Peter Jackson gets Socially Conscious with 'Mortal Engines'

Peter Jackson gets Socially Conscious with 'Mortal Engines'

by Althaea Sandover

This December the film adaptation of YA fantasy novel Mortal Engines hit cinema screens, accompanied by a fairly divisive message from co-producer Peter Jackson:

“Too many old white guys are in charge of the world at the moment and they should all just retire.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Those very words were uttered in a recent interview, by the man most well-known for writing, directing and producing the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Mortal Engines is set in a post-apocalyptic world where nuclear weaponry has near-annihilated civilisation. London has been rebuilt on wheels as a devouring ‘traction city’ which hunts and traps smaller settlements for resources. It’s the age of Municipal Darwinism.

If you had just watched the opening 20 minutes you’d probably think this was yet another Hollywood film with an entirely white cast - nothing very surprising there. And yet, with the introduction of resistance leader Anna Fang (Jihae), something interesting becomes apparent. While the wealthy and influential citizens of London are predominantly white, there is diversity in this film.

The Mayor of London (Patrick Malahide) and famous historian Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) are undoubtedly the “white guys in charge”, and yet Anna Fang and her merry band of rebels are mostly played by actors of colour.  

Rather than cast ‘colourblind’, for better or worse Jackson and director Christian Rivers have done something more deliberate with the inclusion of non-white actors in this film. It’s pointed diversity, and it’s not the only attempt this movie makes to be socially conscious.

Co-stars Hera Hilmar and Jihae have praised the film’s treatment of female characters. It’s “refreshing”, Hilmar says in the interview, for Hollywood to portray “multidimensional” women on screen, without pressure to look “pretty or sexy” all the time.

Despite Hilmar’s positivity about portraying Hester Shaw, a facially scarred woman who defies cinema beauty standards, fans have criticised Hester’s movie look. When you compare Hilmar’s Hester to this description from the novel, it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed by the aesthetic scrape we see on screen.

“Her mouth was wrenched sideways in a permanent sneer, her nose was a smashed stump and her single eye stared at him out of the wreckage, a grey and chill as a winter sea”
— 'Mortal Engines' by Philip Reeve, Scholastic (2001)
Mortal Engines | Universal Pictures/Wingnut Films/Media Rights Capital

Mortal Engines | Universal Pictures/Wingnut Films/Media Rights Capital

The scarring has been enormously downplayed, and director Rivers’ response to fan criticism on the subject is no less troubling:

“We know that if she was really hideous and ugly to look at, then a great deal of people who would go to see the film wouldn’t sympathise with her.”

Not only is this a dangerously outdated notion, but it’s a betrayal of the entire spirit of the adaptation. The film fights to be liberal on all kinds of issues, be it immigration, human exploitation or the destruction of the environment… if anything, it has too much to say in under two hours of screen time.

Anyone who hasn’t read Mortal Engines is going to be left confused by haphazard and clunky exposition, and anyone who has will be frustrated by the lack of depth given to Philip Reeve’s captivating characters. However, the inventive, gorgeous rendering of airships and traction cities is a treat to behold, and Jihae’s performance as androgynous, ass-kicking Anna Fang is nothing short of inspirational. Jihae comments:

“Anna Fang is such a wonderful character because learning to embody what it meant to be a warrior really helped me feel empowered myself.”

In fact, every moment Anna Fang has on screen is what saves this movie from being hung next to Eragon in the fantasy adaptation hall of shame (or have you all blocked that cinematic disaster out as trauma?) The Mortal Engines plot might have a few holes, but watching Jihae smashing the patriarchy - sorry, the bad guys - will be 100% worth your while.


You can read Philip Reeve’s thoughts on the adaptation in his blog.


Title image sourced via Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Interview quotes from Movies Ireland.

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