Mortal Engines Looks Better Than You Might Expect

At NYCC’s Mortal Engines panel, moderator Andy Serkis made a big show of extending how much footage the audience would get to see. Eight minutes? Surely not enough. Seventeen? Twenty? A little more, actually: the sneak peek was of the first 24 minutes of the film, a race across a deserted green-and-brown landscape, in which a small traction city makes a desperate bid to escape the metallic gaping maw of, well … London.

And it was … pretty cool?

If I sound skeptical, it’s because the early trailer for Mortal Engines was less than impressive; it looked choppy, stiff, a little Generic Action Fantasy. Peter Jackson is a writer and producer on the film, and the trailer made it look like the work of the man who made too many Hobbit movies. (Christian Rivers makes his directorial debut with this movie; Jackson wrote the screenplay with his frequent writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.)

I love the Phillip Reeve book on which the film is based, and I was bummed. The book is a vibrant coming-of-age tale set in a world of traction cities, mobile monsters created by what was left of humanity after the 60-Minute War destroyed most of civilization and messed up the earth to boot. It has one of those opening sentences that creates an immediate image:

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

On the big screen, the great traction city of London—impossibly large, full of parks and famous buildings and massive engineering—looms at ridiculous scale. After a drawn-out chase, a small Bavarian mining city is scooped up into London’s great metal mouth. Our heroine, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), comes aboard with everyone else in the smaller town, her face hidden, looking from the eyes up rather like an avenging Ginny Weasley. She has a purpose in London—a purpose nearly foiled by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), the absurdly cheery young historian who stumbles into Hester’s path when she makes her move: She’s there to kill Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving).

The opening scene has a lot to set up: Hester’s anger; Tom’s good nature; the existence of the cities themselves, and the backstory as to how the world got this way, which is tidily dealt with as Tom explains some of his dangerous old technology to Katharine Valentine (Leila George).

The city looms (really: it looms) in the background, its class differences apparent in the different tiers: On one level, a man scoops green algae-glop that makes Rey’s Force Awakens rations look delicious. On another, Katharine uses her Tier 1 badge to skip the line to the tram cars that take the place of London’s Underground (they’re like a Ferris wheel, or an overgrown ski lift). Screens display wanted signs for Anna Fang (Jihae), a rebel from the Anti-Traction League. Clearly not everyone is a fan of the mobile behemoths.

It wouldn’t be fair to draw direct comparisons between Mortal Engines and Harry Potter, but there’s a vaguely post-apocalyptic Potter tone to what we saw of the film: It’s very British, yet sideways from what we know; it’s dangerous, but also immersive and strange and fun, and full of ordinary people who take their extraordinary existence for granted. The way the smaller city changes, folding and tucking parts of itself away to streamline itself for the chase, looks like engineering as magic—the work of people hundreds or thousands of years from now who’ve built a new sort of civilization out of necessity. (I wished the score would back off a little; it’s intrusively aggressive in an already inherently tense sequence.)

You can see a lot from these opening scenes in the new trailer—all that running and leaping and nearly getting killed by spinny things—along with a lot more of the narrative’s backstory. This trailer still makes the movie looked like an overstuffed CGI mess, but at least those 24 minutes gave me hope.

Molly Templeton will give basically any SFF novel adaptation a try. Tell her what you thought on Twitter!

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