If the anime films of Studio Ghibli and writer/artist Hayao Miyazaki were to be turned into live action movies, they would look like this. Steam punk machines, whirring aircraft and zeppelins, with utopian valleys and dystopian wastelands sharing screen time, reminding us of how one can turn into the other through the rapacious consumption of Man. Another key Miyazaki message in Mortal Engines: the danger of losing our humanity, as clanking cyborg-like creatures roam the wasteland, and at one point we learn of a central character who nearly gave up on the gift of life to become one more dehumanized spirit.
A key theme in Mortal Engines, true to the spirit of Studio Ghibli, is harmony. We are on 21st century Earth, post-apocalyptic after a tech-based global catastrophe which in turn caused the Earth's tectonic plates to shift. Civilizations have accordingly gone backwards by a hundred years or so, reimagining technologies down different avenues. Mobile cities, in the style of Studio Ghibli's Howl's Moving Castle, are now the thing, and none are greater than London, with all of London's features fixed together as a city on wheels, consuming other smaller mobile towns and villages. Impractical? Yes, if you care to think out the details, but this isn't the film to have your mental dial turned up to the max. Soon enough, a quirky, fantastical premise settles down and begins to borrow from the Star Wars saga, and you realize the cool stuff is the imagery – think Avatar with likeable characters – rather than the plot, which is serviceable. Standout performances similarly are not the point: Hugo Weaving makes an initially dashing, ambiguous captain, while the two twenty-something protagonists Hester and Tom (played by Hera Hilmer and Robert Sheehan) are fine. The sky pilots are my favourites, inhabiting a city floating in the sky, their captain Anna (played by Jihae) like everyone, stylishly adorned in flowing Napoleonic trench coat and boots, like a multi-coloured Matrix mixed with Sherbert Fizz. Seldom have I watched a film where I thought so much that the wardrobe team deserved an Oscar.
Big on style, then, what makes Mortal Engines additionally interesting is the screenplay-writing team of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyans – those creators of Middle Earth for the 21st century. I would say that Mortal Engines is their 'Jupiter Ascending,' big and mad and insubstantial, with logic a casualty for spectacle. Recommended viewing too, though, for those wishing for an acid-trip tour of London, when your only drug of choice is popcorn.