March 25, 2005


Just saw Katsuhiro Ôtomo's new anime Steamboy at the Kendall Cinema. I hadn't realized Ôtomo wrote the 2001 anime version of Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis, but it makes sense - the whole never-ending crash of apocalyptic destruction at the finish, coupled with a final sense of wtf? is his signature. It shows up in fine form in Steamboy as it first did for me in what is probably his best-known film, Akira.

Anyhow, enough erudite-looking linking. Steamboy isn't as viscerally exciting as Akira, which may be due to its being set in an alternate 1866 England rather than a post-WWIII Tokyo. Those reserved English, you know. This caused some of my worst discontinuity in the film - although the period-but-altered London was rendered beautifully, the Japanese dialogue was jarring enough (I saw the subtitled print) to continually tap me on a mental shoulder - and it pulled me out of immersion. Perhaps this is an anime I should see dubbed; I will, to see if it makes a difference.

Like Akira and Metropolis, the theme is one of mankind facing the power of science and discovery - and discovering whether or not its philosophy is up to the challenge. In this case, however, as the title suggest the technology involves cams, gears, pistons and boilers. The fiction we are asked to swallow is a metallurgy that far outstrips reality, apparently - and a small piece of Macguffin called the Steam Ball - a cannonball-like object that contains near-infinite pressurized steam. It's the movie's version of the FTL drive; how it does it and where it came from are not really explored, nor are those questions really bothered with. The consequences of the availability of this power are what drive the plot.

The plot is fairly standard. Two sides, which may or may not be good and evil, with a young boy and his ideals between them. There are some great cultural jokes, some obvious, some less so (but still obvious). And, of course, there's the animation. Oh, boy, is there the animation. It's huge. It's sweeping. The entire purpose of using steam tech appears to be so they can have enormous Rube Goldberg mechanisms that fill entire cathedrals with movement and detail, meticulously animated through the wonders of caffeine, obsession and lots and lots of CPU power. CGI is used incredibly well - there are very, very few times you can point at something and definitively say "Ah. CGI." Rather, it's used to expand the scope of the animation, and to fill out fast-moving scenes, so that there are many more three-dimensional pan shots, rotational camera movements, scene shifts than one would normally see in animation. The background, in this film, escapes the static animated backdrop - it's really animated, here. Things move in it. Little, tiny things, moving, everywhere. The entire scene will rotate dizzyingly a couple of times early on - until your brain realizes that 'real movies' do that all the time, and stop noticing. Then you'll say to yourself in the middle of the movie "HEY!"

Did I mention that it's pretty?

And there's steam. Everywhere. Gigantic clouds, contrails, wisps, streamers, dribbles, spouts, jets, plumes, explosions. In good form, it isn't computer generated with particle effects; nope, it's good ol' hand-drawn steam, except...this steam has continuity (as a friend pointed out) waaaaay too good for hand-drawn alone. It never behaves improperly, even when it's been onscreen for fifteen or twenty seconds, dissipating and spreading. Computers. Yep.

In the end, the film missed its mark with me a bit. The disconnect between guttural Japanese soundtrack and reserved English scenery was a bit too wide. The traditional Ôtomo apocalypse seemed a tad flat, with only steam power to back it up, when we're used to the power of entire universes being born or robot slave armies revolting. The situation was almost quaint. Finally, there simply weren't enough people in the movie! For a film set in the middle of London, the demise of which was the driving danger throughout, it was remarkably devoid of imperiled civilian masses. We saw plenty of small buildings destroyed and damaged, but somehow it felt like they'd been conveniently emptied for the weekend engagement - and this robbed the whole thing of drama.

Still, it's frakking beautiful. What it really felt like, I must say (and which the closing credit still shots lent credence to) was the elaborate 'origin story' of a colorful comic book hero (Steamboy himself). The lack of really memorable masses in the film, with the exception of a small number of people who would obviously show up later in Steamboy's career; the provision of Steamboy's trademark gear, the foundation of his ethos and his training, etc.

In a way, it's what The Rocketeer really wanted to be, but didn't have the budget or imagination for.

And yes, I'll own the DVD when it shows. It's so damn pretty.

Posted by jbz at March 25, 2005 1:18 AM | TrackBack

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