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Peter Jackson’s new cities-on-wheels movie, explained

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The cities eat other cities, which is probably a metaphor

Concept art from Mortal Engines, posted on Peter Jackson’s Facebook page.
Concept art from Mortal Engines.
Universal Pictures

You might have been introduced to Mortal Engines by its teaser trailer. Or maybe it was the initial announcement last year. Or maybe, just maybe, you’re an old-school fan of the 2001 novel from Phillip Reeve.

However you’ve come to be interested in Mortal Engines, Peter Jackson’s latest blockbuster, you need an introduction or a refresher. Look no further.

What is Mortal Engines?

Mortal Engines is a 2018 sci-fi film from Universal Pictures, based on the novel of the same name. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic Europe in an area known as The Great Hunting Ground, which encompasses most of the European and part of the Asian continents. Sometime in the past, human civilization was fundamentally changed by an event known as the Sixty Minute War, implied to be a frenzy of nuclear exchange between America and China.

Since then, a civilization has oriented itself around “traction cities,” the core sci-fi concept of the movie, and the Great Hunting Ground is the largest concentration of them.

What are traction cities?

I’m going to leave you with this paragraph from the Mortal Engines fan wiki:

Traction Cities are vast metropolises built on tiers that move on gigantic wheels or caterpillar tracks. These cities hunt smaller cities (in order to tear them apart for resources and fuel) which in turn hunt towns which in turn hunt villages and static settlements. This practice is known as Municipal Darwinism, which was created by Nicholas Quirke and is based on the evolutionary theories of the ancient philosopher Charles Darwin.

Larger cities typically have mechanisms known as “jaws” to drag smaller cities into their “gut,” a tier of factories and furnaces where the smaller city is stripped for parts and artifacts, while its people are either incorporated into the underclass of the larger city’s population or enslaved.

Cities that eat other cities are known as — wait for it — Urbivores. A great deal of humanity lives in traction cities or is terrorized by them, but airships and remote stationary outposts also exist.

What is Mortal Engines about?

Mortal Engines is based on Phillip Reeve’s 2001 young adult novel, and its three sequels, a series called the Mortal Engines Quartet. The books follow the adventures of apprentice historian Tom Natsworthy (he’ll be played by Robert Sheehan of Misfits fame) and Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who features prominently in the first teaser for the movie.

In the first installment of Mortal Engines, Tom and Hester find themselves attempting to thwart the plans of the head of London’s Guild of Historians, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who is looking for the secret to an ancient superweapon from before the Sixty Minute War. They are hampered by the deadly steampunk cyborg assassin, Shrike (Stephen Lang), who the Lord Mayor of London hired to kill them.

Is Peter Jackson making Mortal Engines?

Yes, but he’s not directing it. Mortal Engines will be the first screenplay from Jackson and partners Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens to not be directed by Jackson himself. Instead, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens are staying in the producers’ chairs, while Christian Rivers directs.

Rivers has spent his career working on storyboards and visual effects in Peter Jackson productions, as well as a second unit director in the Hobbit trilogy, King Kong (2005) and Pete’s Dragon. Mortal Engines will be his first feature-length directing gig.

When does Mortal Engines come out?

Dec. 14, 2018.