quite easy to dress up as, if that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat… the script hits all its marks (hardly ever with particular deftness), but it’s almost totally lacking in quirkiness, wit, or any kind of genuine humour. The most interesting part of the film concerns Hester’s back-story and relationship with a kind of clockwork zombie played by Stephen Lang – more of this would have been better, but as it is it just feels like an odd tangent the film briefly wanders off on.

In the end it resolves with a big action sequence and various scenes which anyone feeling the absence of a stellar conflict movie this Christmas will probably find quite reassuring. But even at this point, I was finding myself looking at my watch and wondering which bus home I was going to catch – Mortal Engines is a big, good-looking film, but as a narrative it just didn’t engage with me at all on any but the most superficial of levels. Great world-building, particularly aesthetically, but the actual story is a lot less interesting than I would have thought possible, given the premise of the movie. I think it will struggle to find an audience in a crowded marketplace.

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