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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

Metropolis


Metropolis
Columbia TriStar
2001 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 109 min.
Starring Yuka Imoto, Kei Kobayashi, Kouki Okada, Jamieson Price, Toshio Furukawa, Dave Mallow, Junpei Takeguchi, Scott Weinger
Art Direction Shuichi Hirata
CGI technical director Tsuneo Maeda
Original Music Toshiyuki Honda
Writing credits Katsuhiro Otomo from the comic book by Osamu Tezuka
Directed by Taro Rin (Rintaro)

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An elaborate and expensive anime from the top names in the field, Metropolis is based upon a comic book from the late forties, when it must have seemed very ahead of its time. A reworking of ideas in Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis, the comic either predated the central visions of films like Blade Runner, or this 2001 adaptation chose to copy them too. What one is left with are reels of beautiful animation, in service of a story where a lot happens but no great drama emerges.

Synopsis:

Wonder city Metropolis is celebrating its new super-tower called the Ziggurat. It's the brainchild of Duke Red (voice: Jamieson Price), a megalomaniac who has no political ambitions for himself, but has secretly hired outlaw scientist Dr. Laughton (voice: Junpei Takeguchi) to make a super-robot duplicate of his dead daughter Tima (voice: Yuka Imoto). Metropolis is served by thousands of robot slaves but Tima is a hybrid programmed to rule in a special throne atop the tower. Before she can be announced, hitman Rock (voice: Kouki Okada) slays Dr. Laughton and blows up his lab. Rock, the adopted son of Duke Red, is also an anti-robot zealot. Meanwhile, young Kenichi (voice: Kei Kobayashi) and his detective Uncle arrive from Japan to arrest Dr. Laughton, just in time to rescue the glowing, magical Tima and go on the run. Uncle is aided by a local police robot he nicknames Pero (voice: Dave Mallow).

Thinking Tima destroyed, Duke Red continues with his plans to crush both the official rulership of Metropolis and its freedom-fighting revolutionaries, led by Atlas (voice: Scott Weinger). Duke uses a radiation weapon in the Ziggurat to make the city's robots run amuck, thereby starting anti-robot riots that he can put down with the army. But when he discovers Tima is still alive, Duke cancels all other plans to 'install' her in the tower ... an idea Rock isn't going to accept.

Science Fiction futures come in two varieties, those with fresh ideas, and those with art direction. This animated Metropolis is a visual delight from one end to the other, a draftsman's dream of an architectual future. If its story is really faithful to the 1949 Japanese comic book by Tezuka Ozamu, then it's certainly ahead of its time. But as presented here, we have a handful of stock characters with very limited dramatic impact, going through some overly familiar paces. The first half promises an adventure which never materializes. The reshaping of Lang's masterpiece is interesting but doesn't yield any thematic epiphanies. The final verdict is that the show is decorative but derivative.

Why be so down on Metropolis' story, when it has such earnest characters? Tima and Kenichi are indeed sympathetic heroes (drawn in the traditional Kewpie face, big eyes Astroboy mold), but Tima's purpose and fate is muddled. She's a godlike robot ruler created to re-order the world, rather uncomfortably similar to the role played by Milla Jovovitch in The Fifth Element. Duke Red had Tima made in his daughter's likeness, but Dr. Laughton  1 has ideas to 'run away with her' himself, which makes us wonder how human she is. She seems emotional enough, but we're later informed that her humanity is just a passing phase on the way to her super-intelligent function, where she's literally plugged in to the power center of the Ziggurat. It looks as though her emotions won't let go, because as soon as she's online, she short-circuits the city. Kenichi rips her from the throne before she can 'eradicate the human population with biological warfare', and then tries to save her. We never understand this pixieish waif. True, with the newfound love of humanity she gained from her time with Kenichi, we more expected her to become a benevolent force instead of a runamuck robot. Her berserk finish seems dictated by the need for a final conflagration.

The unoriginal ideas are pretty baldly stated. Duke Red (read: Joh Fredersen) rules Metropolis, creates a superrobot in the image of a lost loved one, and uses a political ruse to crush the downtrodden masses. His wrongheaded vision of a pure and incorruptable robot ruling all from his Ziggurat tower, seems taken from the Tower of Babel parable in the Lang original. Dr. Laughton (read: Rotwang, crossed with H.G. Wells' Dr. Moreau, crossed with Godard's Dr. Von Braun) does Duke Red's bidding but covets the resulting Tima (read: the False Maria) for himself. As in Lang's original, Tima goes berserk herself at the climax, ignoring her programming and following her own instincts to destroy.

The more original elements are fairly interesting. Kenichi is a stock hero, but his Uncle (who, like many of the characters, is drawn like the little capitalist 'millionaire' character from the Monopoly board game, especially around the eyes) is actually a Lemmy Caution-style detective hero from elsewhere (Japan) come to arrest a runaway scientist, as in Alphaville. Uncle enlists the aid of a blue-faced robot detective helper, and their adventures enable a nice tour of the complex multi-leveled city. There are demonstrations and one failed insurrection, but the downtrodden rebels appear to be a hidden minority - we only see a happy middle class on the sunny Metropolis streets, and sort of a red-light district far underground. The levels of the city are called zones and are nicely delineated into machine worlds and the like, but we never see how the workers actually live. There doesn't appear to be an elite class of pampered socialites, as in Thea von Harbou's original, which might be an improvement. Instead, Duke Red uses manipulative lies to corral the affluent population.

The assassin Rock is another strange non-character, whose relationship to Duke Red doesn't add up to much. His radical vigilante background is never compared to the communist revolutionaries led by the Che-like Atlas (an even more underdeveloped character), even though both groups have confusingly similar anti-robot aims. Rock's ruthless slaughtering of prey and citizens alike gives Metropolis its requisite anime violence quotient. He's a presumptous, contempt-filled jerk with no background to motivate his actions except a desire to 'protect' Duke Red. Since most of his actions are against Duke Red's wishes, he's also an inconsistent muddle. When it turns out that his instincts were correct all along - the 'adorable' Tima is the apocalypse and needs to be destroyed - there's no payoff for his character. Instead, he turns himself into a suicide bomb (listening, Mr. Bush?) and inexplicably blows up the city and his father, whose protection was before his strongest aim.

The pleasure is in the details, of which there are many. The Albert 2 robot 'Fifi' is afforded some time to be adorable. Tima's hair is magically animated in the light, a nice, mysterious touch. The purely architectural aspects of the CG city are okay, but the milling crowds and traffic at the sidewalk level are wonderfully realized. For a while, it becomes believable the way the detailed French Tin-Tin comic books do. The animation is always interesting, especially the use of color and shading. You can tell when characters are standing in the shadows or in the full light. The mixing of character styles that to this reviewer is anime's least appealing aspect, is minimized here. There are the 'Monopoly' characters and the Astroboy types, and we just accept them.  2

Most of the music is fine, with ragtime bumping shoulders with more modern rhythyms. When the inevitable destruction occurs, the Ray Charles song, 'I can't stop loving you' is more pleasant than listening to three minutes of constant explosions, but it feels very forced, as if (and no slight intended) the Japanese director were trying far too hard to be hip.

More likely than not, the superstar anime talent behind Metropolis were trying hard to retain the charm they remembered from the original comic book, while bringing the concept up to date - a dilemma American filmmakers have stumbled over with equal frequency. Savant is not an anime fan, mostly out of choice (Akira's faux cynicism seems very false to me), but saw the merit in the magical epic Princess Mononoke. Metropolis falls somewhere in between. Manga, anime and Heavy Metal fans looking for a visual head trip will find all they want and more; but Savant saw little to engage a lover of movie Science Fiction.


Columbia TriStar's double disc set of Metropolis is a very lavish special edition, that comes in one of those multifold card packages that you want to be very careful with (don't get it wet). The feature is by itself on its own disc, and is mastered at a fat bit rate. It looks consistently great, even in those scenes when brown characters hide in dark brown backgrounds. A second smaller-format DVD disc houses the extras, which cover the history and production of the Metropolis concept very nicely. After a few minutes' browsing, Savant got the gist of how anime studios work, combining CGI and traditional animation. I also gained a better understanding of the writer's history as the father of Japanese fantasy animation. His early creation Astroboy was animated for television by Metropolis's director, in the 1960s. There's an abundance of art galleries, animation evolution comparisons, interviews and a full documentary for Japanese television.

Some of the compositions on the feature transfer looked tight top to bottom; in the docu, the letterboxed clips from the film were composed at a less-wide 1:66, leading Savant to wonder if the perceived over-matting will upset anime experts. It was only noticeable on a few wide shots where small figures walked at the bottom of the frame.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Metropolis rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, docu, The Making of Metropolis, filmmaker interviews, multi-angle animation comparisons, history of the comic book, biographies, conceptual art gallery
Packaging: Folding cardboard case
Reviewed: April 14, 2002


Footnotes:

1. Charles Laughton played Dr. Moreau in the 1932 Wells adaptation Island of Lost Souls. This Dr. Laughton is wanted for vivisection and 'organ crimes' as well.
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2. Max Fleischer had this problem with his 1939 Gulliver cartoon, where Scrappy and his cartoonish kin rubbed elbows with rotoscoped humanoids who seemed to come from a different dimension. Mixing animation styles is common in anime, but it still looks odd to Savant.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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