A movie can blow things up spectacularly

Ewart Shaw reviews Mortal Engines


“…Othello: And O you mortal engines whose rude throats
Th’immortal Jove’s dread clamors counterfeit..”
— Othello, III.ii.352


Mortal Engines based on the book by Philip Reeve, produced by Peter Jackson, evidently flopped badly at the box office. A film with an excellent pedigree may end up losing squillions. I loved it. I want the DVD when it comes out. I want to watch it often.

While there was quite a bit of competition in the movie cinemas when it opened, I suspect that word got round that the film— intended as the start of a franchise following the seven books [the original quartet and the prequel trilogy] that Reeve has set in this world narrative — did nothing new, and did recycle better known work.

Let me say at the start that I much prefer live theatre. There are, however, times when only a movie can blow things up spectacularly. I’m also drawn to Steampunk as a genre. I look good in a frock coat. Cog wheels, steam pistons, the great railway engines of my childhood, fill me with awe.

I found Aquaman, bloated, indeed waterlogged;  Magical beasts 1, slightly padded and the sequel confusing. Mortal Engines told a direct, engaging narrative, clearly demonstarted/demonstrated and engaging. It looked fantastic

I’d not read the book, until Roman found me a copy in the YA section of Dymocks. It makes a convincing framework for the movie but the changes and developments that accrue around it are a great insight into the imaginations of the three screenwriters — Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson. They’ve troped and adapted and expanded, taking into account the things that movies can do, that I really like, including massive and magnificent sets, great costumes and spunky actors.

Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan — she Icelandic, he Irish — were nearly thirty when they took on the roles of the teen adventurers. Hera as Hester Shaw is also made far less disfigured on screen than Philip Reeve expected. Tom, the young hero, chases and catches the would be assassin. She is described as ‘hideous. A terrible scar ran down her face from forehead to jaw..her mouth was wrenched sideways in a permanent sneer, her nose was a smashed stump and her single eye stared at him out of the wreckage, as grey and chill as a winter sea’. There’s a scar, certainly, but she has a nice nose, and both eyes.

While these two are the emotional focus, there are two significant adult roles.

Hugo Weaving is Thaddeus Valentine, the villain of the piece, stylish and charming, murderous. He does it well. He’s a Historian, and his quest for crucial destructive technology, using archaeological digs, is a driving theme in the setup for the story. Korean popstar Jihae turns up as Anna Fang, aviatrix, whose role is expanded along the lines of — let’s be honest — Han Solo.

There are fights and flights, intricately imagined city scapes and escapes, blood and mud, cliches and stereotypes.

The writers know their genre. And there’s one scene where they make that quite clear. How self referential they become. It might be a meta moment. They interpolate into the final minutes a fight between Hester and and Valentine, and while there’s a hint in the book about Valentine’s closeness to Hester’s mother, they go for the StarWars moment — you realise what’s happening and go ‘they wouldn’t would they?’ — and pull out just in time. If you want to know what I’m referring to, get the DVD.

Many people, more au fait with the genre will have documented the many resemblances to the senior franchise, but heroic romances have been exploring the themes for centuries, and movies since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, have charted the fascination of science and technology in collaboration and conflict with human desire.

If I have a regret, it’s that they did follow Reeve on the fate of Bevis Pod, (Ronan Raftery). I’d watched him and Katherine Valentine (Leila George), get closer, and the book does make it clear that there is a growing attraction between them. ‘He was unexpectedly handsome with big dark eyes and a small perfect mouth’, but of course it cannot be and in the book they both die trying to sabotage the MEDUSA project. In the film, she survives.

The Jenny Haniver

The design team, headed by Dan Hennah must have jumped into the air cheering wildly when they were asked to bring the story to life. Their vision of London is spectacular, and while of course so much of the movie is CGI, one of the most engaging props is the Jenny Haniver, a flying machine described as ‘a shabby scarlet gasbag and a bunch of rusty engine pods bolted to a wooden gondola’. There’s a Youtube clip in which you meet Alex Falkner, the model maker and watch him carving, so elegantly, so carefully, the hull of the model. He describes it as the Millennium Falcon of the movie, reinforcing the Star Wars themes and memes that are a major thread of the narrative.

Ewart Shaw, broadcaster, producer, steampunk fan & theatre critic was MC of the 2009 Adelaide Natcon, conjecture

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