Spoilers ahead for Mortal Engines.
In a post-apocalyptic future, entire cities whose resources are dwindling will be forced to move around on wheels, consuming smaller towns for parts and fuel. Or, at least, this is the world we’re dropped into in Mortal Engines, a new film released December 14 and based on the first of four novels in Philip Reeve's series of the same name. Think Mad Max-meets-Howl’s Moving Castle with a dash of Star Wars, and you get this action-packed, fantastical film, that villanizes imperialism and the blinding madness that comes with seeking power.
Its production teams include the Lord of the Rings series’ Peter Jackson, along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and is Christian Rivers’ directorial debut.
Much of the world in Mortal Engines functions on a concept of "Municipal Darwinism," in which large traction cities absorb smaller ones to survive. The action is set around London, a city that is one of the most powerful predators. In this future, it looks like a Victorian-era steampunk version of the city, topped with St. Paul’s Cathedral. London captures a small mining village at the beginning of the film, and pilot-turned-historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), rushes in to collect the town’s old tech (artifacts) from “the ancients” (we, the denizens of 2018, seem to fit the bill) to preserve in London’s museum. Little does anyone know that the scar-faced Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), is one of the residents seeking refuge in London from the absorbed village with the intent to kill one of its leaders, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving).
Hester succeeds in stabbing Valentine and announce that she’s seeking revenge for the murder of her mother, which she blames on Valentine. Tom stops her from killing him and, after a dramatic chase, Hester repeats her accusations before she disappears. Valentine, worried that Tom has heard too much, pushes Tom over of a railing and off of London.
From there, Tom joins the independent and stubborn Hester as they look for a way back into London and run into a litany of challenges — including that Hester is being pursued by Shrike, a resurrected robot-warrior-person (known as a “resurrected man”) who is intent on scouring the Earth until she’s dead.
Tom and Hester are eventually picked up by the badass Anna Fang (Jihae) who brings them to meet her fellow members of the Anti-Traction League, a rebel group that rejects "Municipal Darwinism” and lives in a static city protected by an impenetrable “Shield Wall.” They ban together to protect against Valentine, who is secretly using a piece of powerful old tech,a nuclear-type weapon called Medusa, that he murdered Hester’s mother for in order to destroy the wall, take up all the East’s resources, and effectively control everything. The Anti-Traction League fights back. Anna Fang dies valiantly while fighting Valentine. Using a hidden key given to her by her mother, Hester manages to deactivate the weapon and stop London from destroying the wall and the lives behind it. Valentine looks like he’s been crushed under the very city he tried to control. That ending leaves us with a couple of loose ends we can attempt to tie up.
Is Valentine actually dead?
It seems so — Valentine’s helicopter crashes in front of London and we see it start to move over him after it bursts into flames. But we don’t actually see him die and he’s a crafty guy, so it’s possible he escapes before getting crushed. We stayed after the credits to see if he’d appear at the very end, but alas he did not.
Is Valentine Hester’s father?
During a final standoff between Hester and Valentine, the villain looks at our heroine as she recalls romantic memories between him and her mother. In a surprise admission, Valentine says,"Your mother never told you, did she?" And still tries to kill her. Worst dad ever. Besides the little zippy fighter jets, this was the other moment that gave us serious Star Wars vibes.
Why did Shrike let Hester go?
We learn that Shrike helped raise Hester after her mother was killed and, despite supposedly not having feelings, he develops a father-like bond with her. Hester left Shrike to avenge her mother’s death, breaking her promise that she would stay and become “resurrected” like him. Shrike doesn’t take to broken promises so well. When he confronts her later, he sees her love for Tom reflected in her eyes and understands that she is capable of feeling. Her capacity for love reminds him of his vague memory of his son in his past life and decides to let her go. He dies peacefully, knowing she’ll be ok.
Why do the “tractionists” people hate the “anti-tractionists” so much?
The people on London are starved for food, fuel, and other goods, so they are desperate. Those in charge use those living in static cities as a scapegoat, making them out to be terrible people who are hoarding resources. It’s a power play on the part of the leaders, and ultimately is a tension that plays into classicism and colonialism (notice that London, the West, wants to take over and control Shan Guo, the East).
Will the static people and moving people be able to leave peacefully?
It seems that they will, now that Valentine isn’t there to preach hatred to the Londoners anymore. Though there will likely be growing pains, the leaders and people of Shan Guo are accepting of all people and strive to unite rather than divide, so hopefully things will change for the better.
Why didn’t Hester and Tom stay in Shan Guo?
Now that the couple can be airborne in Anna Fang’s plane and Tom wants to see the world, it’s only natural that they don’t want to stay in one place. While in theory they’re anti-traction, their love (sorry) is not.
Why didn’t Hester and Tom kiss in the end?
Just a hug? After everything they went through? It was honestly pretty disappointing.