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‘Mortal Engines’ never builds up a good head of steam

December 15, 2018

This is roughly the 352nd attempt to bring a dystopian young adult novel series to the big screen, trying to reignite the “Hunger Games” flame (a feat attempted by “The 5th Wave,” “City of Ember,” “The Giver,” the confusingly similar “Mortal Instruments,” and two almost-there series: “The Maze Runner” and the “Divergent” franchise).

The difference is that, since about 2009, “Mortal Engines” has been a pet project of “Lord of the Rings” filmmaker Peter Jackson, who co-wrote the film and serves as a producer.

It’s easy to see his fingerprints all over the amazing New Zealand landscape and cutting-edge graphics in its steampunk set design. The nagging issue is that it never claws its way far enough from its thematically similar brethren to feel unique, both with its story and its visuals.

Instead, we feel a sense of deja vu throughout: designs borrowed from “Frankenstein,” “Mad Max,” “The Terminator,” even Jackson’s “Rings” and “Hobbit” franchises loom over the proceedings, and the writing is never strong enough to elevate the story.

And as much as Jackson’s visual prowess helps, his refusal to use the “edit” button keeps “Engines” running long after it should have crossed the finish line.

Directed by Jackson’s award-winning visual effects artist Christian Rivers, “Engines” paints us a portrait of the world after the “60-Minute War” that left it barren and susceptible to earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and other natural disasters. To avoid this, cities have become mobile, roaming the planet. Led by archaeologist Thaddeus Valentine (played by Hugo Weaving), London now rolls around, preying on smaller “cities” for their resources.

One town in particular is the home of Hester Shaw (played by Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), a scarred young woman who has an old score to settle with Valentine.

Unfortunately, this rather simple revenge fantasy gets weighed down with far too many inconsequential subplots instead of letting us inhabit the world they have constructed.

Rivers, equipped with Jackson’s Wingnut Studios CGI magicians, gives the film an organic polish that looks lived-in and authentic, but every beat of its narrative feels far too generic, and even the younger viewers will be able to predict the various “twists” within. It ultimately renders the film as little more than a potential franchise starter.

And while the world it creates is intriguing, the rote storytelling does not convince me that a fulfilling franchise will ever come to pass.

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.