Have you ever walked into a room and felt that everyone really doesn’t want you there? If London was a person and they were watching this film, they would feel terrible right now. Directed by Christian Rivers and cleverly marketed to only showboat Peter Jackson’s name who is on co-screenwriting and co-producing duties, the latest adaptation of a YA series of post-apocalyptic set books thunders onto the big screen this week. The film/story make tick many of the usual boxes, it stands out from previous would-be franchises and not only for its blatant digs at the present situation the Brits find themselves in now.
After a nuclear war destroyed most of the planet, humans built a new society, some rebuilt homes and cities, other built gigantic machines that roamed the wasteland that was once Earth. One of the largest moving cities is London, home to historian apprentice Tom Natsworthy who ends up in the middle of an assassination attempt of Thaddeus Valentine, one of the most important people in London. He and the assassin, Hester Shaw end up thrown out in the wastelands and have to team up if they want to survive.
Having taken on the immense task of faithfully and fantastically adapting The Lord of the Rings, the dream team of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were able to take the steampunk science fiction energy of Philip Reeve’s book and bring it to life. The history and science are carefully laid out, even though the clapping Londoners of the higher tiers do look very similar to the residents of The Hunger Games capitol, coincidence, I hope. The world that Reeve has created is easily cinematic that the look and feel of the machines and characters are actually quite thrilling to watch, at least in the first half of the film. With an almost breath-taking opening sequence proceeded by a rasping narration giving context to what we are about to see, a chase, more like a hunt, of a small-town machine being snatched up by the predator city that is London sets you up for the film and ready for the thrills to continue. Characters, important to the book are introduced then pushed aside, understandably as there isn’t time for everyone. A couple of key characters are short changed in their role which would only be noticed by fans of the book, making room for the villain of the piece, Thaddeus Valentine, an ‘evil’ genius engineer with a purple glowing secret being built in the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral. A conspiracy is laid out and the players slide into place with the arrival of Hester Shaw who tries to kill Valentine but ends up in the wastelands with Tom.
With a story with many details and various plots, some parts seem odd in their inclusion. The terminator like Shrike who rescued Hester when she was a girl but now seems intent on hunting her down is intimidating but often an annoying presence that could have been left out or saved for another story. With a rebellion, conspiracy and revenge being the main focus and only a short bit on obvious cannibalism, which I think is the most terrifying part of the whole film, the story shift entirely to war after the discovery of old tech. War between the hungry mechanical cities of the West and settlers of the ‘peaceful’ East becomes the climatic and anti-climatic second part of the film. With overblown emotions and an exaggerated sense of purpose, the aviators of that represent everything that is good (plus pleasing diverse casting, but still lacking of lines) act as if London is the be all and end all of evil, not realising that most of the people of London literally have no control over what happens. It’s a strange series of events that leads to the most bizarre, with variation of predictable realisations, death and near destruction that shows humans never learn from their mistakes.
With a few jokes about our current situation, being dubbed the Screen Age because of all our devices and dangerous tech, a joke about Brexit hammers home the would be after affects of when we do leave the EU. This sense of dread may only hit home to us Brits but as the film is show worldwide, you can’t help but think that the hate for London isn’t an actual mirror for reality. This may be me reading too far into a science fiction action thriller but if you feel it too while watching the film, there may be something in that.
With obvious changes from book to screen, the casting of Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy was sheer perfection. Excelling in the likeable hero who actually knows what he’s talking about, you really hope that he survives to the end. Paired with Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar, the scared inside and out assassin, the two leads aren’t big names that distract from the story. Aside from the American accent (which wasn’t needed) the two make a fine adventuring pair.
You can always tell if a franchise will succeed or fail, whether they make big changes from the book or, here’s the big one, change the ending. Book fans, you’re in for a surprise and not a good one. In fact, quite a few details are changed from the ending which is a huge shame as the real ending not only ends one story (remember, there are 4 books) but also leaves it open to future possibilities. The film just bungles the ending in a way that seems they’d forgotten the filmmakers had to end it. Which such promise and thrill at the start, the film caves under its own weight. Hoping that the filmmakers would go bold or go home on this, they’ve gone, nowhere. But never say never as there may yet be another film on steampunk horizon. For those who aren’t willing to leave it up to the cinema gods, you can always read ahead.
Dir: Christian Rivers
Prd: Zane Weiner, Amanda Walker, Deborah Forte, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Scr: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Based on: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang
DoP: Simon Raby
Music: Junkie XL
Country: USA, New Zealand
Running time: 128 minutes