Saturday, 8 December 2018

Mortal Engines (2018) - Movie Review don’t get movies like this anymore. Yes, it’s a large-scale piece of sci-fi action adventure cinema, a familiar form of popcorn fodder, but I’m talking more about the aesthetic. This kind of globe-spanning steampunk is a genuine rarity nowadays. And in the hands of Peter Jackson, giving his frequent collaborator Christian Rivers a thunderous directorial debut, his finesse in the realm of computer effects gives this film an absolutely fantastic visage.

Showing a world where cities have become gargantuan machines, roaming the scorched earth in hopes of materials to maintain their own existence (referred to in-universe as 'Municipal Darwinism'), the level of scale and detail here is staggering. Watching the colossal city of London chug along what was once the world we know is a disquieting experience… and not just because of the destruction in its wake.

With a cursory glance at Great Britain’s colonial history, not to mention its more recent descents into isolated nationalism in the wake of Brexit, it’s difficult to argue with why this particular story has been brought to the big screen at this very moment. And in Hugo Weaving’s Thaddeus Valentine, we see a crystallisation of Britannia. An insistence that coexistence between the mobile and stationary cities is an impossibility (because conservatives love the idea that alliance is impossible), a bloodthirsty drive for conquest against all that stand in the city’s way, right down to consuming lesser cities for resources, and a willingness to wield the weapons that decimated humanity’s past in hope of securing his future.

Learning from history is a major theme in this film, and it can vary wildly from the profound to the outright goofy. While it maintains a certain Fallout-esque approach to sci-fi society assessing older technology, the quip about how 'the age of screens' reduced humanity to being unable to write anything down, in particular the Sixty-Minute War that scorched the earth in the first place, is a tad patronising. Then again, when they also include a revival of the ‘Twinkies survive the apocalypse’ gag, it can be difficult to discern if it’s just good-natured ribbing or being genuinely cautionary.

Because if nothing else, and unlike a fair amount of Jackson’s more recent material, The Hobbit included, this is a film that demands to be taken seriously. Or, to be more accurate, it demands that the audience pays attention to what is happening. In addition to its detailing of historical exchange through technology and ties to modern world politique, it also takes time out to look at the people who allow these engines to keep running. The people who stand on the balcony and cheer as London eviscerates its foes, seeing their nation’s aggression as nothing more than triumph. As necessity. As simple self-preservation by any means necessary. It’s a predatory attitude to have on a global scale, and when the people become comfortable with that being the way things work, they allow the atrocious to take place.

While personal character arcs involving vengeance, naiveté, revolution and zombie bounty hunters fill out the blanks in the film’s run time, the story’s ambitions prove far greater than just the sum of its parts. It’s the kind of speculative fiction that embodies the first word in that phrase, speculating on where this insistence on exclusionary tactics and food chain politics could lead the world, pointing its finger squarely at the most likely suspect for the future.

Honestly, taking Jackson’s entire filmography into account, this level of social critique is a remarkable addition to his legacy, and a testament to why he wanted to adapt this story to begin with. Knowing how British history has affected his own, as shown earlier in the year with They Shall Not Grow Old, it makes sense that he would go after the source material in this incendiary a fashion. And between the breathtaking visuals, the solid acting talent on display, and the writing that gives a sprawling view of where the world is heading, it feels like something that needs to be learnt from. We don’t want to realise that our own engines are indeed mortal when it’s already too late.

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