The movie of Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve hit the cinemas today and me and the boy went to see it. We were pretty excited – we’ve known the book for years and years and the anticipation has been building for a while since we knew that the movie was on its way.
So what did we make of it? Headline is that we really enjoyed it. The following review presumes you know the novel of Mortal Engines but contains no spoilers for the film. This is a hard line to tread so apologies if I fall down either side. If you want a proper review you’ll find loads of those online – this one comes from the specific perspective of someone who loves the book and desperately doesn’t want the film to let it down while recognising that of course some changes have to be made in adapting a 200 page novel to a couple of hours of screen time.
Ok – starting over. Yes we enjoyed it very much. The movie is fast paced and a lot of the changes to the plot have been made to ‘clean up’ the plot so it zooms along. From the pre-credit sequence onward you now you’re in absolutely safe hands.
Philip Reeve is known for his world building. A big part of the excitement for this film has been wondering how the WETA team, who created the visual effects for ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ among other films, would match up to Philip Reeve’s imaginative world. The good news is that it looks just stunning and pretty much exactly as you’d hoped it would – or better maybe. The team, led by Peter Jackson’s right hand man Christian Rivers, were careful to ensure this isn’t a steam punk world – Steam Punk is a reimagined Victorian era while this is set in a post-apocalyptic world some thousands of years in the future. There’s lots of fun to be had looking at all the bespoke props and the great costuming but the real triumph is the locations; traction London, Airhaven, the Shield Wall and other locations familiar from the book are recreated in stunning detail and look just glorious on the screen.
The casting is just great. Robert Sheehan and Hera Hilmarsdottir play Tom and Hester. They are just a little older than the duo as we know them in the books but that really isn’t a problem. I understand that Philip Reeve originally wrote the pair as being in their late teens or early twenties and shifted them a few years younger at the suggestion of his editor at scholastic who thought the book would sell better at the top end of MG than at the bottom end of YA. I had been a little worried about the casting of Robert Sheehan as Tom – I wondered if he was a little too self aware but I was quite wrong – he really does a great job. The film Tom is maybe less dowdy than book Tom but I think you’d expect that in a movie. Yes it changes his character arc a little but it’s not problematic. Hera Hilmarsdottir is great too, maybe less harsh than her book counterpart but we’d expect that.
The biggest controversy around the film was Hester’s level of facial disfigurement. The book describes her as having only one eye, barely a stump of a nose, a livid scar crossing her face and so on. Early images from the film showed that this had been toned down to a great extent, she has two eyes, her nose is intact, the scar is there but it is not livid – she has a disfigurement I guess but she is very pretty indeed. Philip Reeve blogged on this, he said that to him it is not a big issue, for him the purpose of the scar is to make Hester see herself as ‘other’, that it was the effect on the character’s self image and motivation that was important rather than how other people see her that matters. He reckons that this lighter scar is still enough to impact on her self image. Obviously I’ll respect his view as the author but I do think the disfigurement is hugely important to how Tom responds to Hester in the early stages of the book and we track is changing relationship to her through the way his internal voice – through the narrator – sees her. His gaze is the primary view into the film and his vision of her does focus on the scar. My feeling on this is that a big budget movie which aims for global reach was never going to have a Hester as badly disfigured as the character is in the book. Hera Hilmersdottir does a good job of communicating some of the character’s feral harshness, she drinks muddy water from a puddle convincingly, and is lovely on screen but maybe I think an aspect of the book is lost in allowing her to be so attractive. Let me know what you think.
The other three big bits of casting are Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine, Jihae as Anna Fang and Stephen Lang (behind CGI prosthetics) as the Resurrected Man Shrike. All three of these are very well cast. Valentine is a different man from the character in the book in some ways but Weaving inhabits him with conviction and authority – fans won’t be disappointed. Jihae is just terrific, I cannot fault her in any way. Stephen Lang’s Shrike is not quite what I had in my imagination – he doesn’t match very accurately to the description in the book looking to my mind further toward the zombie end of the spectrum and not as close to the cyborg end. Lang’s performance, both the motion capture element and the voice, are extraordinary. I know Lang best from his work in Avatar – I’ll be looking out his other roles after this.
So, the look of the film is spot on. The casting is terrific. What else? The direction by Christian Rivers is super assured. Rivers directed parts of the Hobbit so is not a newcomer but not many directors can have been asked to take on a film of this scale and complexity as their first solo gig. It would have helped that he was working with a team that he knew and who knew him already but even so it’s a very strong debut.
The elephant in the room, and the one which to avoid spoilers I can’t explore in any detail, is the changes to the plot. Rivers and Jackson started with a lengthy novel and had to get it into a form that was not overlong on screen. Jackson got this badly wrong (in my opinion) in the third instalment of Lord of the Rings and must have been keen for this outing to come in on time! This obviously necessitated a few of the changes so theres a few scenes and sequences from the book that don’t make it on screen – That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Moving on from that it’s also reasonable to anyone who understands transition from page to screen that some sequences from the book end up happening in different locations and in a slightly different order to the book. The last quarter of the film goes a bit beyond that. No spoilers but the ending is not Philip Reeve’s ending. I don’t think this will or should surprise anyway. Why make these changes? Some of them make the film adhere a little more closely to the accepted structure of a family action adventure movie. There’s one particular sequence which seems to bump up the action to something which isn’t a million miles from an homage to the film which is the mummy and daddy to this sort of movie – very little to do with Reeve’s original but an edge of the seat rollercoaster ride and it would be a very curmudgeonly viewer who resented that. No doubt some will be disappointed by any variation from the source material but I’m quite happy to roll with it. If anything it makes me optimistic that we will get to see a sequel and maybe even a proper series. If we do I don’t think the next film can possibly be an adaptation of Predator’s Gold – the second book in the series – it will have to be something quite new.
In other ways the film did feel like Philip Reeve’s voice was intact. There’s a good gag with some American deities which one can imaging him shoehorning in to the book with a sidelong wink to the reader. Similarly the joke with the ‘Inkies’ feels like it might well have come from him, as does the sequence with the toaster. This may be because the film’s producer and director both share Reeve’s very British sense of humour or it may be properly due to respect for the stories origins in the books. Either way, it made this reader feel comfortable in the cinema.
I do think that some viewers who love the books may feel that the movie simply lacks some of the exploration of the book’s themes. We have to be just a tiny bit careful here – Mortal Engines was published as a children’s book and Philip Reeve distances himself quite carefully from earnest discussion of the books ‘message’ or ‘subtext’. He says that its just a story and that if readers find more in it then that is up to them. I personally don’t quite buy this. To me the stratification of society on board the Traction Cities feels very deliberately done and one can read the structure of those cities, and of Municipal Darwinism, to be in some ways a critique of the capitalist society. The sequence in the books where Katherine discovers the ‘Turd Tanks’ and Bevis Pod is hard to read any other way. That sequence is missing from the film as is her visit to the lower tiers where she gets a sense of the role of the proletariat within the traction system. Similarly the reduction in Hester’s scar, and the gentling of her character, mean she no longer repels the male gaze. it no longer allows us to dehumanise her – as we do in the books – in such a way that her half humanity matches Shrikes half humanity. The book is called ‘Mortal Engines’ and is, to me at least, partly a meditation on machines with souls and humans who lose their souls. I’m afraid these aspects of the book are almost entirely lacking in the film. There’s not much to be said about that – I wasn’t really expecting a big budget action adventure movie released over the Christmas period to go far in that direction. I suspect the majority of the book’s readers don’t pause long to consider these aspects anyway – they are an enriching underlayer that make them more satisfying for middle aged literary types like me but are not the reason that Peter Jackson thought it was worth buying the film rights. If you want a film that approaches some of the concerns I’ve briefly looked at I could recommend Blade Runner maybe, also perhaps Paris Texas. This is not the film you are looking for.
That’s enough for my hot take I guess but let me just add a sentence or two to say how much I liked and valued the diversity of casting in the movie. I was very glad to see the role of Anna Fang’s band of aviators bumped up a bit and to see men and women of a wide range of ethnicities playing the roles of these brave and intelligent fighters. It sounds odd, given that their key introductory scene took place in a floating caravanserai suspended beneath some very lumpy bumpy hot air balloons, but there was real authenticity to those characters and their relationships. I’d love to see more of them. Similarly Traction London, just like our modern day London, was home to people of a wide variety of races. I imagine if this film had been made a few years ago – or by a less intelligent team in the present day – we would have seen a more Dickensian set of Londoners. Chudleigh Pomeroy played by Colin Salmon is just one of a number of characters who are allowed to have distinct and authentic ethnicity without that being the point of their character. In this respect the film felt that it shared some DNA with Taika Waititi’s Thor:Ragnarok where the old pretence of colour blind casting has given way to a genuine valuing of diversity.
So – I had a great time at the cinema, the star of the show in the end is probably the world building and I would have loved to have spent longer exploring London, Air Haven and Shan Guo – let’s hope for some return visits in future episodes. Rivers and Jackson have not just made a carbon copy of Reeve’s novel – they have taken on the source material and made their own thing but without entirely losing the flavour of the original. Fans of Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ quartet need not be afraid to go to the cinema this Christmas.