Can a Hollywood blockbuster be anti-capitalist? No, according to ‘Mortal Engines’

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Dec. 14, 2018 / 9:44 PM GMT

By Noah Berlatsky

Can a big-budget Hollywood epic tell an anti-capitalist story?

Director Christian Rivers’ new “Mortal Engines” film answers that question with a clear, grinding, belching, “no!” The bloated Hollywood machine can’t oppose capitalism — though it can, via great metal jaws, eat anti-capitalism for breakfast.

The 2001 novel “Mortal Engines” by Philip Reeve, on which the movie is based, is a bleak meditation on capitalism and imperialism disguised as an imaginative steampunk goof. The book (and novel) are set in a distant, post-apocalyptic future, in which cities have become mobile. Metropolises roam the barren land, chasing down and ingesting smaller cities for their raw materials. The large and strong prey on the small and weak, in accordance with the principles of Municipal Darwinism — a term that winks at the rapacious, 19th-century philosophy of Social Darwinism. The only morality, according to Municipal Darwinism, is consume or be consumed, which is, Reeves suggests, a familiar mantra for the present day.

The best part of “Mortal Engines” the movie, and the part of the film that is truest to the book, are the visuals.

The best part of “Mortal Engines” the movie, and the part of the film that is truest to the book, are the visuals. “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson, who developed the project, is much celebrated for his baroque aesthetic. That makes him a perfect fit for a grimy, retro-future nightmare. The opening sequence, in which a giant mobile London chases down and devours a small Bavarian mining town, is a masterpiece of hyperbolic Hollywood magic. The film’s look touches on Terry Gilliam and the early “Star Wars” films, but unfolds into uniquely gritty absurdity. The movie brings to life Reeve’s world, in which the early industrial age never ended, and the future is an extended Dickensian nightmare, with monstrous Gradgrind’s chasing each other joylessly around a barren earth.

When you look closer at the grit, though, you start to see the telltale Hollywood polish underneath. The most obvious example involves the main heroine. In the book, Hester Shaw has “a terrible scar [that] ran down her face from forehead to jaw, making it look like a portrait that had been furiously crossed out.” Her mouth is twisted, her nose is “a smashed stump” and one of her eyes is destroyed. Yet in the movie, Shaw (Hera Hilmar) is barely disfigured. She has a minor scar off to the side, which if anything accentuates her leading lady perfection.

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The rest of the movie assiduously tidies up the novel’s other scars as well. The complicated plot is streamlined into a “Star Wars” riff, complete with Death Star weapon and “I am your father” climax. Several of the major character deaths — which give the book a ruthless, Darwinian bite — are abandoned for a more standard, happily ever after ending. In the book, the villain, Thaddeus Valentine (played by Hugo Weaving in the movie) is a weak man, who is evil because he compromises with an evil system in part out of love for his daughter. In the film, however, he’s a standard-issue, power-hungry megalomaniac.

More subtly, but more tellingly, the film’s adventure plot simply rolls over the main thematic content of the book. Mobile London, in the novel, is a wonderful mechanism. But it’s powered by suffering. Katherine Valentine (Leila George), Thaddeus’ privileged daughter, learns with horror that her comfort is made possible by a throng of workers in the bowels of the city, called the Gut. In the novel’s most stomach-churning scene, Katherine watches prison slave laborers wading in raw sewage, which they are being forced to turn into experimental food. They are given no other sustenance themselves. “Unfortunately they keep dying,” a supervisor muses. “But that is just a temporary setback, I am sure.”

Hera Hilmar in Mortal Engines.Universal Pictures

In “Mortal Engines” the novel, the interior of capitalism is a hellscape of death and despair. That’s what gives the narrative its moral force. The rebel group, known as anti-tractionists, wants to overthrow the city-eat-city regime of Municipal Darwinism. They are motivated by the desire to end a social order of terrible cruelty and exploitation. Katherine eventually turns against her father and her city in the book because she comes to understand the brutality which powers both.

In the film, though, class politics barely exist. The evil the heroes fight onscreen is not a brutal, entrenched status quo. Instead, the problem is one bad apple revolutionary. Valentine is fixated on developing new and dangerous weapons. In the book, he develops those weapons despite the objections of the city’s ruler. In the book, he’s following the ruler’s plan.

So a parable about the cruelty of the society we live in, and the need to change it, becomes another story about how ambitious rebels ruin everything when they buck tradition. The war Valentine starts is presented in the film as a break with Municipal Darwinism — a dangerous, innovative rupture in the capitalist system. In the novel, in contrast, escalating violence is the logical outgrowth of a hunger for resources, inanimate and human. Valentine is evil in the film because he insists on transforming the machine. In the book, he’s evil because he’s a cog.

“Mortal Engines” the film loves cogs and it loves capitalism. From Reeve’s words, the filmmakers have built a machine that revels in the authenticity and imaginative impact of photogenic grime and squalor. Capitalism in the film is an ugly-beautiful painting — a grandiose spectacle of power. The wheels revolve, the bellows blow, the jaws crunch in surround sound. It’s a terrible, wonderful Hollywood machine. If someone, somewhere, is suffering for it in some noxious gut, you won’t hear them over the audience’s “oohs” and “ahs.”