‘Mortal Engines’ is Primed to Be a Visual Feast Reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s Signature Style

Jackson handing over the directorial baton to his protege in the best possible way.
Mortal Engines
By  · Published on June 7th, 2018

Jackson handing over the directorial baton to his protege in the best possible way.

It’s been almost half a decade since one of Peter Jackson’s epic adventure films graced the big screen and not to be sappy, but I miss him. The director most famous for creating a definitive onscreen representation of Middle-earth is hard at work… restoring World War I era footage for a 3D documentary. At some point, he’ll make another Tintin movie, or so Steven Spielberg says. But Jackson’s crisp, lush narrative storytelling — that is, his penchant for combining a great indulgent spectacle with the sensitivities of a good story.

Thankfully, I wouldn’t be alone in noticing Jackson’s stamp of approval all over Christian Rivers‘ debut film, Mortal Engines, which Universal Pictures released a full-length trailer for. Jackson may not be directing this one (which has in the works for a very long time). However, besides producing, Jackson still provides creative input via the film’s script, which he co-wrote with Tolkien saga writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.

Mortal Engines already looks to be a doozy of an escapist thrill, and you can watch the new trailer here:

The lore of Mortal Engines — which is based on an eponymous quartet of adventure books by Philip Reeve — sounds a little out there, but it is essentially a post-apocalyptic love story set amidst social unrest. The series is about cities on wheels that were formed after a cataclysmic event known as the Sixty Minute War. These moving tiered structures have hierarchies of their own, wherein larger and more powerful cities — called Traction Cities — devour weaker ones in a conquest for resources that are quickly diminishing. To combat these acts of colonization, the Anti-Traction League keeps smaller cities moving, hoping to retain their autonomy.

London — the principal location of the books and film — is one such example of a Traction City. In this seven-tiered monstrous “predator,” Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) cross paths when Tom inadvertently stops Hester from murdering a powerful man (Hugo Weaving) who she blames for her mother’s murder. After they are both ousted from London, they must form an alliance to survive.

There are elements of Mortal Engines that already feel familiar to Jackson enthusiasts. I spy a blue-eyed protagonist. The visual richness evident in the trailer is clearly a Weta Workshop signature, and the movie’s color palettes seem reminiscent of The Hobbit films. The kineticism in the camera work also reminds me of some of Jackson’s exciting adventure movies. If you recall the Battle of Pelennor Fields in the third Lord of the Rings film, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

However, the industrial vibe of Mortal Engines is unmistakable — at least design-wise — but also refreshingly not overpowering in this particular dystopian society. The mash-up of steampunk and fantasy elements makes for a production that feels more original. This, according to Rivers, was the plan all along. Per IGN:

“We didn’t want to make it steampunk. We didn’t want to make it post-apocalyptic. It has to echo certain elements of those things, mainly because the book has certain elements of that. But no, it’s a unique world.”

Creating such a distinctive world from scratch couldn’t have been easy. Adapting the ambitious worlds of Mortal Engines came with a slew of issues, as its world-building goes beyond the tried-and-true methods of putting typical fantasy creatures onscreen. Dragons will never lose their wow factor completely, but we’ve seen a lot of them in the past few years (thanks, Game of Thrones).

Bottom line, when an entire city has to move — and even grow as it engulfs others — it gets harder to incorporate as many practical effects, although that’s what Jackson’s movies are known for: “having a city that’s like a mile long on wheels… you just can’t build anything [like] that this size.”

Nevertheless, advancements in digital effects over the last decade have changed the way that the filmmakers have approached Mortal Engines, whether it comes to creating vast amounts of people to fill scenes or all-out action sequences. It’s both more cost-effective and allows for a more adjustable filming schedule to ensure the best shots are being captured for the final product. Jackson says:

“…it’s almost to the point where miniatures are more expensive than doing things on a computer. Plus, you know, with a miniature, you have to decide on your shot. […] obviously you’ve got the shot and there’s a miniature DP and you decide on what the camera move is and you do it and that’s your shot. So, I think the flexibility and the discovery of…how to cover some piece of action with a visual camera is a great tool.”

Most of what we know about Mortal Engines so far involves its visual accomplishments because we can’t really predict what Rivers will be like as a feature director. He has worked on short films in the past, such as Feeder, although those were definitely far more grounded ventures than what we’re about to see in Mortal Engines.

The good news is that Rivers and Jackson have always shared a kind of hivemind when conceptualizing movies. They’ve worked together since Rivers joined one of Jackson’s early splatstick comedies — the fabulous 1992 movie Braindead — as a storyboard artist. Rivers went on to contribute to virtually every Jackson movie since and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for King Kong. If anything, it would be a bigger surprise if they didn’t share any filmmaking sensibilities at all.

Of course, where would any big-budget movie be these days without the talk of sequel potential? Even months out from release, the question of franchising Mortal Engines has been brought up, given that there are a total of four books in Reeve’s series. As a great mentor would to his protege, Jackson wants this to be Rivers’ franchise in the making, telling Collider: “I’ll let him decide [if he wants to direct any follow-ups]. We’d produce them for sure. And, obviously, Christian would be having first offer to direct and hopefully he would.”

But in terms of why we should keep a Mortal Engines franchise on our radar — an arguably bigger selling point for the series than anything else — the story is delightfully idiosyncratic and surprisingly sincere. Jackson says to Cinema Blend:

“You should [read all the books] because they actually get better and better. This is one movie where I hope it’s successful enough that we get to do the other stories, because the other books are really… this story mushrooms in such unexpected ways in the future books. So, I really hope we get to make those films. It’s cool. It’s a love story. […] It’s about a young woman who doesn’t really think that she will ever find love, and she finds it in a very unexpected way in the middle of this chaotic, strange world that we’re in. And I also just like the idea of seeing big cities eat other.”

Mortal Engines hits theaters on December 14, 2018.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)