When Mortal Engines came out last year, I viewed several trailers and shrugged. Last week rolled around, and I was in the mood for some mindless movie-watching while folding our backed-up laundry piles. So we Redboxed it.
I loved it from the first. I could tell Cap loved it, too, by the way he knelt, ready to fold the shirt he was holding—and froze in that position for fifteen straight minutes.
Critics complained about it being an overcomplicated mess, but I followed the plot easily and with enthusiasm. It may have been a bit episodic with different plot points occurring in different set pieces, but hey, there’s a lot of world to introduce—and all of the world was interesting. If you want to complain about an overcomplicated plot, try playing the Kingdom Hearts franchise. But this film reminded me more of Stardust or Princess Bride than that.
THAT HESTER, THOUGH
My favorite part of the film was the character arc of Hester Shaw. Cue Spoilers:
Hester had an incredibly painful life. An idyllic childhood came to ruin when the film’s villain murdered her mother—in front of her. She herself barely escaped. She collapsed in a swamp, where a Stalker, an undead man resurrected by unhallowed arts into a robot body to be a relentless killing machine, found her. It was no picnic growing up under this man, called Shrike. A lack of human warmth, along with his plan to one day kill her so that she can “live” forever with him in a Stalker body, would be enough to send most people to the counselor.
Hester’s trademark huge facial scar, which she received the night her mother was murdered, is a symbol of her pain. To see Hester is to see the raw, jagged mark of it on her life, the way it didn’t heal cleanly. You can’t see Hester without seeing her suffering.
No one likes enduring such pain. And within the film, we become aware that Hester has some strategies to escape hers. Unhealthy strategies.
MEDICINE WORSE THAN THE DISEASE
For her first “escape attempt,” do you remember Shrike’s terrible offer? Where he plans to kill her to make her anew as a Stalker like himself, a restless soul in a robot body? She’s actually cool with that. She describes his offer thus: “I would become like him. My flesh, steel. My nerves, wire. My mind wiped clean. No thoughts. No feelings. Nothing. I would be free.”
Here’s how he pitched his offer to her, which made all my Lit-Major alarms go off: “You are sad. Always sad, Hester Shaw. Your heart is broken. I will take away the pain” (emphasis mine).
Her second attempt to escape the pain is in retributive justice—in other words, revenge. She abandons Shrike’s plan only to pursue this goal, as if killing her mother’s murderer would somehow bring an end to her own misery.
Hester’s two escape attempts fit nicely with what Tim Keller writes in his book on human suffering:
In the [Modern Western] view, suffering is never seen as a meaningful part of life but only as an interruption [to true life]. With that understanding, there are only two things to do when pain and suffering occur. The first is to manage and lessen the pain (Shrike!) . . . . The second way . . . is to look for the cause of the pain and eliminate it (revenge!). (26)
We can all relate to Hester. If something in our lives is painful, we try to find anything to get away from it, whether it’s drugs or alcohol, “numbing out” to video games or Netflix, gossiping bitterly about someone who hurt us, or being reckless with ourselves and others.
What I love most about the Mortal Engines film is that Hester’s character arc is learning not to run away from her pain.
PAIN ESCAPE ATTEMPT #1: SHRIKE-IFICATION / STATUS: ABORTED
Hester shows that she’s abandoned the die-and-be-reborn-as-robot escape plan when she and Shrike face off over her new friend Tom Natsworthy:
Hester: No! Stop! Stop, Shrike! Stop. You’re going to kill him.
Shrike: You will not remember him.
Hester: No. I’m the one. I’m the one you came for. Let him go! Let him live.
Here, Hester does not accept “You will not remember him” as an acceptable line of reasoning. In other words, she is saying here that even if she escapes from the pain of something, that thing will still matter. Thus she implicitly acknowledges that erasing the pain of something doesn’t erase the fact of it. No matter how much we numb it out, that suffering is still there and must be reckoned with. (Indeed, Shrike’s own plot shows that the past still haunts him, even though he’s supposedly unfeeling.)
In Hester’s defense of Tom, Shrike senses her rejection of his whole plan of Stalker-ifying her. He sees that her love for Tom is enough to keep her from wanting to escape from the pain. For Hester, that friendship–simply the value of another person’s life, even–has become worth enduring the pain of her past.
PAIN ESCAPE ATTEMPT #2: STABBING A BAD MAN / STATUS: ABORTED
Hester didn’t succeed in her revenge plot at the beginning of the movie, but at the end, she finally has the chance to end the murderer’s life once and for all. Her enemy yells, “Is this what you want? You want to die? Come on, let’s finish it.”
Her opponent is literally inviting her to finish it, and in most other movies, I can imagine the hero hurtling toward him, accepting the invitation. Rushing into battle after a line like that is practically the cadence that satisfyingly ends the musical piece.
But Hester does not do that. Instead, she opts for escape. This choice can feel anticlimactic, like leaving the last note off the Star Wars theme. But the line she delivers with her choice is thematically compelling: “No. I’m gonna live.”
It’s a simple line, but it’s huge. This is the same girl who, at the beginning of the movie, was willing to give up her humanity or to throw her life away in violence, all just for a sense of escaping her suffering.
One last thing: Hester’s scar depicts her progression. At the beginning of the movie, she has this symbol of her pain covered, hidden, as if trying to hide it (or hide from it). As the movie progresses, she stops covering it pretty quickly, but wears her hair loose, and it’s often naturally covered. But at the end of the film, when she has stopped her futile attempts to escape her pain, she wears her hair half pulled back: not only not hiding it, but revealing it. It’s not something to hide from; it’s part of what makes her…her.
Life is painful—and as we all know, anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is selling something. Our response, like Hester’s, is often either escape (numbing out, distracting ourselves) or bitterness (anger, gossip, slander). What’s interesting in this film about those choices is that they both look like what they truly are: death. And they still don’t change the fact of the painful thing. They don’t redeem.
When Hester says, “I’m gonna live,” she is in a sense choosing to accept pain. She is declaring that life can be beautiful despite pain, and even through pain. Her pain led her to Tom Natsworthy (their innocent, laughing embrace at the end of the film is perfecto). The journey her pain initiated made a true difference in her world.
After enjoying this depth to the Mortal Engines film, I am saddened (PAINED?!) that I won’t be able to experience more of it on the big screen. To quote myself as I scrolled through the bad Rotten Tomatoes reviews, “I don’t get what they don’t get!” But I’m grateful that I can reenter this world through Philip Reeve’s book series, and they have definitely moved up my TBR ladder.
Keller, Tim. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. Viking, 2013.