Peter Jackson and Co. brought the first 25 minutes of Mortal Engines to NYCC, and it's time to get seriously excited

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Oct 5, 2018, 2:26 PM EDT

The latest epic from Peter Jackson and his mighty fellowship of companions is almost upon us, and today the great Sir Peter and company brought that epic thundering into New York Comic Con 2018 with the might of the always-rolling city of London.

The new film is called Mortal Engines, based on the hit YA novel by Philip Reeve. There are four books in the series, and if this first film is successful, we will potentially get more of them. Longtime Jackson protege Christian Rivers is in the director's chair, while Jackson has adapted the screenplay alongside Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh. The film stars Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan, and will also include Stephen Lang (Avatar), Colin Salmon (Krypton), Jihae, Leila George, and Jackson alum Hugo Weaving (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit).

The film will depict how a mostly steampunk-operated society exists in the future —humanity mostly lives on giant, ever-moving cities. When a larger city overtakes a smaller one, it "eats" the smaller city, assimilating its resources and people. The action is fast and furious in Reeves' book, so it will doubtlessly be even more epic on the big screen.

We learned more about this upcoming adventure when the Mortal Engines panel rolled its way into the con, which included Rivers, Boyens, Jihae, Sheehan, Lang, Hilmar, George, and Jackson himself.

As if that group weren't enough, the brilliant Andy Serkis moderated the panel, letting the audience know that he has "post-franchise" depression, as three of his big characters snuffed it this past year (Snoke, Caesar, and Klaue). He kicked things off in royal style, surprising everyone that they would be showing the first 25 minutes of the movie itself.

***WARNING: Mild spoilers for MORTAL ENGINES will follow. If you don't want anything spoiled, roll your city on out of here immediately.***

It's clear right from the start that they are going with an "alternative history" approach to the story (much as the Middle-earth films did), touching on how humanity almost destroyed itself and how we are now in "the age of the great predator cities."

Without giving too much away, there are glimpses of Hester Shaw (Helmar) aboard a small city, before it soon finds itself in peril — think Mad Max: Fury Road, but featuring giant cities instead of cars. The rest of the opening plays out much like the book, introducing Valentine (Weaving) and offering glimpses of London's underbelly (a steamy-geared paradise), and much more.

After the footage, Serkis put some questions to the panel. Jackson said that he optioned the books after he read them in 2006-2007 — "We did about a year's worth of work, Christian [Rivers] did pre-vis, and then The Hobbit came along." That put them out of commission for five years, but when they came out of that, Rivers had done some second unit on The Hobbit. Jackson suggested to Rivers that "he might enjoy directing his first big feature film." That's exactly what happened.

Boyens explained why the film/book is called what it is. "These cities, yeah they are huge engines, but they are teeming with life... almost a human organism," she explained, adding: "The other way it works, it's a life cycle, 'Municipal Darwinism'... even these giant cities can fall. Finally, very cleverly, it speaks to the character of Shrike... the mortal engine... an imitation of humanity. Is he human, is he mortal, or is he a machine?"

Helmar was obviously interested in playing Heter Shaw, saying if anyone got the chance they'd of course say "Hell yeah." A female heroine of such dynamics is rare, and she definitely wanted to seize on the opportunity. "Suddenly we were in New Zealand, and we were prepping, and it was happening," she said, after discussing the Skype-based audition process.

Sheehan's character, Tom Natsworthy, starts the film as a "tractionist," someone who believes in the life of mobile cities. We know from the book (and the footage) that he doesn't stay this way for long. "He kind of, for me, was a beacon of light, positivity; no matter what comes at him he can bravely tackle it, deal with it. That's kind of who Tom is," Sheehan said.

Katherine Valentine, played by George, has been "brought up to respect class and social understanding," as George said. Still, she has a "huge heart" and is always willing to help however she can. We're going to be meeting her at the point in her life when she finds out truly what real life is all about. "You get woken up to what is really happening. Her journey is one of great strength. We see her grow from a girl to a really strong woman," she says.

Anna Fang is one of the "coolest characters ever," as Serkis said, asking actress Jihae more about her. Fang lives in the skies, and we saw her face in wanted posters during the first 25 minutes. "Her mission is to protect the only natural haven left on Earth, and to stop London... she's sort of an environmental activist," she said. She'll be sword fighting as well as kung fu fighting, and, well, we're pretty sure that Anna Fang will be a hit.

The character Shrike, played by Lang, was once a man. After he was killed, his body was taken, cleaned out, and had a metal chassis put inside of it. A former "Stalker," Shrike is now a bounty hunter who collects dolls, constantly opening them. His mind is "a sleet of static," as Lang says, and Shrike is constantly searching. It's unclear as to what he's looking for at first, though he knows he's connected in some great way to Hester Shaw. "She's irreplaceable to him, so he goes on his own quest to bring her back."

Lang continued, "I started off with the name Shrike, which is a predatory bird," getting inspiration from that, including his physicality. He used the "slightly robotic" way that a swan-playing dancer moved, as well as "a lot of other s**t too," as Lang said.

According to Jackson, this film isn't really "post-apocalyptic" at all. As he said, "What I like to think of it, it's not post-apocalyptic, we're past that, it's post-post-apocalyptic." What happened to them could happen to us, 60 years from now maybe, or as Jackson said, "the way things are going it could be Tuesday."

Jackson continued, "Eventually society rebuilds itself, and cities rise from the rubble, and they end up on wheels, chasing each other on the plains that were formerly Europe." He added that London is not the biggest city, not by a long shot. There are bigger ones to be seen. "We wanted to make London a cultural city," he said, a "fully functioning society" that includes museums and theaters and the like. The footage fully supports this, as it definitely looked like a full-fledged city... which just happened to be chasing another one.

"The age of the traction cities has been going on for 500 years... the prey that these cities rely on... the prey is becoming more and more scarce," Jackson adds. "The whole age of the traction cities, they're finding it harder to survive. There's tension in the world as to what will happen next."

Jackson finished by saying that if enough people come to see this movie, "we'll be allowed to make the next one." It's a full series of books, after all. After revealing a brand new trailer, this particular panel of engines shut down.

Mortal Engines will devour cinemas on Dec. 14.

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