Producer Peter Jackson and director Christian Rivers unveiled the first twenty-four minutes of the upcoming Mortal Engines, an adaptation of the first volume of a series of post-apocalyptic steampunk novels by Philip Reeve.
The section shown isn’t the film’s entire first act, but it does do a lot of heavy lifting setting up the high concept world the story takes place in. Three thousand or so years ago, there was a great man-made catastrophe known as the Sixty-Minute War that shattered continents and rearranged them to a new and different configuration from what we see on maps. Over time, countries ceased to exist, but there arose roving city-states – Giant cities on platforms mounted on tank-like treads that roam the landscape, seeking to devour smaller mobile towns and hamlets. Pre-Sixty-Minute War technology has been mostly lost and what little bits that remain are highly prized.
The film opens with the standard Universal logo, but as we see the Earth spin, we see purple explosions scattered across the surface. The film then cuts to a view through some sort of spyglass or telescope. Something is moving on the horizon, something big! We then see the person using the spyglass, a young woman with a red scarf pulled up covering her face and nose. Although most of her face is obscured, we can still see that she is worried.
The woman, who will later find out is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), heads over a small embankment where we see what appears a hamlet of some size. As she enters, we see many people trading goods with each other. Suddenly, a watchman on a tower spies what Hester saw – the mobile city of London bearing down on them! With the warning cry, people quickly mobilize. Shop fronts seem to collapse in on themselves. As we see walkways raise, we realize that this is not one average-sized mobile town, but a group of smaller ones who had joined together to set up a marketplace to trade with each other. The small towns scatter, but we see one hasn’t been able to get their own engine started to make their escape. And it is the town that Hester is on. Suddenly with a lurch, the town gets underway and the chase is on!
As London bares down on the small town, the camera does a big sweeping move around the mobile city. We can see bits and pieces of London landmarks – Big Ben, Parliament, the London Eye – all jammed together. Along balconies, the elite of London stand, cheering on their city in its hunt. The camera final rests on the control room for the city where Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) is overseeing the chase and hopeful capture of the small town. London’s Lord Mayor, Magnus Crome (Patrick Malahide), appears on deck and seems disappointed that the town will only be able to supply them with a week’s worth of resources.
The chase continues with the small town trying to make it to a pass between two large mountains, a narrow escape route that the much larger London would not be able to follow them through. But the driver of the town didn’t foresee a small, hidden canyon that divides the landscape and narrowly avoids plunging the town straight town into it. But as the town manages to veer away from the canyon, it turns too hard, crashing as its wheels fly off. As London bares down, the larger city fires harpoons into the small town in order to drag it into the gaping maw at the front of the predatory city.
As the town is being hauled into the bowels of London, we cut away to Historian-in-training Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) who is late for work. As his punishment, he is sent down to where the captured town Is being stripped of its resources to try and claim some pre-Sixty Minute War artifacts for London’s museum. He is joined by Katherine (Leila George), a student who is at the museum and who can get him down where he needs to go faster, thanks to a special pass he has. Before they go, Tom shows her some ancient weapons that he has hidden and plans to dispose of when he gets the chance. He states that they are tied into something called MEDUSA, which had a part in the Sixty Minute War. While he thinks he has these artifacts well hidden, he is observed by someone who looks to be up to no good.
Once down in the bowels of London, Tom and Katherine encounter Valentine who is there to “welcome” the residents of the captured town. There it is revealed that Valentine is Katherine’s father, which makes Tom very nervous given Valetine’s high social rank. As the residents of the captured town are being processed, Hester comes forward and is able to stab Valentine, before fleeing back through the crowd and towards the giant machinery set to carve up the town. Tom follows and soon the two are dodging giant chainsaw-like blades that cutting up the town’s buildings to be used as fuel to run the mammoth engines that move London. Tom finally corners Hester, who is hanging off a guard rail above a shaft that appears to be dumping soot and ash from London’s engines out behind it.
Hester tells Tom that Valentine is her father and a bad person before she falls and disappears down the chute. Valentine arrives and when he hears Tom repeat what Hester told him, he casually pushes Tom backwards over the rail and down the shaft after Hester.
And end scene.
As you can see, Mortal Engine’s opening moments are fairly fast-paced and do much heavy lifting in terms of world building. We get the basic set up of the world, Tom gives Katherine (and by extension, the audience) a nice info dump on how things got this way as well as setting up some potential conflict over the artifact weapons that Tom is hiding. And of course, there is the conflict between Hester and Valentine that Tom’s impetuousness draws him into. The intro also does a good job at defining the
It is hard to judge the acting and characterization from just a segment of the film, especially a segment where the emphasis lies elsewhere. Weaving is up to his usual banally evil self, though hopefully what is hinted at in his first encounter with Hester will develop some interesting material for the actor to work with. Hilmar’s Hester is a bit of a blank slate, what with her face being covered for a portion of her screen time, and for her single-mindedness for the rest. Hopefully, Sheehan’s Tom will have a character arc that progresses him beyond the impetuous young man we meet here.
Mortal Engines opens in theaters December 14.