The immediate extinction of the human race is always an option. The last reminder of that occurred just 23 years ago, in 1995, when Norwegian scientists investigating the Northern Lights launched a missile carrying scientific equipment that put Russian nuclear forces on high alert. The Russians detected an object whose high northbound trajectory would slam it into Moscow. The old Cold War protocol was activated: The suitcase with the red button was brought to the president of Russia. For long minutes, the possibility of setting off a nuclear war was in the hands of Boris Yeltsin. That’s a historic fact worth pausing over: The fate of mankind lay, at least for a moment, with Boris Yeltsin.
That story is the stuff of which real nightmares are made, but also a terrific point of departure for a science-fiction film. “Mortal Engines,” currently being screened around Israel, has a similar underlying premise. The backstory is the so-called Sixty-Minute War that took place in the 21st century, when the countries of the world annihilated one another, killed off most of humanity and destroyed the natural conditions that make human life possible. The plot is set about 1,000 years later, following a global technological, economic and political restart. The new world consists of independent city-states like classical Greece, but with a twist: The cities move. They are predators that have adapted to a world devoid of resources with the aid of treads that render them mobile like a gigantic tank. At the start of the movie we encounter mobile London in hot pursuit of a small German community with the aim of consuming it like a kind of fuel. This is a phenomenon known as “municipal Darwinism.”
London, with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the forefront, cruising through rural Bavaria, is a sight to behold. This is Christian River’s first directorial effort, but his long experience as a special-effects developer for Peter Jackson has prepared him well to create a world replete with movable parts. “Mortal Engines” draws its inspiration from steampunk, a sci-fi subgenre that mixes new and old. The Sixty Minute War was the formative event that eradicated most technologies and the bulk of civilization, hurtling the human race back to an era resembling the pre-industrial 19th century, but integrating new technological developments and archaeological discoveries of old technologies. In a world like this – Victorian and futuristic – a dogfight between a hyper-sophisticated plane and a hot-air balloon is routine fare. It’s a world in which brilliant engineers and inquisitive archaeologists are all potentially capable of discovering a game-changing technology.
“Mortal Engines,” like “The Hunger Games” before it, is based on a series of novels for teens about young people who are born into a post-apocalyptic world that is simultaneously appalling and gorgeous. The new film is a pet project of Peter Jackson, who acquired the rights in 2009, when he was between two trilogies: “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” It took some years before he got around to producing "Mortal Engines"; once more he chose New Zealand for the shoot and his regular crew. He also wrote the script with two regular collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. He entrusted the direction to his experienced special-effects associate, Christian Rivers, who won an Oscar for his work on Jackson’s “King Kong.”
After the opening chase, we meet our two protagonists: Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan, “Misfits”), a London resident who was born into the wrong class but enjoys a healthy obsession for 21st-century objects, and Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, “Da Vinci’s Demons”), a mysterious and scarred young woman who has snuck into the city to avenge the murder of her parents. Following her failed attempt to assassinate the head of the Guild of Historians, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving, “The Matrix”), Hester finds herself outside the city limits, alongside Tom. Because the whole city is in motion, it’s impossible to return to where they'd been. With a hostile environment that’s filled with people who are trying to survive, the plot becomes a journey among different types of locales, as the pair discover how to join forces against Valentine.
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These sorts of blockbusters depend wholly on special effects for their success, and Rivers invests most of his efforts to that end. He’s learned from Jackson and the Hobbits that to create a world you need not only deep pockets and New Zealand vistas but also a highly developed, almost childlike imagination and a dose of compassion. “Mortal Engines” passes the test with flying colors. Its world is magnificent and layered, fusing past and future, nature and technology, in a manner both spectacular and charming. The action is rich with images and with large numbers of moving parts in every frame – verbally and metaphorically – which energize the journey.
Even when the scene consists of a dialogue delivered in a room, Rivers reminds us that it’s not a static situation: The room is only a cell in a dazzling city-machine that’s constantly in motion. As such, the film offers a less violent version of “Mad Max 2.” The physical design of the city design is enhanced by the representation of the British class system, which is classically rigid. It’s still a democracy, but one that’s driven by a war for survival and thus peopled by bloodthirsty citizens. In the world of Peter Jackson, too, the occupation corrupts. The logic is that of a pleasure cruise: There are no unfortunates aboard, everyone is privileged, and the level of privilege is calculated by the distance from the window.
Rivers was only 17 when he was invited to prepare storyboards for Jackson’s “Dead Alive” (also known as “Braindead”). In the 26 years since, he’s worked closely with Jackson, mostly in the realm of special effects, and the veteran director has clearly exercised a substantial influence on his protégé. Rivers creates marvelously fascinating cities that fire the imagination. Not just London, but every city and town is an independent state, and Rivers clearly enjoys every moment as a creator of worlds. Each locale is constructed down to the last pixel and intersects with the plot as a place rich with its own cultural and technological history that brought it to this juncture in time. The encounter between cities, which is sometimes a physical collision between iron and stone behemoths, provides greater creative action than any Hollywood blockbuster this year.
The problem is that it’s not enough to fashion a spectacular world and direct riveting action scenes. It’s also necessary to develop what’s usually called a “story” and “characters.” I haven’t read the book on which the film is based, but it’s really immaterial whether the problem lies in the screen adaptation or in the direction. The film lacks heroes, a villain and a narrative engine. Characters come and go with no explanation or logic, leaving behind a fragmented, confused storyline. Tom is a nice, polite London boy, Hester is wild and learns good manners through him, and Valentine, the villain, acts like an English aristocrat. After the movie it’s possible to imagine all of them having a drink together in a pub and talking about the weather. The trio is not interesting either as individuals or through their interaction. That’s possibly the greatest sin an adventure movie can commit.
But apart from the non-story and the embarrassing dialogue, “Mortal Engines” looks great. It’s not a good adventure movie, and a comparison to “Star Wars” isn’t flattering, but it makes for great viewing. The bottom line is that Peter Jackson took a creative concept from a literary work, adapted it for the screen, wed it to an equally creative director with proven experience in creating worlds – and scattered a $100-million budget over the whole shebang. Aficionados of special effects and sci-fi will enjoy the wealth of images and will note that every dollar was put to good use. But even they, at a certain point, will stop gaping and being enthralled by the visual cornucopia, in the face of a story that instead of stirring the same sense of wonder, simply leaves you wondering.