Mortal Engines: Peter Jackson’s Sci-Fi Project Is Ambitious, But Lacks Rigor [critique]

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Mortal Engines
Universal

The Lord of the Rings director co-wrote and produced this adaptation of Philip Reeve’s steampunk universe.

First unencrypted broadcast for Mortal Engines, tonight on TMC, a few days after it went live on Netflix. A sci-fi film that does not lack ambition, as we wrote when it was released in December 2018. Note that its co-writer and producer Peter Jackson has since released a must-see three-part documentary about The Beatles, Get Back, broadcast on Disney Plus.

Mortal Engines was born out of the long friendship between Peter Jackson and Christian Rivers

At a time when comic book adaptations, sequels and remakes are multiplying in Hollywood, Mortal Engines foreshadowed a bit of freshness, with its history of megalopolises rolling across the Earth to devour smaller towns, its steampunk design and its cast full of young, little-known actors. Part of the promise has been kept: this adaptation of a teenage novel by Philip Reeve written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (the team behind The Lord of the Rings) and directed by Christian Rivers (special effects specialist who trained with Jackson) does not lack ambition.

Aesthetically, Mortal Engines is very successful. We immediately understand why Peter Jackson bet on Rivers, responsible for designing the storyboards and multiple visual effects of his previous films, Braindead to Hobbit Passing by Ghosts vs. Ghosts Where King Kong. The opening scene is breathtaking: the monster city of London, with powerful motors and wheels the size of buildings, pursues a Bavarian village. The mad race of the two machines, launched at full speed in the middle of a devastated land, evokes the fight of David against Goliath, the ogre led by the authoritarian Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) being so powerful that we are immediately attaches to its victim, a small city made of odds and ends that one would dream of seeing escape. The camera spins from one to the other, changes scale to also give an overview of the inhabitants of the cities in question and immediately puts in the mood: the mechanical universe, made of sheet metal and recovered objects here and there, has largely been built in hard. The team got a substantial budget (around $ 100 million) to design all of this and it shows: aesthetically, the result is definitely worth a look.

The other challenge for Jackson and his teammates is to have bet on a cast of unknown actors. The most famous of them is therefore Hugo Weaving, already in The Lord of the Rings, which brings charisma and righteousness to a rather ambiguous character. Then they brought in Stephen Lang (the villain ofAvatar) for an absolutely unrecognizable role: he plays Shrike in performance capture, a key character in the plot whose story we will not reveal here to keep the surprise. The young Tom, who finds himself in spite of himself to oppose Valentine with the heroine Hester Shaw, is played by the Irishman Robert Sheehan, seen in particular in the series Misfits, and finally the young girl who carries the film is a quasi-unknown: Hera Hilmar is an Icelandic of almost 30 years, seen in supporting role in Anna karenina and Two Birds. As for Anna, a fearless pilot whose head is up for grabs, she is played by Korean musician Jihae, more famous for her rock titles than for her film career (so far, we’ve mostly seen her in series March). This choice to mount such a blockbuster without a star, strictly speaking, is daring, and it pays off: it is indeed refreshing to follow these actors who are still little seen on the big screen.

What is fishing, however, is the plot, which struggles to captivate from start to finish as it quickly scrolls through a multitude of issues and characters. Better too much than not enough? Overall, the challenges of Mortal Engines are dark, treated seriously, and they open up to interesting political reflections (on Brexit, among others), but sometimes, it is rather wonky: for example it is difficult to understand why the people of London are so proud of ‘go fight. Admittedly, their mentor is shown as a charismatic being, but from there to follow him blindly to attend a conflict as if it were a spectacle… It is all the more disturbing that certain scenes of combat “shock “punctuate the plot by insisting well on the fact that the acts of each one can have real murderous consequences. Side emotion, only the course of Shriker is effective, the other sub-plots being too touched upon to really work. It is also a shame that several characters who were initially thought to be important are so quickly left by the side of the road, as the writers have so much to tell. Even the main duo are sometimes sacrificed to move the story forward! Finally, the multiple references to the 7th art are too strong: Terminator is mentioned several times, even in the music (signed Junkie XL, the composer of Mad Max Fury Road, it is sometimes deafening), and several scenes are directly inspired by Star Wars. In the end, by dint of resembling many other works, Mortal Engines gradually fades behind his models and leaves an impression of déjà vu. It remains that in the absence of an episode of Star wars at the end of the year, it should still satisfy fans of sci-fi and visual bravery.

Mortal Engines: behind the scenes of this stunning visuals film

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