Moral Engines, or, Shannon Won’t Shut Up About Mortal Engines

Last week, I posted an analysis of Hester Shaw’s character arc in the tragically underrated film, Mortal Engines. I conceived this post on an analytical high and wrote it in a fervor. And, perhaps due in part to our country’s tragic lack of interest in the film,… got very few hits on it. At the time, I was already planning a second post.

Did my low blog stats discourage me?

NOPE!

If the first essay hasn’t convinced you to give Mortal Engines a chance, perhaps the bare fact that I’ve now written TWO ESSAYS about this movie might?!

THE GROUNDWORK

Unfortunately, much of this post won’t make sense without last week’s post. You can read it here if you’re interested.

Last week, I said Hester had learned to stop the futile attempts to escape her pain. But I was slightly dissatisfied, because though I showed evidence for the character arc, I didn’t know how she came to it.

Interestingly, in my last read-through of that post, I discovered what I thought might be the key.

DEATH WISH, LIFE WISH

The first time Hester rejects one of her pain-escape attempts, this is what goes down:

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.

Shrike recognizes this as a rejection: his promise that she’ll forget her pain has no traction with her anymore. More importantly, though, Hester’s dialogue shows she is still willing to die here (“I’m the one”). But she wants her friend Tom to live. To (over?)emphasize my point, her very next line is, “No. He can’t die. He can’t. He can’t! He can’t.”

In her second epic rejection of pain-escape, when she refuses to throw her life away for revenge, she says—wait for it—“I’m gonna live.”

Before, she wanted Tom to live. Now SHE wants to live.

Before, she was willing to die if necessary (“I’m the one”). Now she is not willing: “Is this what you want? You want to die?” says the villain. “No,” she says. “I’m gonna live.”

Halfway through her arc, she wants Tom to live. At her arc’s completion, SHE wants to live. These lines are so parallel in content that it has to be intentional—or if it’s not, that’s some really cool subconscious structuring!

So what changed?

THE STEAMPUNK HOBBIT

Tom Natsworthy’s out-of-his-depth naivety, his unthinking sacrifice, and his unhesitating bravery all made me think of him as a steampunk hobbit. (Mortal Engines IS produced by Peter Jackson and written by the LOTR dream team. I got definite hobbit vibes.)

What begins Hester’s shift, I think, is when Tom chooses not to leave her in the slave train. (If the underground centipede-mobile is called something other than a slave train, please forgive my ignorance of steampunk vocabulary.)

Anyway, Tom manages to pop loose a panel and could escape from their captors, but Hester’s leg is too injured for her to attempt it. She tells him to go—but he stays.

He has absolutely nothing to gain from staying. They’re not friends. Hester hasn’t even been very nice to him up to this point. Ever practical, she tells him to go. But he stays anyway, proclaiming without words that this damaged girl’s life has inherent value.

Hester is practical. Relentlessly so. She doesn’t have time or patience for philosophizing: when Tom tries to tell her about his past in an earlier attempt to become friends, she sardonically says that they’re not going to share sob stories.

In Hester’s post-apocalyptic world, where “survival of the fittest” and “eat or be eaten” applies to civilizations as cities actually eat other cities—they term it “municipal Darwinism”—ruthless practicality in quest of survival at any cost seems like the only viable option.

However, there’s a dark upshot to such a materialistic view. Richard Dawkins, a proponent of a similar worldview, articulates: “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (quoted in Keller 21).

(Just to be clear… I disagree.)

This explains Hester’s stance toward pain: if suffering is by pure chance and nothing means anything, suffering “cannot be a meaningful part of the story. In this approach to life, suffering should be avoided at almost any cost” (Keller 16-17). Right? If suffering had no chance to be redeemed, if there is no other meaning than survival, why wouldn’t we avoid pain?

But back to Tom. When Tom makes his decision, he is not using sheer practicality. Flying in the face of ALL practicality, he is telling her that her life has value not because it’s useful, not because it’s healthy, not because it’s happy—but just because it is.

His decision inserts a foreign philosophy into her life: choices based on values, not mere animal survival. Choices that could hurt him, because something is more important to him than avoidance of pain.

He does it for her early in the film—and when she rejects Shrike’s offer later on, you see her do it for him: “I’m the one you came for. . . . Let him live.” And this may just be what frees her, because proclaiming the value of someone else’s life in their survival-of-the-fittest world implicitly proclaims all life to be valuable: even one damaged by suffering. Even her own. “I’m gonna live.”

In a steampunk CG extravaganza, the theme is nonetheless intensely relevant, and the solution is far more nuanced and subtle than a cartoonish platitude. Winning means giving up your right to “justice.” Care for others is the real self-care. This may be a far-flung fantasy, but these themes are the stuff our real moral engines run on.

Ugghhhhh. Sorry about that pun.

Work Cited:

Keller, Tim. Walking with God Through Pain and SufferingViking, 2013.

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7 thoughts on “Moral Engines, or, Shannon Won’t Shut Up About Mortal Engines

      1. Coincidentally, we just finished the movie so I came straight here to reread these. I like what you’ve said about her character arc. That really nails it. I would have seen it mildly on my own but paying attention and reading your thoughts, I really like the care and depth that have gone into the story.

        One thing my husband noticed and commented on (when our daughter asked why Shrike collapsed and released Hester from her promise) was that Hester had described Shrike as liking to fix broken things – hence his intention to make Hester an unfeeling machine like himself. To take away her pain. But when she begged him not to kill Tom–when he saw she loved him–Shrike realized she was already mending. She wasn’t broken and in need of his fixing anymore. Tom was doing that for her. What do you think?

        Liked by 1 person

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