Full Steam Ahead: The Real Reason Why Mortal Engines Is Worth Revisiting

“Mortal Engines” may have flopped at the Box Office but it’s worth revisiting the film, especially for it’s message of female empowerment. The film’s main character, Hester Shaw is everything that young girls should look to as a role model, being a fiercely independent young woman who has to overcome her own fears and face her own flaws.

Firstly, I would just like to point out that it’s a daunting task for any filmmaker to adapt a well-loved novel for the big screen, and ofttimes the work that goes into screen adaptations is overlooked by the viewer. Philip Reeve‘s “Mortal Engines” saga was adored by many young adolescents, who lapped up the high concept narrative that Reeve had created. The first novel of the steampunk fantasy saga was released in 2001, the same year that the first “Harry Potter” film was released. There was a real appetite for family-friendly films set in magical worlds, with strong young heroes that the intended audience could relate to.

The film doesn’t quite succeed at what director Christian Rivers set out to do, but he makes a decent attempt to pull the viewer into this vast, expansive world. At its core “Mortal Engines” has a very unique and original premise. The film is so full of ambition that it’s hard not to be impressed by it, the problem is that it begins to crumble under the strain of all that ambition. However, if we look past these faults, we discover that the film has an important message at its core…One of female empowerment.

Hera Hilmer
Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw

The film is set hundreds of years in the future after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, caused by what is referred to as the “60-minute war”. The film’s heroine is a mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who seems hellbent on getting revenge on Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) and the city of London. In the world of “Mortal Engines” cities are now on wheels and London is one of the biggest, devouring everything in its path. Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang (Jihae), a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

“It is the character of Tom who is regarded as the more passive character, who relies on Hester’s intelligence and experience to get him out of trouble…Ultimately the film’s message becomes one of female empowerment and presenting the viewer with positive female role models.” 

The character of Hester Shaw is a breath of fresh air, and Hilmar brings to it a remarkable performance, capturing beautifully the young hero who has been fighting all her life in a brutal world. Hester is everything that young girls should look to as a role model, being a fiercely independent young woman who has to overcome her own fears and face her own flaws.

The fact that the character of Hester has a facial scar is something that we rarely see our young, female protagonists have in major Hollywood productions (especially considering how the industry is built on promoting a ‘perfect’ representation of beauty). For young girls to see the character of Hester in this way, is a reassuring sign that they can be more than just a ‘pretty girl’ and be respected for their intellect rather than judged on their appearances in alone.

The film is also refreshing in how it swaps the main narrator. In the novel, it is Tom who is the narrator and the reader sees the world through his eyes, seeing the events from his perspective. However, in the film, the world is first introduced through Hester’s eyes and we see many of the film’s events from Hester’s perspective, which makes for a refreshing change.

jihae-mortal.jpg
Jihae as the kick-ass Anna Fang

Hester Shaw isn’t the only female character who is complex, three-dimensional and fully developed. Jihae’s Anna Fang is the one that comes to the rescue of Tom and Hester, a nice reversal on the typical gender norms that we often see in these types of action/fantasy films. Anna Fang fits into the character archetype (the mentor/sage) that we would most associate with a male individual, picture Han Solo in “Star Wars”. She is essentially an updated version of the swashbuckling, smuggler who exisits outside the society’s rules.

Even Leila George‘s Katherine Valentine is expanded on in the film and is given more to do than the average pretty blonde love interest. Normally, we would see this type of character (the princess) being written out of the narrative once our main (male) character had left. However, her story still continues ad it is left up to her to attempt to stop her father’s plans and to assist Tom. In fact, it is the character of Tom who is regarded as the more passive character, who relies on Hester’s intelligence and experience to get him out of trouble, and relies on Anna Fang’s fighting techniques and piloting to rescue him. Ultimately the film’s message becomes one of female empowerment and presenting the viewer with positive female role models.

“The character of Hester Shaw is a breath of fresh air, and Hilmar brings to it a remarkable performance, capturing beautifully the young hero who has been fighting all her life in a brutal world. Hester is everything that young girls should look to as a role model, being a fiercely independent young woman.”

With “Mortal Engines” being a major bomb at the box office, it is more than likely that the rest of the books in Reeve’s series will not be adapted, which is a shame especially considering that the fantasy genre still remains a male-dominated field. At the end of the day, “Mortal Engines” is not a masterpiece but it is an enjoyable 90 minutes of escapism and it is refreshing to see a film attempting to balance the scales of gender equality on the big screen.

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