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Mortal Engines

"Wondrous Kiwi-shot fantasy offers pace and style"

★★★★ - STUFF

- First, the gripes. Please can we stop calling Mortal Engines a Peter Jackson film?

Sir Pete was one of three scriptwriters, along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. And yes, without his influence it is possible this film would not exist.

But Mortal Engines is not a Peter Jackson movie. It was directed – on debut – by Christian Rivers. And Rivers brings a style and tone to this film that is often quite different to what I imagine Jackson might have. So from now on, let's please start to give Rivers the credit he deserves. Mortal Engines is his vision. And a pretty bloody good one it is too.

As the opening voiceover kindly explains – in a voice of such bass-heavy profundity it makes Morgan Freeman sound like a 12-year-old in the front row of a Justin Bieber concert – we are 1000 years in the future.

Back in the mists of time, "the ancients" (that's you and me bub) wrecked the world with a "60-minute war". And now humanity mostly lives in giant wheeled cities, traversing the post-apocalyptic landscape in search of whatever resources are still lying around.

The most king-hell of these cities is London; a vast sprawl of clanking, steam-powered mechanicals and archaeological ruins, joined together by a jumbled mess of giddy walkways and eerily suspended cobbled streets. London is home to thousands of people, stuck in a rigid and cruel social hierarchy, thundering across the deserts of Europe on tracks that obliterate everything in their path.

London is ruled by despots – naturally – the most despotic of whom is Thaddeus Valentine (played with lip-curling gusto by Hugo Weaving). Ostensibly Valentine is merely the Head Historian, but in an age in which what people know of history will also dictate how much they will let their leaders get away with, Valentine's position makes him the most powerful man in the city.

Opposing Valentine and his roving city are Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) – a scarred and embittered orphan with her own reasons to want Valentine dead – and Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) a plucky young man who finds himself on the wrong side of Valentine when he overhears something he shouldn't.

Mortal Engines hits the screen running and never really lets up the pace. There is nothing inflated or self-important here, just a commitment to tell the story with enough visual and sonic inventiveness to keep us watching and listening. 

There is also a wealth of design and detail on screen that needs to be acknowledged. Spectacular digital effects are the least we expect from a sci-fi blockbuster today. But Rivers and his crew have found spectacle in the tiniest of moments. Every set and costume in this film, down to the last button, bookshelf, coin-purse and dagger, is a beautiful thing to behold.

Philip Reeve's novel was written with the 9-to-11-year-old market in mind, so we're not going to bother calling out the various story arcs running through Mortal Engines for being a just a little too predictable. If you find your attention wavering, just have a look at the 11-year-old sitting next to you. I'm pretty sure they'll be entranced.

And Rivers does a deft job of juggling the global conflict in Mortal Engines with the personal and the human. There is one storyline in the film that the trailer doesn't hint at, so I won't spoil it here. But if you're anything like me, you'll find it delivers the most affecting and moving moments of the entire film.

Mortal Engines plays like Star Wars – with London as the Death Star and Valentine as Vader – filtered through Mad Max, plus a cameo from another absolute sci-fi classic, shot with a salvage-punk aesthetic and re-assembled by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children

It might not do anything narratively you won't see coming, but it does it all with such pace, style and commitment to making every frame a thing of wonder, I couldn't help but admire and respect it.

Go see for yourself.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

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