Mortal Engines (2018). Stunning visuals and performances in this Brexit-based fantasy

image film mortal engines london

Film review, by Jason Day, of Mortal Engines, the futuristic action adventure about warring, mobile city states. Starring Hera Hilmer and Hugo Weaving, co-written by Peter Jackson.

star rating 3 out of 5 worth watching



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Set a thousand years from today after a global cataclysm has rendered the Earth virtually uninhabitable, killing the majority of humans.

Survivors from western states have grouped themselves into mighty city states, mobilised on enormous engines, scouring the world for resources and gobbling up smaller cities or towns for valuable energy and other resources. One of the biggest, most well armed and terrifying is London, previously restricted to raids across Britain, but now working its through a desolated Europe.

Hester (Hera Hilmer) is desperate to get on-board London and avenge herself against the benevolent Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) a noted statesman recognised for the good he has done for London and his kindly treatment of the people his city ‘ingests’.

She fails and is thrown out along with Valentine’s admirer Tom (Robert Sheehan). The two dislike each other but must work together as Tom grudgingly realises his hero is not all he seems and London must be stopped before it destroys what they both previously thought was a mythical outpost community.

Review, by @Reelreviewerimage poster mortal engines

Anyone who works with me during my daytime hours as a Press Officer and has listened to my ‘while the kettle boils’ rants about cinema, will know that I am tired of films that slag off England/Britain/the UK.

You might know the type I mean: the villain tends to be English, played by a British actor, English/British/UK characters are generally bumbling/dithering, snobbish, duplicitous, sexually deviant – sometimes, all of the above.

Perhaps you are an American reading this and think: “Goddamned biased Limey!” Well, you are entitled to say what you feel, as am I – funk off, you Yanky Doodle Dandy! lol

I continue with the review…

I could list a raft of examples of such films, the most egregious being Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), wildly historically inaccurate but, keyed in to the Scottish Independence movement and referendum, portrayed the English as rapacious, genocidal maniacs or fashion-obsessed, closet homosexuals.

image film mortal engines london city

London Pride. The city is on the move…and the body politic is hungry. Mortal Engines (2018). Image: Universal.

But don’t get me started on Braveheart – I’ll never stop!

Since another massive referendum, Britain exiting the European Union (‘Brexit’) film scripts have become increasingly peppered with nods toward it and Britain’s decision to leave the EU – obviously not all positive.

Some of these references are oblique (is Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, a Tory politician going it alone for the greater good, a la Theresa May?) or perhaps slight, comical digs at alleged English racism, xenophobia, imperiousness or general cold fish-redness (in King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, King Arthur leads a conference with Vikings, appealing for friends rather than enemies).

image film mortal engines hugo weaving

“Just a small, Bavarian town…” Thaddeus (Hugo Weaving) prepares to mop-up the remnants of Europe in Mortal Engines (2018). Image: Universal.

Based on the book by Philip Reeve, this epic fantastical adventure comes across at times like a trundling pile of hysterical anglophobic soundbites.

Most of them come from the wrinkled mouth of the Lord Mayor of London played with lip-smacking, panto-evil by Patrick Malahide (English-born actor…from Irish parents), who excels here at delivering plummy, obvious lines of dialogue. Ahem:

  • “We’ve left the safety of England…to feed upon the scraps of Europe”
  • “Prepare to ingest!” as Londons mortal engine opens to gobble up a small Bavaria town. Talk about the Body Politic – this one is famished!
  • “We should never have gone into Europe…it’s the biggest mistake we ever made” Well, perhaps Boris Johnson would say this, but maybe not May. Definitely not Edward Heath!

That last line elicited giggles amongst the audience of the screening I attended – fairly busy for 11am on a Sunday morning so at least the anti-English filmmakers can expect some brisk box office.

Can the Brexit references in a movie be more unsubtle and brain-poundiogly obvious than in Mortal Engines?

Is this what the UK has to suffer at the hands of international and critical domestic cinema from now until…forever?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion and to tell their own story, but this one-sided hyper criticism of the UK is not only misrepresentative (a sizeable minority or people voted to remain in the EU…or abstained completely) but reduces a monumental political decision to the short-hand dreaded of screenwriters.

I fully appreciate Mortal Engines (and other films with anti-English/Brexit references) is not a political film. It is a sci-fi fantasy blockbuster whose aim is to thrill audiences.

Largely on this score it succeeds.

But this trend to taunt and bait the English by portraying them as evil, monopolistic crusaders is, in my opinion, a deliberate ploy of movie writers and producers to get extra bums on seats in the wake of Brexit.

It’s box-office fuelled shit-stirring.

Taking a swift aside from my ‘while the kettle boils’ ranty-panty, I do want to say a few things about Mortal Engines that actually impressed me, as the movie has geniunely enjoyable parts to its machinery.

image film mortal engines hera hilmer

Some scars never heal. Hera Hilmer as Hester Shaw in Mortal Engines (2018). Image: Universal.

Firstly, the acting is certifiably good, across the board. It takes a lot for actors to appear believable when the critic watching you is dead against the movie you star in.

I loved Hera Hilmer in the lead role; what an incredible, determined force of nature she is. Easily essaying a performance as a troubled, orphaned girl who grows into a murderous young woman, then a committed democrat who even manages to fall in love (probably the worse side of Hester).

Even more beautiful is her leading man, Robert Sheehan as the initially prissy archaeologist Tom Natsworthy whose hidden heroism comes to the fore when he is pushed off the mighty tube train of London.

image film mortal engines robert sheehan tom natsworthy

“London is…my home.” Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy in Mortal Engines (2018). image: Universal.

Better still are the support stars. Power-crazed Weaving (always such good value in big budget movies with his tellingly, subtle shaded turns).

Best of all is Korean-born rock star Jihae, stylish and smart as Anna Fang, a notorious, hard-nut terrorist.

With actors of this thrilling calibre, Mortal Engines just about keeps you onboard to enjoy the tremendous, storming, high-rise special effects.

For more, see the official website.

Cast & credits

Director: Christian Rivers. 2hrs 8mins/128mins (12a).

Media Rights Capital/Scholastic Productions/Silvertongue Films/Universal/WingNut Productions.

Producers: Deborah Forte, Peter Jackson, Amanda Walker, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner.
Writers: Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh.
Camera: Simon Raby.
Music: Junkie XL.
Sets: Dan Hennah.

Hera Hilmer, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Andrew Lees, Ronan Raftery, Frankie Adams, Stephen Lang, Colin Salmon, Caren Pistorius.

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