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Mortal Engines review – Peter Jackson’s brilliant, bombastic escapism breaks exciting new ground

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Verdict: Peter Jackson's adaptation of Philip Reeve's award-winning sci-fi YA uses recognisable and much loved motifs to introduce a new generation of cinemagoers to the power of Star Wars-like escapism.

Without watching a trailer, Mortal Engines is a bit hard to sell because the concept is ridiculous when you say it out loud. In the far future, after an apocalyptic nuclear war, resources are so scarce that the majority of the survivors put their cities on wheels and hunt smaller towns (also on wheels) for sustenance. Then again, Peter Jackson probably doesn’t have much difficulty in pitching batshit bonkers ideas to studios, given his CV.

What suspends the audience’s disbelief with the force of a SpaceX rocket is the sumptuous world-building, both visually and in Philip Reeve’s electric in-world vernacular: reverential talk of the “Great Predator-Cities”, “Traction-Towns”, “Air-Haven” (yes, a city in the sky), the “anti-tractionists of Shan Guo”, as well as unvisited, enticing-sounding locations like the “Ice-City of Archangel”, sucks you right into the ridiculous world of Mortal Engines. Every place, organisation, or person wistfully spoken of feels like it deserves Capital Letters, part of the fantasy mystique of the world-building.

Visually, the world is magnetic and exciting in its escapism, something it achieves through a heady mix of the recognisable and the alien, and every visit to a new location fosters a sense of wonder more effectively than the Star Wars films do. Everything in-world is a mash of aesthetics, all cannibalised, all recognisable as something else.

The sheer scale of everything is incredible, breath-taking. Everything not human is huge and loud, and the “mortal” aspect of the Mortal Engines is truly felt the first time London stampedes into view. There’s a mechanical filthiness about the film – a primal sense of the sputtering, belching, fossil-fuel-guzzling, Earth-wrecking internal combustion engine which hopefully future generations won’t recognise as viscerally as a modern audience does. There's a despair at ecological catastrophy lurking around this film which makes the audience painfully aware of the filthiness of our modern era. Some of the effects of the warfare later in the film are truly boneshaking – there were several audible gasps in the audience when the MEDUSA weapon went off.

On the other hand of excellent earnest world-building, Mortal Engines is intentionally aware of its own silliness, as with the ‘American Deities’ in the History Museum (no points for guessing what they may be statues of) and the chortle-inducing pay-off on the killswitch marked U.S.A. Yes, the film’s a bit silly, and the characters can be a bit dim, but they’re dim in a way that makes them always accessible to the audience’s understanding. Surrender to that silliness and you’re in for a great time.

That great time is fairly well curated and the pace is impeccably clipped. It’s hard not to notice, for example, in a time so worshipful of studio credits, that nuclear bombs pockmark the Universal logo and the starting expository narration begins before the studio credits have finished. Perhaps it’s appropriate that for a film about mechanical filth it’s so very well polished.

One thing which does bog the pacing down is the climax, as it’s hard to square the ballooning epic scale with the sometimes-touching-sometimes-saccharine interpersonal story at the heart of this kids’ book. There’s a twist here you’ll see coming if you’ve been paying attention to film in the last 50 years. There is however a suggestion it may be self-aware as it’s delivered entirely straight while almost directly quoting the first half of the line you know and letting you say the rest in your head. To avoid spoilers, imagine if Hugo Weaving were to say, I don’t know, “Frankly my dear,” with a bit of a coy glint in his eye.

And here we get to the unfair criticism the film has attracted, being misdiagnosed by cynical dinosaurs as “merely derivative”. However, much like the film’s aesthetics, the plot is one of inventive reinterpretation: the film is derivative, but it uses recognisable snatches of cinematic language to tell a new story in a compelling way. Even Shakespeare was derivative of someone, people.

“Derivative” misses the point on a surface and a deeper level. On the surface, derivative elements hold up an excitingly new escapist adventure. If Star Wars is more of a science-fantasy than a hard science-fiction, Mortal Engines is a techno-fantasy, in the sense that mechanical technology is less removed from our everyday lives than space-age science is. If it’s a Star Wars clone, it’s at least better at delivering on what Star Wars aims to deliver than any of the recent reboots (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, Solo), whilst being much closer to home – it’s the far future, but it’s still recognisably our Earth, with a cosmopolitan mix of anglo-accents, British, American, NZ, which points, excitingly or troublingly, towards a real future.

On a deeper level they package an incisive anticapitalist critique in an understandable cinematic language. In our future hell-scape we have consumption leading to scarcity, scarcity leading to conflict, conflict leading to exploitation and power imbalance, in which conservative consumerism decays semi-organically into fascism with the slightest flinch. Tiered London has class politics built into its very structure, meanwhile it doesn’t feel accidental that the Antitractionists are much more racially diverse than their tormentors from London – causes and consequences of power intersect with surprising subtle in this YA adventure.

As for characters, the representation of women is left a little lacking sometimes, as there are times when female characters are unnecessarily lead or guided by an equally in/experienced man, which are a hang-on from the original book. Shrike, the undead monster from the book is brilliantly-realised Frankensteinian horror, and despite the uncanny aspect of the survivor of the Lazarus Brigade (another of Reeve’s capital letters), there’s a surprising human twist, with mature explorations of gender roles.

Mortal Engines is in cinemas now.

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