Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rintaro

Cast: The voices of Yuka Imoto, Kei Kobayashi, Kouki Okada

MPAA Rating:  (for violence and images of destruction)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 1/25/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Anime, or Japanese animation (despite that the term itself is French), is the primary and most popular answer to typical American animated films. Instead of simply offering more family-oriented movies (although there are a few examples within the genre), anime is typically aimed at mature audiences. The storylines are intelligent and oftentimes delve into science fiction. Metropolis fits perfectly into this mold and pushes the limitless possibilities of animation to a brave new world. The centerpiece of the film is the city, a living, breathing concoction of multiple design formats. An entire world has been created. The story is full of ideas about technology and humanity’s growing dependence on it and works as a cautionary allegory. There’s fascinating material here—the futuristic political factions, technological efforts, the structure of the city—but it’s just scratching the surface. The film is a visionary marvel, but it’s lacking a depth in storytelling usually found in anime like this.

In the future city-state Metropolis, humans and robots live together in uneasy segregation. The city is celebrating the completion of a giant skyscraper, the Ziggurat. Duke Red is the mastermind behind many of Metropolis’ technological breakthroughs; he’s even more popular than the city’s leader. A private detective named Shunsaku Ban and his nephew Kenichi have arrived in the city to investigate Dr. Laughton, a scientist suspected of illegal experiments. Laughton is also funded by Duke Red to create a robotic replacement for his deceased daughter Tima, and this information comes to Rock, Duke Red’s adopted son and member of the Marduk Party, a group against the existence of robots. Rock sets out to destroy Tima and burns down Laughton’s laboratory. Ban and Kenichi arrive just as the lab is burning, and Kenichi splits from his uncle and discovers Tima. The two set out to find their way through Metropolis all while trying to escape the persistent Rock.

As the characters explore and investigate their way around Metropolis, we are offered a visual treat. The film combines traditional 2-D animation with modern computer animation to create its cityscape. The actual design of the city captures the wide scope of an imagined future while still evoking a more old-fashioned, almost noir-like, atmosphere. Even further expanding on this mood is the soundtrack, comprised mainly of jazz pieces. The film looks gorgeous; there’s no denying that. The character design goes for the opposite of effect of the backdrops. They have a distinct cartoon feel, looking more like the creations of Robert Crumb than typical anime characters. Far from a fault, I found the distinct contrast in design fascinating; it stays true to the film’s comic book roots while offering a wide variety of characterizations within the world presented.

The story is where the film begins to sell itself short. Based on the manga (comic book) by Osamu Tezuka, the style of the story successfully hybrids sci-fi, noir, and social commentary, but the overall effect feels like a montage of ideas—some contradicting, some not fully developed. The most obvious contradiction lies in the presentation of robots in this world. We’re led to assume that robots are programmed for specific jobs in specific areas, but some of them go against this programming. These robots are terminated. The question: How does a machine go against its program? Perhaps the film is attempting to explore the nature of such a paradox, but it’s never dealt with. Then there’s Tima itself, a robot that doesn’t know it’s a robot. Its nature is never clear either. From the moment Tima appears on screen, we know it is a robot, and the film never convinces us that it is anything more than a robot. One machine, with the sole purpose of cleaning the sewers, shows more human traits than Tima, which essentially defeats her purpose. The central question of the film is what purpose does Tima serve? Just when the film should be justifying this question and rationalizing the motivations behind more than a few characters, it hastens to an abrupt scene of mass destruction, albeit brilliantly juxtaposed with Ray Charles’ "I Can’t Stop Loving You" (a touch reminiscent to the finale of Dr. Strangelove).

Even with its missteps, Metropolis is a film to be greatly admired. I was overwhelmed by its technical achievements and appreciated the maturity of storytelling, even if it still leaves much to be desired. It has a lot of great ideas and is brave enough to raise them, but something is missing that keeps those ideas from being explored to their fullest. Metropolis represents a technological leap for a highly influential and distinct variation on the animated film.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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