This movie is guilty of dystopia, amongst other things. Adapted from the first novel in Philip Reeve’s quartet, the whole thing looks like a telescoped version of London; progressive and regressive at the same time. Apparently, many years after the end of the ‘ancients’ (us), we are back in what looks like Victorian London, with the class system restored to the period of the industrial revolution. At the same time it is a futuristic city, and now, instead of the toffs, the middle and the working class, London is divided into Engineers, Historians, Navigators and Merchants.
Since the natural resources of earth are exhausted, cities across what used to be Europe, are now rolling around on giant caterpillar tracks, constantly in motion, and kept in order by the Engineers. The job of the historians is to collect stuff from the ‘ancients’ – things like radios, toasters, cell phones – to help in replenishing the existing technology. The Navigators decide on which city to swallow next in order to gobble up more energy. Amusingly, this survival of the fittest policy, with cities poaching on each other, is called ‘Municipal Darwinism’. Finally, the Merchants are there to keep the economy, such as it is, going.
The tiers of the machinery that keep London moving are also divided, area-wise and class-wise, into the living quarters of the citizens. This idea is a straight rip off from Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ (1927), the German Expressionist science fiction film in which the controllers of the city live in the skyscrapers, and the workers underground. Coincidentally, the machinery that sustains ‘Mortal Engines’ bears remarkable similarity to ‘Moloch’, the giant control room that runs ‘Metropolis’ and gobbles up the exhausted workers as they break down.
In all probability, we will be told by the writers and makers of ‘Mortal Engines’ that these similarities are a ‘homage’ to the classic film from the Silent era. They are not just that, because the replication is in the plot and characters as well. Just as the Master of ‘ Metropolis’ is challenged by his own son about the inequity in his system of governance, so in ‘Mortal Engines’, the most powerful man in the management of the city, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), is found out by his own daughter, Katherine (Leila George), to be a lying, exploiting and manipulating megalomaniac.
Katherine, and another woman whose life Valentine has grievously damaged, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), strive to expose the Master of London.
Naturally, given the nature of the world we inhabit in ‘Mortal Engines’, this is a special effects dominated movie, with flying contraptions that look like high tech gliders, and a moving city that is mounted on what looks like a giant battle tank.
This combination of pre and post industrial age imagery is a novelty at the beginning of this science fiction movie, and we watch it with some interest. But later, it becomes repetitive and boring. A dreadful thought is that this is just the adaptation of the first novel of the quartet, and that there are three more to go in the series.