Mortal Engines is a clear attempt at a new fantasy series by the team behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Co-written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, the film takes place in a futuristic world where resources have greatly depleted and cities-on-wheels hunt each other. London becomes the strongest city, with its ultimate rival being the ground city of Shan Guo. Thaddeus Valentine (played by The Lord of the Rings favorite Hugo Weaving) is the obvious villain, being chased by Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who wants to avenge her mother’s death.
Mortal Engines seems to be Jackson’s attempt at making a young adult-focused film. The leads are a young woman fighting against men who have ruined her life, and a young man, an archaeologist who accidentally gets roped into fighting against his old belief in the corrupt city he lived in. These two work together with a band of rebels to combat the establishment. The film has little potential to become a series—it wraps up too nicely in the end. The plot was too complicated to get across in marketing, and while it was based on a book by Philip Reeve, the book was not popular enough to gain recognition through adaptation. Unfortunately, while Mortal Engines has all the makings of a blockbuster fantasy series, it doesn’t learn the mistakes of other failed films before it.
Unlike The Lord of the Rings or a YA series like The Hunger Games, the film fails to capture the social and political mood of today. The Hunger Games was so successful because it capitalized on the rise of feminism in young women through Katniss, a character who refuses to follow the tyrannical rule of the men in power and easily defies them. It also capitalized on the growing idea that the wealthiest in our society have too much power. Although it’s a fantasy film, The Hunger Games easily captured the feelings of young adults, especially young women, at the time when it came out. Mortal Engines should do this, and at points, it feels like the goal of the film. As the female lead, Hester feels like an obvious parallel to the Katniss archetype, but often, she cannot do anything other than need help. Sadly, Mortal Engines fails to mirror the psyche of modern-day young adults — and it’s a clear indicator of why it didn’t succeed.
The film heavily references our current world, but doesn’t do so in a way that is constructive. Throughout the archaeological scenes that explain how the moving cities came about, the film makes fun of our use of technology and our addiction to screens. Not only is the screen-addicted joke overdone, it only serves to alienate the younger demographic. It echoes the sentiment of many articles that blame the death of our economy and old traditions on Millennials and Gen Z. It felt like a clear indication that Jackson and his team have lost touch with the general feelings of young people.
Other references make a clear statement about the terrible political climate we are in today, insinuating that it leads to another world war, which wipes out every major city, leaving few people left. Despite taking a clear position on the dangers of ultimate power, the film’s solution does little to provide hope for the future. The team of rebels, composed entirely of women and people of color except for one white man, all die to save the lives of the two young white leads. The end shows the people of Shan Guo, again mostly people of color, accepting the residents of a destroyed London, almost entirely white. This message is not one of hope or acceptance, but rather one of sacrifice and whom the burden of sacrifice falls onto.
The film also seems to say that people of color bear the burden of sacrifice — they must die to save their people, including those that cheered for their death literally minutes earlier. The people of London cheer for the death of those different from them, but quickly the ruler of Shan Guo must accept them with open arms. This moment attempts to provide hope to the audience, but the real message coming through is that people of color must accept white people at their worst, no matter what they’ve done. Additionally, after the rebels sacrifice their lives to kill the white villain, Valentine, and save the white leads—Hester and Tom—those white leads literally float away, leaving behind any responsibility to the people of Shan Guo.
I’m not surprised that this film is becoming a flop. Its message is one that doesn’t align with the general thoughts of today. With the current political climate, the filmmakers should have pushed for a diverse cast that gets to live, and have more complex stories. Look at the midterm elections in November — women and people of color made historic change and were the groups that had the most grassroots support.
As much we want to pretend that studios push for diversity because it’s the right thing to do, it’s clear money is the motivating factor. But looking at the facts of this year, it’s clear that diversity is what brings money. In 2018, there were four black-led and black-directed films that surpassed $100 million dollars. Crazy Rich Asians broke records with an entirely Asian cast. Mortal Engines opened this weekend opposite Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, a film with a black lead that’s becoming wildly successful.
Despite the past success of The Lord of the Rings, and the perceived success of an almost all white (if not entirely white) cast, Jackson and his team have failed with this film. The ideas in it haven’t progressed as quickly as the world has, both off-screen and, to an extent, on-screen. Audiences will come out for films that matter, but Mortal Engines fails to do anything different, and its weak attempts heavily disappoint.
© Katherine Cutler (12/20/18) FF2 Media
Top photo: Hera Hilmar in Mortal Engines (2018)
Middle photo: Jihae in Mortal Engines (2018)
Bottom photo: Robert Sheehan and Hera Hilmar in Mortal Engines (2018)
Photo credits: IMDb