MOVIES THAT DON’T SUCK: ‘Metropolis’ (No, not THAT one!) is great sci fi

Maxwell wrote last week about “Princess Mononoke.” The review itself was harmless, and I agree that “Spirited Away” is often falsely labeled as Miyazaki’s crowning achievement (although it is the film most exemplary of his style). However, Max told me the next day that “Princess Mononoke” is the best Miyazaki movie.

Them’s fightin’ words.

I thought about writing a snarky comeback column about why my favorite (to remain undisclosed to keep the peace) is better, but then I realized that the high road might be a better path .

Rather, I thought I would talk about another significant film in my childhood. An anime touchstone, if you will.

Back when I was 9, I, like most kids my age, found my TV inundated with anime (Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragonball Z, etc.) and my film library woefully understocked, save for the Miyazaki films common in most households.

Obtaining more was a difficult task, especially since all the non-Miyazaki anime was stocked along with all the other significantly more mature movies.

One day my mother (with much reservation, I might add) let me pick a movie from the shelf, a movie that would become one of my all-time favorites: “Metropolis.”

No, I’m not talking about the 1927 one. I defy you to find me a 9-year-old who loves German Expressionism.

This “Metropolis” was made in 2001 by  director Taro Rin and writer Katsuhiro Otamo, who directed another of Japan’s sci-fi greats, “Akira.”

As the name  suggests, the film takes place in a city. Not just any city, but one of the impossibly vast, futuristic metropolises that are the stages for films like “Blade Runner.”

While the 2001 version is loosely connected to Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, it’s only due to borrowings from the location as well as its thematic elements.

As the late great film critic Roger Ebert put it in his review, “Metropolis” uses the theme of Lang’s film as a springboard. I would even say that it goes a step further: turning the central themes of “Metropolis” on their heads.

While Lang’s version explores the use of man as a machine amid scenery of vast, horrible factories and power plants with humans acting as living gears to preserve the lifestyle of the rich living above them, the 2001 version does the opposite. Instead, it is an exploration of the concept of machine as man.

In this case, that machine is Tima, a girl-like android (the first of her kind) made for Duke Red, a leader of the city in influence and wealth.

Investigating the circumstances of her birth, or rather the scientist who engineered her, is Japanese PI Sunkatsu Ban and his nephew Kenichi. After finally tracking down the scientist in the underground slums of the city, they find the lab in flames and the scientist dead.

The two get separated in the confusion, with Kenichi encountering Tima, and Sunkatsu trying to find his nephew while simultaneously  investigating the mysterious circumstances of his target’s death.

Despite being only tangentially connected to its predecessor, “Metropolis” has some pretty big shoes to fill intellectually. In this regard, it excels. The question “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” has been asked and answered many times in cinema, but “Metropolis” is one of the few movies that does this from the perspective of the robot. And not just any robot, but a robot in love.

Perhaps the movie’s greatest question lies not with Tima but with the laboring, servile models patrolling the depths of Metropolis. Do these beings, both superior to animal and inferior to man in cognition, not deserve respect? To most citizens, the answer is no, a reaction driven by their fear of a new sentient competitor.

But to focus too much on the thematic side of “Metropolis” would be doing disservice to it visually.

Simply put, the film is beautifully crafted. There is unimaginable detail in every shot. From the bright, above-ground scenes to the wonderfully seedy slums below, Metropolis is constructed before us, a grotesque, awesome testament to man’s progress.

The animation is fluid, though significantly more cartoony than what many people new to anime would be used to. But dramatic effect is preserved without a feeling of childishness.

The soundtrack, too, is worth noting. It’s mostly trad-jazz – an odd choice for a futuristic city, but a good one nonetheless.

As for the subs/dubs debate, the jury is still out. My rewatch was the subbed version, and I thoroughly enjoyed that, but the English dub is good too. However, Kenichi sounds significantly younger in the dub, making Sunkatsu’s allowing him to run around the city alone much less believable.

Well, that’s enough nostalgia for now. If you’re a fan of sci-fi, go see “Metropolis.” If you’re a fan of animated movies, go see “Metropolis.”

If you aren’t a fan of either, then what are you doing with your life?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email