Mortal Combat: The clash of values in Mortal Engines

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw in Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.

A thousand years in the future, the high-tech world of the 21st-century is ancient history. It is of interest only to archaeologists who look for old tech – fragments left after from the 60-minute war which wiped away civilisation around the globe. Facing dwindling resources, the towns and cities have become mobile, travelling around the plains on vast caterpillar tracks in pursuit of smaller, slower towns which are sources of valuable resources as well as potential competition. This is “Municipal Darwinism” – survival of the fastest. The largest of the predator cities is London – a vast multi-deck machine with enormous metal jaws into which can be drawn prey such as the small mining town which attempts to escape at the start of this story.

One of the captives, her scarred face concealed by a red scarf, is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) who fixes her gaze on famous archaeologist Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). She has spent months waiting for this – the moment when she can plunge her knife into the man who killed her mother. Apprentice historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), sent down to London’s gut to rescue old tech for the museum before it can be swept into the furnaces, spots the danger and saves Valentine from a second, fatal wound.

Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy in Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.
Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy in Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.

Killing machines

Hester escapes the city through the waste chute, soon followed by Tom when Valentine shoves him. Hester sees Tom as a liability in the desolate, track-scarred wasteland, but he needs her if he is to survive. They eventually team up with outlaw Anna Fang (Jihae), heroine of the Anti-Traction League which fights to bring an end to the vicious competitiveness of Municipal Darwinism.

Hester, however, is being pursued by Shrike (Stephen Lang), a cyborg built around a reanimated corpse – the last of the terrifying “Stalker” killing machines. But there is something extraordinary about this one: there remains a glimmer of humanity in him. When Hester was eight years old, after escaping from the murderous Valentine, Shrike had found her and brought her up – yet now he is intent on killing her. Can Hester and Tom escape Shrike and make it to the Anti-Traction League city of Shan Guo in time to save it from London’s assault on the enormous Shield Wall defending it against the traction cities?

Shrike in Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.
Shrike in Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.

Based on the bestselling 2001 novel by Philip Reeve, the first of the Mortal Engines quartet (it is followed by Predator’s Gold [2003], Infernal Devices [2005] and A Darkling Plain [2006]; there are also prequels, including the three Fever Crumb books), this is a great fantasy adventure story. It departs from the book’s storyline in some significant ways, but captures the feel of the novel and does a superb job of bringing the world to life. Reeve says,

They’ve made a lot of changes to the world, characters, and themes of the book, (and the weather is nicer) but it’s still basically the same story. The opening twenty minutes or so are essentially what I wrote all those years ago, and even when it takes its own path later on there are lots of moments and images which come straight from the book.

Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.
Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.

Conflicting values

Mortal Engines is a story of sharply conflicting values. While the traction cities are motivated by hunting and consuming other cities to become the apex predator, the Anti-Traction League value a settled, cooperative way of life. David Owen writes in The Guardian:

It’s easy to see in the novel the destructive hallmarks of late capitalism: environmental devastation; over-reliance on non-renewable energy and untenable farming practices; healthcare that values profit over patients; apathy toward a democratic system we assumed was fair but now see is easily manipulated. A society, eating itself (literally, in Reeve’s novel) for the short term gain of the few, over a sustainable future that benefits us all.

Reeve says that he did not see his stories as political or social commentary, though he acknowledges that “Anything that’s any good is going to reflect society in some way. It has to have some purchase on real life.”

 Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.
Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.

Mirror images

There are many more contrasts, of course, between characters. The dashing Valentine is the mirror image of Tom in some key respects. They share a passion for what the “ancients” achieved with old tech, but while Tom sees history as teaching vital lessons to his world, Valentine claims “The past is dead” and plunders it to give him power in the present. Valentine sees weapons that can wipe out a whole city in a moment to be a glorious demonstration of mastery, while Tom recognises their unspeakable evil. The lust for domination can drive people to do terrible things – and Valentine has the power, charisma, and ruthlessness to accomplish anything. Tom, though, is a mere apprentice historian with no power or influence – a nobody who can change almost nothing.

Hester and Katharine Valentine (Leila George) are also presented as opposites: the former disfigured by scars (which is downplayed in the film), an outsider verging on being feral, but immensely capable; the latter beautiful, well-connected, and sophisticated, but naïve. Katherine’s beauty and charm dazzle Tom when he meets her, but when circumstances force him and Hester together, he learns to look past her tough exterior to see qualities that perhaps even Hester herself is initially unaware of. At one point Tom needs rescuing and Hester returns for him. “See,” exclaims Tom, “I said you’d come back for me!” Hester’s reply is brief and to the point: “Shut up and run.”

Jihae as Anna Fang in Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.
Jihae as Anna Fang in Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.

This takes us to one of the most interesting contrasts – between the fully human Hester, who is remorselessly driven by deep emotion to kill Valentine for revenge, and the almost entirely inhuman Shrike, who is inexorably driven by logic to kill Hester for something that can only be described as kindness. Hester has given in to hatred; Shrike has just enough residual humanity for the most profound of all human qualities to still be present: love and compassion.

The source of values

Such contrasting values raise the question of where they come from. Some are clearly presented as commendable (Tom’s decency or Anna Fang’s courage), while others are seen as problematic (the cruelty of the slavers), yet there is no obvious basis within this fictional world for deciding between them. Why is Municipal Darwinism such a bad thing? Is the weapon that Valentine wants to use inherently evil, or is the loss of many lives a necessary price to pay for securing the future for many more? Why do we instinctively know that there is something right about Shrike’s care for Hester, even if he is wrong in thinking he must kill her?

 Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.
Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.

A common answer is that values within a society develop because it helps people live together. But the brutal competitiveness of the predator cities shows that competition for resources and power might be expected to – and often does – result in horrible conflict. Yet we instinctively sense that such a dog-eat-dog existence is not how things should be. Mortal Engines puts this issue in sharp relief.

There is religious imagery (much more in the book), but it is almost always part of the background, a cultural artefact like St Paul’s Cathedral or the “American gods” in the museum. There is one exception in Shan Guo when a character prays at a shrine. Whether Philip Reeve or the screenwriters realise it or not, that exception (and the many prayers and offerings to city gods made in the book) reminds us that the religious instinct is extremely deep in the human heart. It is not a desperate response to a sense of being alone in the universe, but a fundamental longing to have a connection with our creator. As the Bible observes, God “has planted eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). This is also reflected in the idea of Shrike being a “resurrected man” and Hester being killed just “for a little while”. We have eternity in our hearts because we were created by God to live in relationship with him.

 Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.
Mortal Engines © Universal Pictures 2018. Used by permission.

The real resurrected man

The Bible’s account of humanity’s origins explains both the most noble and the most depraved aspects of our nature. We are good because we bear God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and it is his very nature that determines what is good – he is the ultimate source of all moral values. That makes us capable of love, compassion, loyalty, courage, and much more. But humanity turned its back on God in an attempt to be autonomous, and that results in greed, jealousy, conflict, violence and more – to “biting and devouring one other” (Galatians 5:15).

Is there any hope for us, with such divided natures? The Bible insists that there is because of a real Resurrected Man. The true Resurrected Man is not a cyborg constructed around a corpse, but the Son of God, born as baby at the first Christmas, who grew up and claimed that he was the only way by which we can be reconciled to God, who was brutally killed for saying so, yet who rose from the dead vindicating all his claims. The resurrected life that Shrike offered Hester was a mere shadow of humanity; the resurrected life Jesus promises to those who trust him will be the perfect, eternal fulfilment of all that we were created to be.

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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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