Updated: May 22, 2020
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Would-be assassin Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and apprentice historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) form an unlikely team.
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2018; PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube
Best extra: All good.
KUDOS to Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and Weta for their adaptation of Philip Reeve’s book “Mortal Engines.”
It’s a noble attempt. Good actors play interesting characters and the creative team – known for its film versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” – are nearly at their best. But like other steampunk stories, “Mortal Engines” doesn’t quite hit the mark.
We’re told it “only took sixty minutes to destroy the world.” Lately, that’s been easier to dread. The current result in “Mortal Engines” is a mix of blasted and beautiful landscapes and moving cities. That’s right. The entire city of London, museums and all, now roam across the land guided by Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) terrorizing and consuming smaller moving cities as an energy source. Luckless inhabitants are enslaved.
(1) Hester watches the approach of the City of London. This could be her chance to take down Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). (2) The City of London pursues the smaller mining town, Salzhake. Using a philosophy known as "Municipal Darwinism," larger moving cities chase and devour smaller ones for energy, resources and slaves. (3) London citizens cheer on the chase of Salzhake. (4) Lord Mayor Magnus Crome (Patrick Malahide) of the City of London.
But Valentine has a nemesis in the form of Hester Shaw, played with remarkable appeal by Hera Hilmar. He killed her mother and must pay! When her assassination attempt fails, she drops down into the forbidding landscape. Hester is soon joined by attractive young historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan, Netflix’s “Umbrella Academy”), who witnessed the interaction between Hester and Valentine. He’s optimistic and enthusiastic; she’s young, beautiful even with the scar on her face, and jaded by her experiences.
Their adventures lead them to a legendary female warrior, Anna Fang (Jihae) featured in all the previews, a prowling slave ship, and a utopian city where different cultures live peaceably. It can be done as long as the Dali Lama is in charge; cue the theme from “Lost Horizons.” There’s also an unhappy cyborg, Shrike (Stephen Lang), after Hester. She’s betrayed this “Terminator” in some mysterious way and he, too, wants revenge. The movie’s finale arrives with Valentine and London, which is now armed with a nuclear missile to destroy the peaceful city.
“Really?” ask our heroes. “Really?” asks the audience. What’s the point here? It’s one of the unexplained questions “Mortal Engines” provokes, along with why moving cities anyway?
Maybe steampunk fans know. Maybe they ask the same questions. Still, this mashup of “Road Warrior” and “Star Wars” entertains although it’s strictly YA. There’s lots of bloodless violence, beautifully orchestrated martial arts engagements, sword fights, and a beheading. It’s easy to guess the warriors would prefer swords to guns with the history of world destruction. Also, there’s the risk potential with the city’s inner workings. Maybe a sequel would solve some of the problems. Reeve wrote four bestsellers in his series.
(1) The interior of the City of London. (2) Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) and his daughter Katherine (Leila George). (3) Hester fails in her attempt to kill Valentine. (4) Hester and Tom escape destruction on board the City of London. (5) Tom tries to save Hester from a deadly fall.
No one delivers the bonus features like Peter Jackson and his team. They are energetic, fun to watch and full of information.
“Welcome to London” is a five-part making-of including a closer look at the London engine, showing how it was developed and constructed for the film. Hosted by Robert Sheehan, sections include “Building the Beast,” “Levels of London,” “The Smallest of Details,” “London Museum,” and “Medusa and St. Paul’s.”
“End of the Ancients” is a museum tour of the reconstructed Museum of London, this time hosted by Sheehan’s Natsworthy. The “Character Series” showcases “Hester Shaw,” “Tom Natsworthy,” “Anna Fang,” “Thaddeus Valentine” and “Shrike” with interviews with the actors and behind-scene footage. “In the Air” highlights the flying cities and ships, showing how they were designed, built and brought to film.
“Film New Zealand” is a Jackson film tradition with his crew and cast talking up the country’s amazing filmmaking abilities. From “The Lord of the Rings” on, it appears to be a great place to work. It’s certainly helped develop an enthusiastic tourist trade.
The straightforward audio commentary is from Director Christian Rivers. He began his career with Weta in visual arts, contributing to the 2005 “King Kong,” “The Hobbit” series, and “The Lord of the Rings” series of films. “Mortal Engines” marks his big screen debut as director, and he goes over production details, characters and cast, and effects.
This is looking fantastic in 4K UHD and Blu-ray (2.39:1 aspect ratio). It’s so good we may as well credit Weta as another actor. There’s nothing but superb imagination and skill at work here among the continual FX and mechanisms. Shrike might first appear as a standard science fiction device, but Lang turns the character into a tragic hero – and not in the way most would imagine. We want Anna Fang’s scarlet winged air ship to actually exist. It certainly looks real.
The film was shot with a RED Weapon Helium 8K, with Zeiss Master and Ultra Prime Lenses. It was mastered in 4K and the picture and effects look it. Jackson has always pushed the technical envelope when it comes to his films. Viewers expect the best and they get it. Facial tones in the multinational cast look realistic. Hester’s scar appears painfully authentic; grime on various citizens sends a “back off” message. We don’t want to get near those folks; imagine the smell.
Detail is stunning. Mark Hadlow’s slaver character, Stigwood, gussies himself up for an auction. His jacket is festooned with thousands of white and cream buttons in all manner of shapes and sizes, and viewers can see everyone one of them in close-up and wide shots. It could serve as a version of futuristic chainmail. Weta obviously enjoys new challenges from costumes to moving city interiors to wasted landscapes and flying ships. Depth and contrast are also outstanding with the HDR10 and Dolby Vision toning.
Sound is delivered through eight-channel Dolby Atmos and default Dolby TrueHD tracks. There’s plenty to enjoy in height speakers, especially from the various engines and battle sequences. The room throbs beneath bass rumblings as the cities move across their world. From low to high frequency, Weta delivers again. Picture and sound are both state-of-the art.
The music was composed by Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg), who also delivered scores for “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Alita.”
There’s got to be a way to build on this world. Weta itself has an unstoppable imagination; these artists obviously love their work and it shows. “Mortal Engines” only earned a 27 percent rating on rottentomatoes.com, but come on – Jackson’s movie deserves better than that. The audience will surely build as the film hits home theaters.
— Kay Reynolds