Mortal Engines: Is it the Ship or the Captain?
by Valerie Tan
The film Mortal Engines (2018) is a fantasy adventure set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world that is segregated into two factions — the tractionists and the anti-tractionists. Traction cities are metropolises that survived the sixty-minute war which obliterated the world. Rebuilt on wheels or continuous tracks, these cities now roam around, hunting smaller traction cities and tearing them apart for resources and fuel. The monstrous mobile city of London reigns in the city-eat-city regime, consuming resources in colossal quantities. Conversely, the anti-tractionists are situated in the Himalayas behind a wall where citizens of myriad ethnicity, background and languages live harmoniously with one another and with nature. The film portrays two distinct political, economic and social models, capitalism and socialism, which are represented respectively by the tractionists and the anti-tractionists factions. In today’s world, most countries subscribe to the political model of capitalism. It is said that capitalism rules the world and has brought about various benefits – consumer choice, efficiency of economy and exponential growth in living standards (Cranberry, 2010) However, Mortal Engines depicts an anti-capitalist stance, where capitalism is portrayed as destructive to society and environmentally unsustainable. Can capitalism really cause an apocalypse? I argue that the film is not criticising capitalism as a political system, instead, it shows how human’s greed for power distorts the implementation of capitalism and is the underlying cause of societal chaos. This can be seen where the destruction was primarily caused by Valentine’s insatiable desire for dominance over the resources and citizens of London and Shan Guo, the land of the anti-tractionist.
The ship is the problem – ‘anti-capitalist’ stance
The city of London, similar to the other traction cities, is constructed in a series of tiers paralleling the “pyramid of capitalist system”. Inevitably, this encourages social stratification – the wealthier elites are at the top of the city while the lower class are situated at the bottom in close proximity to the noise and pollution of the city’s massive engines. The lower-class citizens and immigrants are named skivvies and are forced to do labour intensive and low-skilled tasks. Tom Natsworthy, the protagonist, was told by an elite: “You are just a skivvy from the lower tiers with no family and no prospects” and is then commanded to fulfil an impossible task or get fired. Hence, the skivvies are frequently oppressed and mistreated. The discrimination of the tiers is further illustrated when a labour worker reply crudely “why would you notice me?” when an elite apologised for colliding into him. This accentuates the invisibility of the lower class, where they are ignored by the elites. His reply also reflects the anger the lower tier citizens harbour against the elites. Hence, capitalism seems to perpetuate social inequality.
The film also highlights that the model of capitalism is not sustainable leading to environmental degradation. Due to the exploitation of the environment for resources, the hunting ground is gradually running out of resources needed for the survival of the traction cities. The great hunting ground is also painted as a muddy wasteland filled with track marks due to the frequent chases, with no greenery in sight. Hence, the environment has been obliterated by the mobile cities. Mortal Engines conveys an anti-capitalist stance as it portrays capitalism as destructive for both the society and the environment, concluding that capitalism will eventually collapse. London is the largest traction city in the world and has a majestic appearance. However, in reality, the city is a hellscape of death and hopelessness. Capitalism is represented by the city-eat-city regime between the majestic traction city of London and the other smaller traction cities. The tractionists are aims to maximise resources. In the great hunting ground, London chases and consumes smaller traction cities to accumulate resources for its expansion and survival. The large and the strong cities prey on the small and weak. Even in the smaller traction cities, they pick up the weak and stranded people in the outlands, to sell them either as slaves or as “feeder meat”. Therefore, subscribing to the idea of survival of the fittest, the strong and the elites are focused on gaining their own success, and are indifferent about using unscrupulous methods. The weak inevitably gets eaten up and suffer under the hands of the powerful – treated as slaves or food.
Mortal Engines ‘anti-capitalist’ stance is made even more prominent by the victory of Shan Guo and the defeat of London. Shan Guo represents socialist societies, by its depiction as a place devoid of social class, focusing on classlessness and egalitarianism. This is evident from the lack of residential segregation in Shan Guo where all the houses along the shield wall are of similar architecture. This contrasts with the capitalist system where the top tier houses are well-maintained while the bottom tiers houses are filthy and run-down. In Shan Guo, people live harmoniously with one another where they believe in collaboration and not competition. Even after their victory, they were willing to share their resources with the citizens of London, viewing them not as rivals but as lives to be saved. The film also tries to convey that socialism is sustainable unlike capitalism. The anti-tractionist adopts the practice of cohabiting with the environment. This can be seen from the breath-taking mountains behind the shield wall where the land is flourishing with greenery. This is a distinct difference from the muddy wasteland of the outlands. The anti-tractionists do not exploit nature for more resources than they need, ensuring sustainability. Hence, the eventual defeat of London by Shan Guo seems to reflect the film’s anti-capitalist stance, as socialism/communism eventually prevails over capitalism due to capitalism’s destructiveness.
It is not the ship but the captain
As established in the previous section, the movie’s setting has portrayed an ‘anti-capitalist stance’, inaugurating a discussion between capitalism and socialism. However, as we focus our attention to the characters in the film, the main antagonist stands out above the capitalist system – Thaddeus Valentine. Hence, as we examine his character, the destructiveness of human’s greed becomes apparent. The film is not critiquing the capitalist system, but the distorted implementation of the system caused by greed. Hence, in this section, I argue that the film is attempting to convey that human greed underlies capitalist destructiveness.
In Towards a socioanalysis of capitalist greed by Burkard Sievers, Sievers mentioned that Karl Marx believes that, “greed was a characteristic of what subsequently was referred to as capitalism” and that there is no doubt that contemporary capitalist economy is broadly geared by greed, “the motor that powers capitalism”. Thus, Sievers mentioned, greed has always played a significant role as motive for war and competition as “greed is an inherent, mainly unconscious, dynamic of competition, which is the cornerstone of the capitalist economy”. In an ideal capitalist society, there will be healthy competition between different private actors. However, when greed turns into “some kind of frenzy”, it causes “destructive and annihilating competition”. (Sievers, 2012) Thus, excessive greed distorts the implementation of capitalism leading to destructive competition. The film reflects a similar idea, where Valentine’s excessive greed for power drives his pursuit for a monopoly over resources, disrupting others’ lives in the process. For instance, in the beginning scene of the film, a group of smaller traction cities gathered together to trade – the exchange and selling of resources they have individually gathered. This reflects a healthy competition that capitalism encourages. However, this scene is quickly disrupted as Valentine led London in the pursuit of the smaller cities. After a successful catch, London will dismantle and burn the whole city for their resources, leaving not a single remnant behind. The citizens of the smaller cities are then forced to assimilate into London. Hence, this not only destroys the homes of the people living in the smaller cities but also destroys their culture. Due to London’s method of accumulating resources, the number of smaller traction cities were diminishing quickly, and Valentine was monopolising all the economic resources in the hunting ground. The overhunting of smaller traction cities to accumulate resources has also led to the depletion of resources in the environment. Thus, excessive greed causes a destructive form of economic competition, distorting the implementation of capitalism. Valentine’s pursuit for more economic power has led to the destruction of people’s lives and their way of living as well as the degradation of the environment.
Ideally in a capitalist society, the economy should be self-regulating where “the invisible hand of the price mechanism coordinates supply and demand in markets” (Scott, 2006, p. 1). However, this mechanism is distorted by Valentine’s greed for domination that led to destruction and the loss of innocent lives. Due to Thaddeus’s selfish desire for more power, he sought to rebuild the weapon that was used in the sixty-minute war, a quantum energy weapon called MEDUSA which had previously destroyed the Earth’s crust. However, his motives are not reflective of what the society desires. This project was hidden not only from the citizens of London but also Magnus Crome, the mayor of the city. Valentine kept MEDUSA a secret for the past 15 years by claiming that he has been attempting to build a more sustainable power system. This could be a metaphorical representation of Valentine’s gradual effort to increase his power over the years. During this time, Valentine also cultivated a cult of personality, portraying himself as a hero to the citizens, garnering more support and influence over the people. When a smaller traction city has been caught, Valentine preached to the new immigrants about the various opportunities they will be given and promised a good life in London. This was received with loud applause by the people and the new immigrants seemed relieved. The optics he portrays shows that he is a man who cares for the citizens. Hence, the citizens only see Valentine’s carefully constructed façade, oblivious to his true intentions. Through these subtle manipulations, he exerted control over the people and accumulated more power over the years to satiate his greed for power. His greed for domestic power was also seen when he murdered Magnus Crome to take over as the leader of London. Behind his facade, Valentine was a ruthless man who would use unscrupulous methods to achieve his goal of more power by eliminating all competition. As he attempts to recreate MEDUSA, he was willing to murder anybody who stood in his way. For example, he attempted to murder Tom Natsworthy, the main protagonist, when he realised Natsworthy has information that could hinder his project. Thus, the extent he was willing to go to achieve his goals portrays the intensity of his greed. With the cult of personality he has developed, he was able to manipulate the city into producing what he wanted and not what the market wanted. For instance, a significant reason why London overhunted traction cities was so that he was able to collect viable ancient technology for the recreation of MEDUSA. Hence, the hunting of traction cities was not to meet the demands of the people but rather for his own gains. Thus, the price mechanism of capitalism is distorted by Valentine’s greed for power.
Valentine desires not only for domestic political power but also international domination. Valentine’s purpose of recreating MEDUSA was to utilise it against Shan Guo to destroy their shield walls and subsequently defeat Shan Guo. He believes that the man who controls the weapon controls the world and in the great game of survival, the weapon is “checkmate” as he would be able to outpower any enemy. As his main motivation for more power drives his attack against Shan Guo, he was indifferent about the lives that were going to be taken by using the weapon. However, when Valentine utilises the recreated MEDUSA against Shan Guo, he was met with defeat. When London was defeated, both factions were heavily damaged – London’s engine was totally destroyed, hence the city was no longer able to function while Shan Guo’s wall was crumbling, houses were obliterated, and many lives were lost on both sides. Even at the brink of defeat, Valentine was willing to sacrifice the citizens of London to ensure that the shield wall was destroyed by putting London on the course of collision with the shield wall after the weapon failed. The crumbling of the shield wall would have represented his success in defeating Shan Guo as the wall was the barrier separating their territories. Hence, he was determined to destroy the wall. The destructiveness that would have resulted from his greed would have been severe – the whole nation of Shan Guo annihilated. Thus, it was Valentine’s personal greed for power that has resulted in the destruction portrayed in the film, having distorted the implementation of capitalism. Therefore, the film is not critiquing the capitalist system but human excessive greed for power.
Although Mortal Engines has portrayed an anti-capitalist position, I believe that the film is not only criticising the political system but also human greed which distorts the mechanism of capitalism. Due to Valentine’s greed for domination over resources, his citizens and the rest of the world, it has caused the destruction of people’s way of living, environment degradation and deaths. Mortal Engines paints a world where the cities are moving and chaos is omnipresent. However, what is terrifying is that the film is relatable. Human greed and social Darwinism is entrenched in our societies. Thus, I would like to end the article with a question, is what the film portrays that farfetched or is it closer than we think?
Carberry, E. J. (n.d.). Who benefits from shared capitalism? The social stratification of wealth and power in companies with employee ownership. Shared Capitalism at Work, 317–350. doi: 10.7208/chicago/9780226056968.003.0011
Scott, B. R. (2006). The political economy of capitalism. Retrieved from https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/the-political-economy-of-capitalism
Sievers, B. (2012). Towards a socioanalysis of capitalist greed. Critique, 40(1), 15–39. doi: 10.1080/00111619.2011.640062