Don't Call It Steampunk: The Fascinating World Of 'Mortal Engines' [Set Visit]

Last year, as I flew to Wellington, New Zealand to visit the set of Universal Pictures' Mortal Engines, I read the source novel by writer Philip Reeve. It was a brisk read, one intended for younger audiences, but I immediately understood why filmmaker Peter Jackson had been working for a decade to bring it to the big screen. The world Reeve had crafted on paper was spellbinding. It was a fascinating foundation upon which all kinds of stories could be told and all kinds of characters could be constructed. The storytelling itself was a bit simplistic, a side effect of the novel's intended young adult audience, but it was easy to imagine the material being remixed into something a bit bolder, a bit more complex, and whole lot more thrilling.

And after spending two days on the Mortal Engines set, speaking with cast and crew and touring various locations and sound stages, it seems that Jackson and director Christian Rivers are working to do just that. Mortal Engines looks be less of a direct adaptation of the book and more of a wider and wilder exploration of the source material's thrilling world-building. And that is very exciting.

The World of Mortal Engines

Trying to sum up Mortal Engines in a brisk elevator pitch feels like a fool's errand, a task that could make this clever universe sound a bit silly, but here goes nothing. Thousands of years after the "60 Second War" decimated civilization as we know it, humankind has adapted to a new way of life. With resources scarce, people have become nomadic tribes...tribes that travel the wastelands on their cities.

"Traction cities," including London, one of the film's major locations, crawl across the desert, searching for resources to keep the people on board alive. This typically means chasing down smaller cities and devouring them, integrating the population and their supplies. London is big enough to be feared by many, but not big enough to be the most imposing predator city on the continent formerly known as Europe.

It is on London that we meet Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an apprentice in the Guild of Historians, the group tasked with sorting through the artifacts of the past and cataloging them for study and preservation. Like everyone else in London, he is an admirer of Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving): airship captain, explorer, hero, swashbuckler, and the head of the Guild of Historians. After devouring a smaller city, London takes on a new passenger: a disfigured young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who attempts to assassinate Valentine, only to find herself falling from London...and taking Tom with her.

Then the adventure begins, following Tom and Hester and they fight to survive outside of the cities while Valentine's daughter Katherine (Leila George) and a young member of the Guild of Engineers, Bevis (Ronan Raftery), uncover a conspiracy on London itself.

And there's also a mummified cyborg assassin named Shrike (Stephen Lang), but that's a story for another time.

Don’t Call It Steampunk

At the risk of getting a little too inside baseball, the studio made one request to press when it came to covering this set visit: don't refer to the world of Mortal Engines as "steampunk." This was a fair and reasonable request, as the term was never used during our two days on set, except to explain that this word does not describe this world. And yet, when the first teaser trailer hit, it was the internet's go-to descriptor for what was onscreen. But steampunk implies a future envisioned by the past, a fantastic setting rooted in the dreams of a bygone age.

But Mortal Engines, while undeniably fantastical, is science fiction. Set in the future. And you won't find steam-powered gadgets or clockwork mechanics, as you would in steampunk. This is a very different beast, one that takes place thousands of years after our now. Modern human culture, or what remains of it, informs every aspect of Mortal Engines.

This became especially evident when we explored one of Mortal Engines' most impressive sets: the London Museum, home to numerous "ancient" artifacts from thousands of years in the past. CDs rest behind glass cases. Laptop computers and iPods, melted by nuclear fire, are on display. A Nintendo Switch, carefully excavated from what looks like a crystal, looks weirdly alien. Most amusingly, two Minion statues (yes, those Minions) stand by the entrance, labeled as ancient deities of a past civilization.

Director Christian Rivers (a veteran of Jackson's films, who began as a storyboard artist before winning an Oscar for King Kong's visual effects and directing second unit on The Hobbit) acknowledged that steampunk had crossed their minds, but revealed that building something completely new was the top priority:

"We just made a point: okay, let's make everything – anything that we see from our world – archaeological.  Anything that is from our world is archaeological. And, you know, we didn't want to make it overtly steampunk. I mean, the books are very steampunk. But we also wanted to, you know, have it not as aesthetic. And so 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 sort of happen to London? And what would be left?"

And while this set is undeniably amusing, the items (and the associated incorrect information) on display inform what kind of world this truly is. This is a sci-fi setting so far beyond our own that our culture reads as totally alien.

The Post-Post-Apocalypse

"[I] didn't want it to be Hunger Games, or The Division that's quite, you know, sort of bleak dystopian sort of film, you know?" director Christian Rivers told us. "We didn't want it to be post-apocalyptic dystopia. We didn't want it to be Mad Max."

This line of thinking informs almost every conversation we have on the set of Mortal Engines. This is not a film about the end of the world – it's a film set in a wholly new one, a civilization built out of the ashes of ours.

While the exact dates are not specified in the movie, production designer Dan Hennah told us that the film is set 1,700 years in the future, roughly around the year 3800. That's enough time for the planet to have gotten over a nuclear catastrophe. Enough time for people to stop wallowing in misery and start living lives that, from their perspective, are perfectly normal.

Screenwriter Philippa Boyens, who wrote the script with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (the three previously wrote the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit films together) also spoke of the post-post-apocalyptic world of Mortal Engines. This is not a Mad Max movie where the first goal of every character is survival, she told us. The world has rebuilt itself into something new, and bigger questions are on the table:

"It's the aftermath of that. What the world should be. It places them very much where we are, kind of like we've all got choices that we should make about where we're going to go. This is a world that – this is a society that needs to make some choices about who it wants to be and where it wants to go."

She added: "Because the world would come back. The world is coming back."

This is Not a YA Tale

While the source novel was written for the young adult crowd, the filmmakers emphasized that they're not making a young adult movie. This is not Divergent or The Hunger Games. They have bigger things on their mind.

"I think the biggest thing that we've done [is to] shift it out of what I'd sort of characterized as YA," Rivers told us. "When we were sort of looking for partners to make the film, I drew a triangle between Mad Max, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. And I said, this film needs to land in the middle of those three. You know, it won't be any one of those, but that's a target there."

Boyens also compared Mortal Engines to a massively popular franchise, but says it reaches for that same turf by trying something completely new:

"This is a new world. It's an action adventure I think is the best way to describe it because we want it to be one of those films that we grew up with. I can remember when the first Star Wars came out."

Part of the process of stripping the YA out of Mortal Engines and transforming it into a more mature science fiction epic involved aging up the characters. Tom and Hester are teenagers in the novel, but the film makes them adults.

"They're more in the, like, Star Wars protagonist age group," Rivers said. "You know, they're not teenagers. They're sort of on that know that cusp – what am I going to do with my life? [...] They're, like, 15 or something in the books and we've definitely made them older than that."

Boyens said the choice to age up the characters came from the characters themselves. As you'd expect, Tom and Hester find themselves in the center of a love story and that story would carry more weight if they weren't star-crossed teens:

"It's quite extraordinary epic, heartbreaking but beautiful place that it ends, that that love story of Hester Shaw and Tom Natsworthy, but this is the beginning of it. And so, that was a trick. That was a trick. And that's why we aged the characters up. That was one of the reasons to do it."

And this is all very important to consider, as Jackson explained that this love story is the heart of the movie:

"It's a love story. It's an unlikely love story. It's, you know, about a young woman who doesn't really think that she will ever find love and she finds it through a very unexpected way in the middle of all this chaotic strange world that we're in. And I also just like the idea of seeing big cities eat other."

The World Only Gets Bigger

Of course, Mortal Engines is the first in the series of four books, a fact that was not lost on the filmmakers or visiting press. While most of the crew we spoke with assured us that this is a standalone film, Jackson was more than happy to discuss a potential franchise. After all, they had already used future books in the series to inform this first film:

"We have benefited, obviously, knowing now what's in the other books in the future. So, there are little subtle things we're doing that will help us flow into the other. They're not anything that changes anything much, but it's just stuff that, because we know what is going to happen in the future with these books in the story we're able to plant little things here and there that, you know, will be helpful to us...if we should be so lucky to make more films."

Jackson was also honest about the future books – they're better than the first book and he'd love to see them adapted:

"This is one movie that I hope is successful enough that we get to do the other stories because the other books are really...I mean, it just know, this story mushrooms in such unexpected ways in the future books. So, I really hope we get to make those films."

And while the cast and crew were clearly appreciative of Reeves' work, one thing was clear: these books were not a sacred text. With the novel fresh in my mind during the set visit, I often experienced whiplash. Major spoilers revealed drastic storytelling changes. Entire locations and characters have been excised and replaced with something new. The third act of the novel seems to have been massively reinvented and concept art implies something bigger and more spectacular than what was on the page.

Don't call Mortal Engines post-apocalyptic. Don't call it steampunk. Don't call it YA. But do call it a science fiction epic created by many of the folks responsible for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They have taken full ownership. And I couldn't be more excited to see what they cook up.