There is a lot to be said for Fritz Lang’s 1925 masterpiece of science fiction, Metropolis. From a design standpoint Lang’s work is a seminal exercise in how to make a movie look, from a script standpoint Lang’s work is both a biblical allegory and a cautionary tale about the dangers of structured inequality.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, yet Taro Rin’s take on Lang’s work is not so much imitation as it is a deeper retelling. From a design standpoint Rin’s film is a strange duopoly, the design of cities and machines is breath taking. However, his depiction of people, while stylized to resemble cartoons of the 1920s and 30’s, is distracting and a constant reminder that “it’s just a cartoon.” Imagine watching Tron but replace all the characters with Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons, or Betty Boop.
That is Metropolis’ greatest fault. Now, before you get all huffy about not understanding the nuances of Anime, let me clarify why films like Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Princess Mononoke work so well and Metropolis doesn’t.
In all three of the above mentioned films I was able to lose myself in the characters. Part of this was due to the fact that those other films, though stylish, attempted to keep their humanoid characters closer to human shaped. In Metropolis I isn’t and I couldn’t get past it.
In Metropolis I wasn’t even sure who the main characters were until thirty minutes into the film. Rin’s work tries too hard, and in painting the big pictures, forces the viewer into a state of disassociation with the events of the plot.
The plot of Metropolis pays homage to Lang’s story. We have a multi-tiered city where the some people live above ground and some people live below. That’s a pretty simple assessment of the environment, but Rin doesn’t do much more than pay lip service to the plight of the underclass, which is perhaps the greatest failing of the movie.
What we end up with is a series of events involving Kenichi, the nephew of Inspector.... um... Inspector... I have no idea. A police detective from Japan sent to Metropolis to arrest Dr. Laughton the fugitive vivisectionist and human rights criminal.
Place this in the context that Duke Red, the local superwealthy guy (think Lex Luthor from the Superman Animated Series) and political insider has just completed construction of “The Ziggurat” a massive tower that may or may not be a weapons platform. Duke Red’s semi adopted son Rock, the leader of Duke’s political army the Mardukes charged with policing Metropolis for robot violations. Add an ineffectual mayor, his crooked aides and cronies. Throw in a poor people's revolutionary leader Atlas. Top it off with Tima, a robot reincarnation of Duke Red’s real dead daughter. Stir in political machinations lifted directly from Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and a whole host of other, better, movies. A spurned son’s jealousy, the love between a boy and a robot girl who doesn’t know she’s a robot. Spool it out over two hours and you’re done.
There are so many events that none of them last long enough to draw any sympathy from the audience. A scientist is killed before we know anything about him. A revolution happens, then ends. The power structure of Metropolis changes to Duke Red’s favor. The robots rebel.
But, very little of it has any impact at all. Rin tries so hard to keep the story intimate, but in the scope of Metropolis that is virtually impossible, so he resorts to big picture set pieces interweaved with the intimate stories and ends up interesting visuals around a very shallow story.
The subtext should be enough to carry the viewer through a film like this, and it certainly worked for Lang’s version. But it fails here. The real problem I have with Metropolis is that it deals with the rights of robots and their place in this modern society. See, robots run, clean, and do just about everything in Metropolis yet there is still a vast underclass of people who, in Lang’s film, were the oppressed massed, while in Rin’s provide nothing but Atlas and a nameless faceless mob.
Atlas explains that they are poor, but the script never explores why. What made Lang’s film so powerful both in story and image were the conditions under which the workers below ground lived. Working to exhaustion every single day like cogs in the great machine that kept the upper class well fed, well lit, and with ample leisure time.
In Rin’s tale that falls to the machines. With the loss of that human element there is little for the average viewer to care about. Making it worse too, is that the only robots we get to spend any time with are a trash machine, a robot detective who engenders no emotion, and Tima, the state of the art recreation of Duke Red’s daughter who for a long time does not speak, and when she finally does, seems lifted from virtually every robot film ever made.
Tima develops a relationship with Kenichi, but Rin keeps it distant and childlike. It doesn’t help matters either that Kenichi resembles a Bob’s Big Boy advertisement character while Tima is almost drawn as a little girl fetish. She looks out of place among the other characters.
The soundtrack to the film is unusual, a mix of sweeping orchestra music by Toshiyuki Honda and jazz/blues standards from 1930’s America, but it doesn’t distract from what’s on the screen. There is one point though, where Ray Charles is used to hammer home the central conflict of the film like a 20 pound sledgehammer. It was amusing and eerie, but I couldn’t shake the “well no shit” of the whole sequence.
There is this funny trend in apocalyptic movies. See, as long as the main characters survive then the viewer is expected to be relieved when the dust finally settles. The problem I have with that, and it’s a personal thing so bear with me, is that the filmmakers take no time to assess the impact of these apocalyptic events on the general population. In this film we get a doosy too. All of Metropolis crumbles. The entire cityscape just shatters and plummets. I would imagine that millions upon millions died horrible needless deaths.
But Kenichi is okay, so all is right with the world. I simply can’t accept that. So, what’s the verdict? Well, the animation from Mad Dog studios alternates between breathtaking (the rickshaw chase) and mediocre (overall character movements). Shuichi Hirata’s art direction is nice, and the backgrounds are usually lush and gorgeous. However, several segments rely on computer animation (usually involving machine movements) and they looked out of place compared to the rest of the film. The dialogue is okay, but none of the characters say anything breathtaking. This could certainly be due to the Americanization of the story, but so much of this is lifted from other films that I couldn’t really tell.
It’s worth a rent, or a viewing on cable, but I wouldn’t buy it. Buy Lang’s instead, it may be silent, but at least it’s involving.