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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Mortal Engines, Review: Municipal Darwinism in a dystopian future

Mortal Engines, Review: Municipal Darwinism in a dystopian future

Charles Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest is taken to its logical conclusion in the future, where mini cities stand on mobile machines that serve as crushers and gobblers of smaller ones, appropriating their resources and enslaving the captured populace. The process is called Municipal Darwinism, and no one is safe. Slick and deeply disturbing, Mortal Engines is thought-provoking viewing and full of metaphors.

Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) is a young Londoner who has only lived inside his travelling home-town, which moves on traction treads, and his feet have never touched grass, mud or land. He wanted to be an aviator and took some basic training, but when his parents passed away, he was forced to take a lowly job at the London Museum. His first taste of the outside world comes quite abruptly: Tom gets in the way of an attempt by the hooded, masked Hester (Hera Hilmar) to kill Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), London’s Head Historian, an archaeologist and a powerful man.

Hester was captured when her town was ingested by London. She was a witness to the brutal murder of her mother Pandora (Caren Pistorius) at the hands of Valentine, and had Tom not warned him in time, she would have had her revenge, with the help of a lethal knife. As it happens, he is only injured. Tom chases the assailant, who tells him about Valentine’s past, including the fact that he disfigured her face with a knife, before jumping off into the waste egesting chute. Chasing Hester, Thaddeus catches-up with Tom, who foolishly confides in him about Hester’s charge. To avoid any possibility of being discovered, Thaddeus breaks the railing and sends Tom hurtling down, to meet the same fate as Hester.

Both survive the fall, but now have to hide from search planes, sent to hunt them down. Whereas Hester is familiar with the terrain, Tom finds it tough going. Hester gradually develops a soft corner for Tom and forgives him for his act of warning Valentine and chasing her. She gets a bullet in her leg from the predators, but both survive the hazardous wasteland. At one point, they are picked-up by an underground traction vehicle, run by a whacky couple. Instead of taking them to freedom, the couple sells them to a slave market, where there are bids for Hester. Suddenly, Anna Fang, leader of the Anti-Traction League, appears, and outbids everyone. The auctioneer recognises her and decides to capture her, to claim the huge bounty on her head. Anna is not easy prey, and she escapes, taking Hester and Tom with her.

Meanwhile, Valentine is assembling a deadly weapon with the help of ‘old tech’, a weapon aimed at destroying the wall that demarcates London’s traction boundaries, and ingesting the towns and cities that lie beyond, including a stationery Chinese settlement. And to take care of Hester, he liberates a prisoner called Shrike, a deadly, unstoppable , with only bones for a face. Shrike had raised Hester after her mother’s death, but has now sworn to kill her for breaking a promise she made to him years ago.

Mortal Engines is a curious title and is derived from the book on which the film is based, authored by Philip Reeve. Three persons have done the screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and veteran director Peter Jackson, who is also one of the producers. Reeve has provided a plot within the disaster films’ dystopian sub-genre that has not been tapped yet, and the novelty sustains.

Dialogue is largely functional and simplistic, even pedestrian, with lines like “Survival of the fastest”, “Sixty minutes was all it took to bring humanity to the very brink of extinction,” “She won’t stop until I am dead,” “Ask him why he murdered my mother”, “Once you go in there is no going back” and “I have to.” The narrative follows the formula: cataclysm, dystopia, a megalomaniac, his past misdeeds, a girl out for revenge, a man on her side, a group of resistance fighters, and the inevitable climax. The fact that Valentine’s ultimate weapon, MEDUSA, is powered old computer chip technology is a novel twist.

Storyboard artist for all of Peter Jackson’s recent films, fellow New Zealander Christian Rivers makes his directorial debut, courtesy his mentor. Models and Computer Graphics are first rate and can pass off as the real things. He’s kept the romance between Tom and Hester low key, lest it distract from the main plot, and Tom’s awkward innocence is well-captured. Both aerial and land conflicts are state-of-the-art stuff. One does wonder why the London ‘find and kill’ force is unable hunt down the couple, however much they hide in the terrain. Also, Valentine turns out to be a man of superhuman strength, with no explanation to show for it. He fights real hard and walks around after being stabbed in the abdomen as if nothing had happened, strange for a man who is an architect and historian.

Hera Hilmar (from Iceland) as Hester Shaw is feisty and full of gusto. Poppy MacLeod as young Hester Shaw has a brief role, playing the terrified kid who hides and runs for her life. Robert Sheehan (Misfits, Love/Hate, Cherrybomb) as Tom Natsworthy is largely natural, only a bit affected in his dialogue delivery. Hugo Weaving (Australian-English; Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Hobbits) as Thaddeus Valentine performs his villainy as if that was the job he was ordained to pursue. He is too good an actor to let the bad-man image trouble him. Jihae (South Korea-born songwriter, singer, actress) as Anna Fang makes a grand entry and shows that she has spunk. Ronan Raftery plays Bevis Pod, an apprentice engineer with ambitious ideas and conveys his human weakness well. Leila George is cast as Katherine Valentine, daughter of Thaddeus Valentine, in a poorly etched role.

Patrick Malahide as Magnus Crome, the Mayor of London, robe and all, could walk on to the set of any futuristic film and fit in perfectly well. Stephen Lang plays the role of Shrike, the last of an undead battalion of soldiers known as Stalkers, who were war casualties re-animated with machine parts. He raised Hester. He’s more machine than human but his appearance has been very well designed. In another brief appearance, Caren Pistorius plays Pandora Shaw, Hester’s deceased mother. Mention must be made of Kee Chan, who is cast as Governor Chan, head of the city behind the wall that Valentine decides to target. Peter Jackson puts in a little cameo as Sooty Pete.

Cinematography by Simon Raby is commendable and many scenes are visually stunning. Saint Paul’s Cathedral is well used.

If you break it down, Mortal Engines might not amount to a very big deal, but while you are watching it, there is no denying its impact. Cities on traction might sound far-fetched, but the rest of the plot is too realistic and can be seen as a projection of the current shortages and inflationary trends around the world. How long will it be before city turns against city and we enter a world of municipal Darwinism? The possibility is remote, but a possibility it is. Utopia seems implausible, dystopia less so.


Rating: *** 1/2


Excerpt from the novel

Mortal Engines is a quartet of novels and the film is based on the first one.

“Thaddeus Valentine, London's Head Historian and adored famous archaeologist, and his lovely daughter, Katherine, are down in The Gut when the young assassin with the black scarf strikes toward his heart, saved by the quick intervention of Tom, a lowly third-class apprentice. Racing after the fleeing girl, Tom suddenly glimpses her hideous face: scarred from forehead to jaw, nose a smashed stump, a single eye glaring back at him. "Look at what your Valentine did to me!" she screams. "Ask him! Ask him what he did to Hester Shaw!" And with that she jumps down the waste chute to her death. Minutes later Tom finds himself tumbling down the same chute and stranded in the Out-Country, a sea of mud scored by the huge caterpillar tracks of cities like the one now steaming off over the horizon.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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