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Mortal Engines is like Star Wars on Middle-earth but lacks memorable characters

In a world where cities are humungous all-terrain vehicles, Peter Jackson and Christian Rivers' Mortal Engines gets bogged down.

There’s a lot riding on the occasionally spectacular if curiously forgettable made-in-Wellywood Mortal Engines – the city of London for one thing. Thousands of years into a post-apocalyptic future, the capital is a juggernaut on caterpillar tracks. It’s now prowling a sparsely populated Earth consuming smaller “traction cities”. Because? “Municipal Darwinism”, says the film in its exposition-heavy beginning. There was an apocalyptic war causing continental and volcanic upheaval, hence the need for mobile towns.

That war bombed the planet back to the industrial age. Thus, it’s a world where cities are now humungous all-terrain vehicles but no one is on Facebook.

That’s the setting of the first of Philip Reeve’s young-adult books, which is directed by long-time Peter Jackson lieutenant Christian Rivers from a script by Jackson, Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens in the first film for the trio since fleeing Middle-earth.

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It feels like a bit of a punt, a hopeful attempt to launch a fantasy franchise from a little-known book series, one with a quirky steampunk aesthetic that might risk condemning it to screen cult-dom, and one arriving after YA screen adaptations have stopped being a thing.

In the movie, though, the retro-tech isn’t pronounced and its hero couple Hester Shaw and Tom Natsworthy have gone from book teenagers to big-screen twentysomethings.

Those Pacman cities might suggest a story about consumerism and saving dwindling planetary resources. But on-screen, Mortal Engines works more like a well-known space saga. After all, its central plot is about a tall guy (London’s chief boffin Thaddeus Valentine, played by Hugo Weaving), whose ambitions of empire get a devastating superweapon, but who faces opposition from spirited youngsters who join an alliance to defeat him.

It also, perhaps inevitably, resembles Middle-earth. One pivotal scene involves rays from a giant glowing orb and a wall across a valley between two realms.

Visually, it’s faithful to the  Weta house style and it largely takes place against the sort of digital backdrop that made The Hobbit feel a less convincing world than the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

As London steams on its way and we’re down in the city’s bowels, Mortal Engines can resemble those early mind-bending fantasies of Terry Gilliam. But although it offers an initially intriguing world, its residents are less so. As Hester and Tom, strangers thrown into the wilderness after she tries to kill Valentine, Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan struggle to give their characters much presence and their supposed love story comes with less chemistry than generated by Sam and Frodo.

Slightly confusingly, early on we’re introduced to another mismatched couple, Katherine Valentine and Bevis Pod, but they are barely seen again.

Elsewhere, Weaving isn’t much fun as the mad scientist and – other than Shrike, a kind of Franken-Orc with Hester in his sights, and cool rebel leader Anna Fang – Mortal Engines lacks memorable characters. It’s all a bit serious, especially for a movie about giant cities playing dodgems.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.