Those attending the Mortal Engines panel at the Hulu Theater at New York’s Madison Square Garden were in for a huge treat on Friday afternoon. Before the cast and minds behind the upcoming December movie came out to talk to the audience, moderator Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, War of the Planet of the Apes) announced they’d be watching the first 30 minutes of the film. Don’t worry, this is spoiler-free.
Mortal Engines takes place in the far future where modern technology as we know it has been destroyed and morphed into a steampunk-like world, where giant, moving cities traverse through Europe looking for other cities to eat, in order to use the eaten city’s structures to power their gigantic machines to continue the hunt.
The story and world–based on the novel of the same name by Philip Reeve–is bonkers, to say the least. The viewer is thrusted into this very different universe where the rules of our world barely apply. It’s doesn’t have an exceptionally high concept, but at first glance, everything is pretty confusing. Luckily, the world, its rules, and just what happened to the Earth more than 500 years earlier are incredibly fascinating and something ultimately more interesting than the character’s stories. The digital effects looks good from what the audience saw. Nothing was muddled or hard to read on the big screen. When you see a giant city that eats other cities, the effects and design makes sense and comes off looking great.
Where the opening act of this movie shines is in the fact that it feels like you’re watching a classic fantasy/sci-fi adventure film from the ’80s. The mobile towns and cities and overall feeling of this world are reminiscent of something Terry Gilliam would have come up with, like Time Bandits or “The Crimson Permanent Assurance.” While Mortal Engines takes itself a bit more serious than Gilliam’s work, it does have that odd world-building sensibility where the viewer simply has to accept what’s happening with the hopes of things being explained later on. For some viewers, this may be a tad tough to swallow, but immersing yourself into this world sooner rather than later is a better way to go.
However, the most jarring part of the opening scenes isn’t the gigantic city of London travelling at what looks like to be 100 miles per hour, preparing to eat a small town, it’s jumping from that high action sequence to meet the cast of characters. We’re introduced to Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) who is the main antagonist of the film and seemingly in charge of London, trying to shape the world in his image. In the books, he’s the Head Historian. There is also his daughter, Katherine (Leila George), young historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), and the vengeful Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). There is a lot being tossed at the audience in the first half and hour through world-building, history of the world, and characters and their development. It’s borderline sensory-overload, but it’s still fun.
We’re still a few months off from Mortal Engines, as it won’t hit theaters until December 14. However, the movie looks promising, even if it doesn’t seem to have mass appeal, those much more apt to check out something with a heavy fantasy/sci-fi bend. It feels like watching something from your childhood, something with a great sense of adventure and wonderment, caked around a traditional “get the bad guy in power” story. Just make sure to prepare yourself for a concept that is a bit out there.