November 11, 2019

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Dystopian tale gets by on oddball charm

Film features young adults fighting for survival in post-apocalyptic future, again

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/12/2018 (331 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/12/2018 (331 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If one must categorize, the movie Mortal Engines falls into the newly-minted genre — the post-apocalyptic-young-adult-adventure.

To its credit, it doesn’t really feel like a stab at that potentially lucrative market, where crummy movies such as Hunger Games can pay off big dividends. Produced and written by the Lord of the Rings trio of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, it layers a certain loopy majesty on a premise that is, well, pretty strange.

Roughly 1,000 years into the future, the world is a realm of fugitives and scavengers, save for the residents of "predator cities," roving metropolises on giant caterpillar tracks capable of swallowing whole the small towns foraging in its path. (Think Mad Max attempting to speed away from an ambulatory Brisbane and you get the idea.)

In the opening sequence, the city of London, commanded by Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), descends on and "ingests" a mining town, ripping apart the structure for fuel and presumably enslaving its citizens. (Restraint points to director Christian Rivers for bucking any urge to set the whole sequence to The Clash’s London Calling.) One young woman in the town, scar-faced Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), uses the occasion to make an attempt on the life of Valentine, but is stopped from her mission by ambitious archeologist Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), who hopes to be mentored by the powerful London kingpin.

The post-apocalyptic young adult fantasy flick Mortal Engines rolls into and out of one's consciousness like "traction cities" that roam its landscape. (Universal Pictures)</p>

The post-apocalyptic young adult fantasy flick Mortal Engines rolls into and out of one's consciousness like "traction cities" that roam its landscape. (Universal Pictures)

That doesn’t work out. Soon, both Hester and Tom are abandoned in the wasteland, and Valentine is seeking information on his mysterious attacker, a pursuit that leads to the barely human Shrike (Stephen Lang in a motion-capture performance), a battle cyborg "resurrected" from the body of a soldier ages earlier. Shrike is released from his prison to fulfil his stated mission: killing Hester.

That frees Valentine to pursue a mission of his own: employing the same technology that all but destroyed the world to take power for himself, much to the growing consternation of his daughter Katherine (Leila George).

Production-wise, the film is a cut above the Hunger Games ilk. While this is a first feature for Rivers, producer Jackson knows a thing or two about creating a strange new world from whole digital cloth, and the film is rife with vistas desolate and beautiful.

As antagonists go, Shrike is an especially impressive creation, suggesting what would happen if an Iron Giant-style robot opted for an operating system of pure malevolence.

For the lead roles, the film opted for comparative unknowns, a risky proposition, notwithstanding precedents along the lines of Star Wars. Hilmar brings a certain fury to the role, possibly driven by having to act out the cliché of the beautiful woman who believes herself to be hideous because of a facial scar. As Tom, Sheehan brings a dangerous amount of "academic twit" to the role, making for an unusual if not altogether likable hero.

The film is an adaptation of the first in a series of books by Philip Reeve, and given the critical drubbing the movie is getting — it’s currently 30 per cent at Rotten Tomatoes — it’s not likely any film sequels will be forthcoming.

But if making the movie was a gamble, seeing the movie is a risk worth taking on the strength of sheer oddball charm.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine and Patrick Malahide as Magnus Crome. (Universal Pictures)</p>

Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine and Patrick Malahide as Magnus Crome. (Universal Pictures)

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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