Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Mortal Engines

Here's another movie I pulled out of the cheapo DVD bin at Walmart. And that's despite the fact that it advertises a connection with the filmmakers behind the blown-way-out-of-proportion Hobbit trilogy, which started middling and went downhill. To be sure, the credits are plastered all over with the names of Peter Jackson, Phillippa Boyens and Fran Walsh; it even has Hugo Weaving in it, the only actor whose name I recognized in the end credits, and who just about takes the prize for "most unnecessarily expanded role in the LOTR cinematic universe." However, it's the feature film directing debut of some guy named Christian Rivers, who has toiled in the visual effects and art departments of many Peter Jackson films (including ones that didn't suck). And frankly, I'm impressed by his work and this movie overall.

Mortal Engines takes us to a dystopian world somewhere north of 1,000 years in our future, when mechanized cities roll about the landscape, devouring smaller communities and stripping the landscape of resources. Recently, London has managed to cross the land bridge(!) to continental Europe, and as the movie opens we find it gobbling up a German mining town and with it, a girl named Hester Shaw with a scarred face and a vendetta against the guy who killed her mother – Weaving as the leader of a top-secret project to tilt the balance of survival back in favor of London, as opposed to such walled fortresses as Shan Guo. Did I get that name right? Sorry if not. Anyway, to make a long story short, an enterprising lad named Tom chases Hester off the ship, but then Weaving's character, ironically named Valentine, gives Tom a push after her and the pair team up (reluctantly, on her part) to survive.

Survival is tricky, with an undead cyborg on Hester's trail, sworn to kill her (his ultimate fate proving poignant in a Blade Runner-ish way), gangs roaming the landscape scrobbling people to sell as slaves (or, if they won't fetch a high enough price, as sausage meat), and an "anti-tractionist" terrorist cell recruiting people like Hester to help them fight the power. Tom and Hester fall in love, which is lovely, and he proves to be more useful than one would have guessed to look at him at the start, and the race to stop London from destroying Shan Guo accelerates to a gigantic climax involving sword fights, aerial combat, secret passages, crashes, explosions, and the deployment of a super-weapon.

So, all in all, it's just about the most satisfying movie I've seen in a wee bit. I really enjoyed falling into this fantasy world, and I found the cast of characters attractive and fun to watch despite not being very familiar. I realize now that Ronan Raftery, who plays a guy named Bevis, was in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; hero guy Robert Sheehan is a star of the superhero series The Umbrella Academy, which I suddenly want to see; Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar, playing Hester, is definitely a force to watch; that you might (though I wouldn't) know Leila George (Valentine's daughter) from the TV show Animal Kingdom; that Patrick Malahide (the Lord Mayor of London) played Chief Inspector Alleyn in Alleyn Mysteries back in the 90s; that Stephen Lang (Shrike) was in Avatar, which I still refuse to see; that Colin Salmon, playing the museum director, was Gen. Zod in the series Krypton; that Frankie Adams (a member of the anti-tractionist cell) is a regular on The Expanse (another show I still haven't seen); that Kee Chan, playing the Shan Guo governor, was in the last Star Wars movie I ever saw or intend to see (Episode III); that Jihae, who plays the badass Anna Fang, starred in a TV series about colonizing Mars; and that the cast also includes the author of the source material, Philip Reeve.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Shrike, the undead cyborg I mentioned, finally catches up with Hester and realizes, as she begs for Tom's life, that she loves him. (2) Chaos at the slave market when Anna Fang pops up out of nowhere to give Hester and Tom a chance to run. (3) The whole climactic build-up, with the aerial battle, armed and unarmed combat, stuff blowing up and the fate of two cities literally in collision. Truly, a surprisingly good film in the epic register from the writing team that brought us waaaay too much Hobbit and whose Lord of the Rings and King Kong movies have lost a bit of their original savoriness amid the passing years. I think this may be one of those movies that starts out underappreciated and grows in popularity, like The Fifth Element, only without an obnoxious character like Ruby Rhodd. Expect it to be mentioned as a cult favorite in future years. It deserves that.

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