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Mortal Engines Revs Up the Publicity

The film based on Philip Reeve's post-apocalyptic steampunk novel is set for a December release

Saturday, October 13, 2018
Mortal Engines London

Photos: Universal Pictures and MRC.

The publicity machine behind the film adaptation of Mortal Engines cranked into high gear this month with a new trailer, a behind-the-scenes video series, and a presentation at New York Comic Con (NYCC). Based on the post-apocalyptic steampunk novel by Philip Reeve, the film is set to premiere Dec. 8 in the UK and Dec. 14 in the U.S. It’s produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, directed by Christian Rivers, and written by Jackson along with LOTR veterans Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.

The film takes place on a far-future Earth in which London is a “predator city” on wheels that hunts for smaller towns to devour. The new trailer, building on the one released in June, reveals part of the backstory of protagonist Hester Shaw (played by Hera Hilmar).

In the NYCC presentation, attendees were shown the first 25 minutes of the film, parts of which can also be seen in the trailers. Press reports indicate that it was well received. Flickering Myth, a UK-based entertainment website, has a detailed description of the opening scenes.


After the screening, Jackson, Rivers, and Boyens took the stage along with Hilmar and other cast members: Robert Sheehan (“Tom Natsworthy”), Jihae (“Anna Fang”), Leila George (“Katherine Valentine”), and Stephen Lang (“Shrike”). Hugo Weaving, who portrays the villain Thaddeus Valentine, addressed the attendees by video. Actor Andy Serkis served as moderator.

Rivers provided a brief description of the story, explaining that Hester is “driven by vengeance to take out Valentine,” who murdered her mother. “She collides with Tom Natsworthy,” a young historian in London, “and they go on this great adventure and find a bond together.” But Hester also “has the key to stopping London, which is on the verge of becoming an unstoppable dangerous force that’s going to destroy the world. That’s kind of Mortal Engines in a nutshell. But more importantly, we want it to be a new story, a new world, and a new experience for cinema lovers everywhere.”

This will be the feature film directorial debut for Rivers, who supervised visual effects for the LOTR films, as well as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the 2005 production of King Kong.

Mortal Engines is set about 3000 years in the future. “What I like to think of it, is it’s not post-apocalyptic, but it’s ‘post-post apocalyptic,’” Jackson said. He added that even though London is on wheels, it’s portrayed as a real city “with a fully functional society.”

SyFy Wire live streamed the panel (but not the screening), and you can view it on YouTube.

Mortal Engines is distributed by Universal Pictures, which has launched a weekly video series called “Mortal Artists” that provides a look at the creative team behind the production. The first episode features concept artist Nick Keller.

Mortal Engines Weaving

But is it steampunk?

In the novel, London has reverted to a Victorian-era culture. But in an interview with entertainment website Screen Rant, Rivers said the film would de-emphasize the steampunk elements. “We didn’t want to make it overtly steampunk,” he said. “I kind of just caught on to what would happen if there was a nuclear-esque kind of war or a new weapon that devastated our planet and what would happen to London? And what would be left?”

This hasn’t kept media outlets from referring to steampunk in their coverage of the film. From SyFy Wire: “Mortal Engines’ steampunk origins come to life in ‘Mortal Artists’ web series.” And from Critical Hit: “Lord of the Rings goes steampunk in this epic new trailer for Mortal Engines.”

Certainly, the film will be a must-see for steampunk fans. But if (like me) you were hoping for a blockbuster franchise that would generate new public interest in steampunk, you might be disappointed. It’s not even a sure thing that the film will succeed at the box office (or with critics). Given its pedigree, I wouldn’t bet against it, but this will be a busy holiday season for big-budget sci-fi films: Set for release on Dec. 21 are Aquaman, Bumblebee and Alita: Battle Angel.

On the other hand, the film is likely to rekindle interest in the novel. And it can’t hurt if people see the term “steampunk” associated with the film, even if it’s not really a fit. This might be hard to believe if you’re immersed in the genre, but lots of folks (probably a majority) have never heard of steampunk or have no idea what it means. That’s why so many media outlets are obliged to add a “What is steampunk” explanation when covering steampunk events. So maybe folks who see the reference will become curious and want to learn more.

Mortal Engines has a website with videos and social media links. The movie also inspired an unofficial fan site created by New Zealander James Ryan.

Meanwhile, HBO announced in July that it has inked a deal with Joss Whedon to write, produce and direct The Nevers, “an epic science fiction drama about a gang of Victorian women who find themselves with unusual abilities, relentless enemies, and a mission that might change the world.” Whedon, whose credits include Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., described it as “maybe the most ambitious narrative I’ve created.” Perhaps that will be the blockbuster we’re waiting for.

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