The Revolution Review
Metropolis is an anime written by Katsuhiro Otomo (writer and director of Akira), based on the manga by Osamu Tezuka (Black Jack and Yamata), and directed by Taro Rin (X, Neo-Tokyo, and Galaxy Express 999). It features the latest in digital animation, and a daring, genre-defying soundtrack with elements of swing and blues. But don't get your hopes up too much. Metropolis is as shiny as new quarter, and worth about as much.
Okay, maybe that was a little harsh. I feel sorta guilty about not being impressed by Metropolis. It's both ambitious and pretty. Maybe I would have been more taken with it if I hadn't seen the far-superior Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust a few months ago. Or if I had seen it on a bigger screen. Or if the people next to me hadn't insisted on whispering to each other during the first hour.
The movie opens with shots of a glittering futuristic city, golden fireworks, towering Art Deco buildings, a zeppelin that looks like it flew out a WWII propaganda poster. All of it precise computer animation. And then we pan down to the people - hand-drawn simple cartoonish things who look like they come from a universe wholly apart from their gleaming surroundings. Maybe it's symbolic of the idea that technology has reached a point where organic beings now seem out of place on their own planet.
Um, yeah. Sure. The clear delineation between cel and computer animation is as jarring in Metropolis as it was in Titan AE. It doesn't help that most of the characters look like they stepped out of a Nancy or Heathcliff strip. There's the detective with a mop of a mustache, who is supposedly from Japan, but looks like a cross between Snuffy Smith and Popeye's Wimpy. The General, with his squiggle-mouthed expressions, is straight from Beetle Bailey - the visor of his hat covers up his eyes. The scientist is Dr. Robotnic from Sonic the Hedgehog. Duke Red has the profile of a cockatoo, and eyebrows that look as though they were dispensed onto his face by a McDonalds soft-serve icecream machine. People's calves are triangular cylinders, ballooning out from the knee down toward great squarish feet.
Okay, it's a style. I get that. It even has a kind of a neat retro feel. But this movie is trying to be deep, with themes like man's inhumanity to man, man's inhumanity to robot, and the struggle between socioeconomic classes. There are powerful, ruthless men trying to hold the fate of the world in their hands. There's a guy named Rock who wants to protect the man he considers to be his father from the evil of the robots, and he has no qualms about killing anyone who gets in his way. There are put-upon lower-class rebels who want to die as part of "The Revolution", and who, it turns out, are as single-minded and bloodthirsty as the people they are rebelling against.
But how can I take any of that seriously when the most powerful man in the world has a nose so big he could probably put his fist into it? Simple cartoony characters can be used to tell compelling, even heart-wrenching stories (the Maus graphic novels come to mind, as does the animated version of Animal Farm). But these characters are just goofy.
It doesn't help that filmmakers throw so many "heavy" ideas and plot points into the script that it just becomes ridiculous. You've got the construction of a gigantic monolithic Ziggurat whose purpose is a mystery, political backstabbing, robot oppression, human oppression, robot rebellion, human rebellion, robot/human love, the danger of out-of-control technology, the creation of a messiah / anti-Christ, Rock's quest for the love and approval of his "father", unemployed people who are mad because robots have their jobs, powerful people who use a giant machine to stir up sunspots that make robots malfunction so they can foment anti-robot sentiment. And on and on. Metropolis takes inspiration from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, from the cityscapes to the robot girl Tima to the story of the Tower of Babylon to the separation of the powerful (in the skyscrapers) from the working class (underground). That's swell and all, but what does it add up to? Somewhere in this ponderous jumble are the characters of the movie. They're there, but you never really get to know them. They're just pawns in the service of the film's grand, confused allegory.
At one point, a leader of the rebellion of the repressed classes says that, in the underground, four or five families have to live in the same room. But most of the shots we see underground are of vast abandoned areas. If they're already living in squalor, why don't they at least spread out a little? I guess because they need to leave plenty of room for the protagonists to wander alone through stylized moody technoscapes.
Then there are the subtitles. The titles were done in a slightly translucent yellow, so the animation showed through the lettering as a kind of fuzzy interference that made reading them a headache. I cringe at English-language dubbing in live-action foreign movies, but dubbing in anime has never bothered me much. And, as long as the voice cast is talented (as in Princess Mononoke and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust), I actually prefer the dubbing. The more time you spend reading subtitles, the less time you have to soak up visual details. Plus, good voicework gives you a better emotional connection to the characters.
Metropolis also had more than the usual anime share of cheesy dialog and bad declarative exposition I'm not sure whether to blame the scriptwriter or the translators for this oxymoronic groaner: "It's a secret, but they do it so openly that everyone knows about it."
Anime fans will find things to enjoy in Metropolis. The backgrounds and settings are impressive. There's a neat robot detective. Some cute moments. Nifty steampunk technology.
The climax of the movie manages to achieve a kind of horrific apocalyptic urgency, particularly when the action is juxtaposed against a very upbeat, very American song. If only the rest of the movie had held my attention that tightly.