Thrilling and serious about the future of mankind.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
Katsuhiro Otomo?s Steamboy is an animated marriage of Metropolis and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a fable about the limited and unlimited possibilities of science and invention. This film takes the powerful presence of steam in the mid-nineteenth century and blends it with scientists' and politicians' dreams of transcendence to craft a story broad in its depiction of progress's evils and bold in its setting-- the Crystal Palace's opening. That event was as important as a dozen modern Olympics in reflecting the dreams of an industrial society.
The animation is traditional, not fancy, just comic book enough to make you nostalgic, but modern enough to dazzle you with the pipes, dials, bolts, gears, and steam--as Fritz Lang did in Metropolis (1927), which has a pop-animation feel to it. Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell: Innocence has a similar style and typically Japanese take on the black and white of morality. The characters in Steamboy don't move as fluidly as they do in Shrek, yet they carry gravity about the effects of human folly better for their awkwardness. When Ray uses an engine-driven wheel to escape a monstrous tractor, the thrills are as effective as those of the best Hollywood chases.
Young Ray struggles with his scientist father's belief that science is an end in itself and his scientist grandfather's humanistic approach that uses science as a help to mankind. The visible symbol of these constructive and destructive impulses of humanity is the Steam Tower, which Ray's father wishes to use for power and Ray's grandfather wants to destroy because of its abuse by humans. Scarlett, a friend of Ray, is a young girl with wealth and naivety, the former crucial to the Tower, the latter a liability in the modern world. The two friends find a sympathetic bond between progress and happiness when they explore a shut down amusement park.
The look of Steamboy throughout is more like Blake?s ?dark Satanic Mills? and less like the idyllic counterpoints in Lang?s ?Metropolis.? But both films give little hope that the great inventiveness of mankind will ever keep evil at bay. Although at times repetitive and didactic, Steamboy is thrilling and serious about the future of mankind.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.