More People Should Watch: Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines has been doing terribly in theaters.
Which is sad, because this epic steampunk adventure is, if I may say, probably better than it’s competition -specifically Spiderman and Aquaman, if the trailers are any indication of them as yet more generic superhero films. Indeed, Mortal Engines has already made it onto my list of favorite films, ever.
Here’s what Mortal Engines has got going for it:

  • Stunning, Imaginative World
  • Plenty of Action
  • Mysterious, Half-Revealed Characters
  • Deep Questions about the Nature of Humanity and the World

What’s not to like?
I am also extremely biased, as I read the Mortal Engines Quartet years ago.  In fact it is the earliest book series I explicitly remember checking out from a library on my own initiative, over half my life ago.  I imagine relatively few people have read them, as they were never a bestseller, arriving before Harry Potter mania really started.
The movie, need I say, is visually stunning. It is one of those stories, just on the edge of the familiar, but yet patently alien, which is where fiction really shines. The various steampunk creations, gaudy and creative, are just… fun. The soundtrack has grown on me as well, for its bold drama.
This is a film filled with power.
From the ground to the skies, people are in motion, living, struggling, and dying at a rapid pace. This isn’t a world of people sitting down to watch Netflix and get fat on cookies. These people are dreamers, filling their land with creativity and color. Danger has forced these people to live, and the beauty of their actions, both good and evil, is something I absolutely love.
Most futuristic films rebuild the current world, but just make it a bit shinier. Mortal Engines imagines a completely changed world, that has significantly evolved beyond that of our own. Yes, having cities on tracks seems impractical to us, but what makes this world far more accurate than most future worlds is that it makes you feel like things have changed. If we were to step into the future, it would be terribly alien to us. And here in Mortal Engines we see just that – a terrifying, amazing, familiar-yet-alien world.
mortal engines
And in case you were wondering what the plausible explanation for having cities on moving tracks is, it is this: quantum weapons made the earth and the environment unstable. A tsunami strikes one place, a new volcano crops up another, and so on (this is shown in the background, but never really explained in the film, a notable flaw in my opinion). While there are still resources to be had, the safest option is to be mobile. And if you are advanced society, you’re not just going to walk everywhere, you’re going to build big all-terrain RV’s -and thus the beginning of traction cities.
I think my love for the movie also comes down to how thought provoking it is. Tech, quite literally, is behind the very engines of this world. However, tech, at least in the form of handheld gadgets, is also rare in this future world. There’s a charming scene about dragging out a battered toaster from a bin as a rare, treasured piece of antiquity. That scene is great, and yet thought about more deeply, that is what exactly what archeology is! Personally, I was thrilled to be pulling bits of amphora out of the ground of Rome, but really amphora are just the plastic bottles of ancient Rome, imagine if I found the equivalent of a Roman toaster!?! It would be very cool, as we do know so little about the Roman kitchen, finding their kitchen utensils in decent shape would be an important find. For your average viewer, that scene is shallow, comic irony, but behind the scenes it’s actually the most powerful demonstration of how time progresses which I have ever seen.
The film also hints at many other rich themes. Environmentalism is clearly reflected on, as the city moves across the land, crushing trees insignificantly beneath it. The shots present of barren plains crisscrossed by the giant ruts left behind by behemoth cities really reflects on the footprint -or trackprint- we humans so blindly leave behind in our industrial waste.
Halfway between reality and a metaphor, this kind of imagery is startlingly powerful.
Particularly great is the mention of “Municipal Darwinism” as a step forward in civilization, away from the less civilized ancients, which is what they think of us. Of course, we think our society far exceeds that of the world seen in the film -but is it really? We are in fact far more destructive to the world in our billions than a handful of predator cities would be.
This is a theme: reflecting on how we humans have a way of always thinking of ourselves as “the most civilized, ever,” when in fact we are little different from the past, our current neighbors, or the future. It is a great theme, and yet, that is far, far too deep for the average person on the street to understand. Normal people like themes like “white (good) beats black (evil) in the end,” “love is awesome,” or “every person, even the meek, have hidden talents and greatness.” Those themes are simple at best, and in reality more along the lines of racist and wrong. Mortal Engines isn’t a perfect film, but at least it has the courage to bring real issues to mind, in a beautiful and dramatic way.
There are many other themes the film shows, but doesn’t not explain. We can clearly see classicism, emphasized by those London Tier badges. The forced labor, marketed as “guaranteed jobs in an uncertain world” of those people captured by city -and how it appears to be welcome by many, is another complicated issue we see.
Let’s just say those critics who took it upon themselves to decry the lack of serious themes, well apparently they didn’t watch the film, because I am seeing quite a lot of those.
Characters are complicated in this movie, and Shrike is the most complicated of the lot. Mostly, he got made into a convenient villain to keep the plot moving, a flaw I will acknowledge. That said, there is quite a lot to him. He’s part human, part killing machine. You are forced to ask: what is he? Was he human? Is he still human? Which, of course, is exactly the point.  I also love how Shrike’s role changes and ends in the book series, but that’s all I shall speak of that here.
These characters just aren’t quite stereotypes, and I don’t think most viewers in the audience are comfortable with that. Take the Lord Mayor of the City of London. A stern, old-fashioned elitist if I ever saw, an imperial admiral straight out of Star Wars. Except he’s not, he doesn’t want to destroy the world, and you can tell he’s not evil, just conservative and in love with traditions. Then take bad guy number one: Thaddeus Valentine. Evil bad guy who will use his super-weapon to take over the world: another character seemingly straight out of Star Wars. And yet he isn’t quite: you can tell he is genuinely interested in archeology, family, and other things out of character for Mr. Evil. You begin to suspect that there is a lot more to him than power-hungry madmen.
The critics think the characters are weak, but really, were the characters actually too strong, when the critics were just expecting stereotypes? These characters aren’t stereotypes, but half revealed glimpses of people more complicated. The lack of simple explanations for their motives (which is what stereotypes serve) drives the masses mad. Indeed, only one character – Hesta Shaw – has any blatant motives shown to us at all.
And that’s a great thing.
When was the last time you met a real person whose entire life story was explained by one event? Almost never. Mortal Engines purchases this realism for its characters, but at the great cost of losing acceptance from the mob.
Mortal Engines is really a film with two levels. The first level is very shallow: evil guy wants to take over the world, and is stopped by heroic young people. The second level is very deep, many rich themes overlapping in a beautiful way across a thought-provoking world. The movie is far more about showing things, very little about explicitly telling you them. I think that is part of the strength of this film.
Above all, this film really questions the position of humanity in our world, and that is my true love of it. Is our current order truly the natural one? Is not our current society terribly destructive? Would we take for granted a system of exploitation and destruction?
Those are exactly the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves, but those are also the kinds of questions most people don’t want to face.
Like I said, it’s not a perfect film, but really it’s at least as good as average. So why the commonality of terrible reviews? It is, I argue, because people don’t want to face these kinds of questions. This film should bring a sense of wonder and provoke great deep late-night discussions. And yet it does not, for which I blame the viewers, and not the viewed.
Humanity, you should be better. But yet, we are not. The beautiful distopia of Mortal Engines is, I fear, actually a better world in many ways than our own.

2 thoughts on “More People Should Watch: Mortal Engines”

  1. Christine Catlin

    Huh, I don’t remember the books but they sound familiar. It does have some asthetically pleasing imagery from what I saw in the trailer! Looks exciting. I’ve never seen a steampunk movie. I like the gears and machinery in the city. Modern but historic at the same time. Well written essay though, you must have really liked it. Weird it has such poor ratings!

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