Starships in Star Trek, animal-shaped buildings are combining and shape-shifting to form Power Ranger Megazord, virtual reality taking gamers to their game land because the human race just can’t sit still and continue living on the same land. One such interpretation of life is in Mortal Engines (2018), a missed and underrated film. Based on a book series by Phillip Reeve and directed by Christian Rivers, the movie welcomes its audience into a dystopian and striking representation of cities-on-wheels, also known to us architecture geeks as Archigrams – A Walking City. The Mortal Engines Universe is created from the repercussions of a 60-minute war of quantum energy weapons. We have a protagonist, an antagonist, a revenge story and a possible love story. However, that’s for you to watch the movie and understand. This article simply applauds the efforts of Phillip Reeve and the production team in creating a surreal world that somehow remained unnoticed.
Fast forward approximately to the year 3000, a post-apocalyptic, Steampunk-themed world, where cities have been either wiped out thanks to our unfathomable relationship with war or have become part of traction (mobile cities) and anti-traction cities (immobile cities). So we come face to face with the first traction city -London, looming in the distance as the lady protagonist Hester Shaw watches it. Fun fact, London wasn’t simply looming there. Instead it was approaching its next prey, on its massive military tank conveyor belts, to gobble up another Scav/Scavenger Towns (smaller traction towns). What happens in this era is that in the West, Predator cities (larger traction cities) consume Scav towns for resources – like coal, metal, salt, or whatever was available to be used for free (ironically associated with a similar era where around half the planet was under colonial rule). The exciting part for the architecture folks happens here, though; As London approaches these cities, they begin modifying immediately- streets and pathways contract, shops and smaller buildings withdraw into the main walls of the city – people escaping into their abodes to stay away from the literal changing landscape- and with that, the whole city is ready to run for its life, unfortunately, an inevitable escape.
London parades into the hunting field with all its might and splendour displayed in its domineering and intimidating appearance. The 940-yard (859.5m) high traction city adopts a pyramidal formation consisting of islands of clusters of buildings and neighbourhoods called lily pads. The lily-pads stand on a complex suspension system that branches out from the pyramidal form’s central spine, connecting each lily pad through stairways. The city runs on resources that it directly consumes and feeds into ‘The Beast’, a giant engine that must be fed for the city’s survival. Remnants of post-apocalyptic London compose this mobile city, where St. Paul’s Cathedral is almost dilapidated at the top of the pyramid. The styles involved in the city change, with gothic at the top tiers, modern in the midsection and industrial at the bottom, indicating the apparent difference in the social strata existing in the city. A city that can move and is ready to wage war anytime, anywhere will most definitely require a combat centre located at the front of the city, guarded by a massive shield made of chrome and glass. The opening to The Beast, painted in Union Jack, below the shield, gobbles up anything in its path. To give this city an additional dramatic twist, besides the Franken-London, two enlarged lions resembling those from the Trafalgar square, made of steel, sit majestically above the conveyor belts as though guarding the city gates.
To the dear readers, these are not spoilers; the trailer spoils the movie much better than the article. As the film progresses, with the protagonists being chased around half the planet to save the world from another quantum energy destruction, they encounter multiple other cities that don’t just walk but camouflage, crawl, stand above the water and fly too. In one instance, an entire town was beneath the crust and just walked out like a centipede, while another levitated in the sky (called Airhaven), relying on gigantic inflated gasbags to stay out of predator cities’ reach as well as visit other cities. One thing is for sure; a post-apocalyptic world means Bylaws cease to exist. Like other traction cities, Airhaven consists of shops, accommodations, battles stations, and hangars – ready for fight and flight. After illustrating life on wheels, air and water, the protagonists are finally taken to Shan Guo. In this humble and extraordinary land, people are not moving on wheels, sliding, or doing any other unusual-to-the-early-21st-century human movement. Surprisingly, after all the experiments, the final leading nation rested peacefully on Land and stationary, the old traditional way of living.
Shan Guo, located in former western China and Central Asia is guarded against predator cities through a series of mountains, swamps, other towns and a Shield Wall. Beyond this lies an ethereal land living in harmony with nature. The top of the Shield Wall acts as a hangar for its fleet. Below the hangar, the wall supports the mountain terrain upon which the city lies. The city’s architecture draws influence from Tibetan architecture- natural materials, sloping roofs, red and white colours, lush green landscape and the buildings flowing naturally with the terrain. Shan Guo represents a humble, respectful, and primal culture, which is contradictory to the pompous, boastful, and advanced London.
The movie portrays the sustenance of our lifestyle, energy saving and environmental issues. Through the depiction of dramatic survival conditions, the theme also questions humanity’s excessive ambitions and how far we can deem them essential to human existence. Every city and town portrayed in the movie reveal the lengths to which man can go to achieve their ambitions. In addition, it demonstrates that they lie within a spectrum when one end reflects an industry that fights against nature; the other demonstrates a purpose that lives in harmony with nature, highlighted by traction and anti-traction cities. Today, ambitious projects make headlines, envisioned to be the next frontier of human innovation and lifestyle; however insane and impossible it may seem, it is thrilling to see how far we can progress. There was a time when people didn’t think reaching the other end of the planet was even possible, and today we have scientists researching whether human life can continue in the next world. Human Ambition is necessary, but one that is sustainable for human life and nature.
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