Mortal engines

This is a short review of the film of Philip Reeve’s boys’ story, “Mortal Engines” which I watched on a flight, back before the lock-down, some three years ago.

I have gone full circle in terms of fiction. Eleven years ago I read my son’s copy of “Mortal Engines” whilst on a long-haul flight. I am just now sitting through the film version of the same story, also whilst on-board a long-haul flight. And to be perfectly honest the film is as weak and as thin as the original boys’ story. The original story was for children and I – as well I might as an adult – found it too thin. This film, however, is in effect not for children but for all (PG cert) and I found the same lack of conviction that I found in the original book, though perhaps for quite different reasons. The book and the series to which it belongs were successful in their time, doubly so really, in that Hollywood bought the options to make it into a film.

As a film, I found it cliched. It was a triumph of special effects over plot, as so many sci-fi films are these days. I confess I’m not a fan of Hugo Weaving’s work and he plays the baddie in this film. I did like his role as Agent Smith in The Matrix, but not his Elrond in The Lord of the Rings. As a fan of the LOTR I’m familiar with Elrond as a character and I didn’t like at all the way he played Elrond: not at all like the character in the book. Here in Mortal Engines, he plays the Bearded Sultry Older Man. There is a beautiful daughter, a geeky hero and a second male lead with a strong Irish accent. It was quite literally tiresome to watch.

It would be interesting to see who wrote the screenplay for the adaption of Philip Reeves’ original novel. I had to give up watching, about a half hour from the end. It was so predictable and conventional I literally could not be bothered to watch it. Yet, along the way, amidst all the usual adventure thriller science-fiction memes and tropes, were some very interesting nuggets. This told me something about the screenwriters, hence my earlier comments. I’ve spent some time studying the Bible, and an aspect of doing so is what is called “redaction criticism”. Today we think of “redaction” as removing text from a document for whatever reason. But “redaction criticism” is trying to understand the use by biblical authors, of earlier written material. Take an example from the “Lord of the Rings”: recall the character Aragorn. Do we know if Tolkien, in his youth, read “The last of the Mohicans”? For Tolkien’s character Aragorn so closely resembles Fennimore Cooper’s character “Hawkeye” that it seems likely that Tolkien would have, and may have been influenced thereby. There is no way of knowing, of course. This then, is redaction criticism. And my senses are alert to it here: what influences were there on the screenwriters for this picture? It matters to me.

The first was the Shrike. Where does this immortal android zombie come from? Does he appear in the original books? I cannot now recall. I ask this because “the Shrike” is a strange and shadowy character in Dan Simmons’s Endymion in his very readable Hyperion novels. A dread figure, often invoked, rarely seen, much feared. Could Simmons’s work have influenced the screenwriters here? The Shrike in this Mortal Engines film excites some sympathy; there is, deep within it, some deeply buried kernel of humanity, some taste-bomb of humaneness that emerges to save the life of the young hero.

The second was the use of the term “shield wall” – towards which the travelling city of London is making its way. The term “Shield wall” originates in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. An interesting juxtaposition, particularly when we see that this “Shield Wall” is actually located in the heart of central Asia, in what is now the Tien Shan of China.

Then, we have the environmentalist trope. I got the distinct sense that these marauding, raiding rolling cities, using up resources, harming the environment, represent the west, whereas the fixed buildings hidden behind the shield wall, are the east – the home of the “anti-tractionists”. They are portrayed as somehow better, and somehow inherently eastern. It is all a bit naïve and simplistic, and it can be, for it can easily be passed off as being for children, or being “just” science-fiction. But actually it’s quite cleverly crafted cultural spin and I don’t care for it as such.