by Katsuhiro Otomo (director)
Review by Ernest Lilley
Date: March 18, 2005 / Show Official Info /
I just got back from seeing "Steamboy" at Landmark's E-Street Cinema. I loved it, despite the fairly poor reviews it's gotten. I asked the girl at the ticket counter if I was going to get the theater to myself, and she said, "No, it's very popular. I'm going to see it as soon as I get a chance." OK. "Very Popular" at 9:45 PM on a Wed turns out to be about 10 hard core Japanese film addicts, especially since I'd managed to catch the daily Japanese language showing. Odd, I thought...wasn't Patrick Stewart supposed to be voicing the grandfather? Ironically, the film is probably much improved by seeing it in the original (Klingon) with English subtitles. The only translation I found jarring was "Golly!" which shows up a number of times, and makes one think, inadvertently, of "Airplane" and the "I speak jive" scene. Golly.
The movie is the product of Katsuhiro Otomo, who brought anime to major release with "Akira" (1988), which at the time was a visually stunning work about a darkly cyberpunk future where the military creates an powerful esp technology then loses control of it when one of the test subjects grows more powerful than they planned. More than fifteen years later, and after ten solid years of work on this film, he brings us an even richer visual experience, if one in subdued tones of brick and iron, in an the first major release of a "steampunk" film.
Steampunk, a retro offshoot of cyberpunk, takes the premise that the rapid progress of the industrial revolution at the end of the 1800s was just like the rapid growth experienced at the end of the 1900s, only powered by steam instead of computer technology. The film plays fast and loose with dates, moving the Great Exhibition of 1851 forward in time to the late 1860s though I'm not sure that the dates matter much, except that the industrial revolution is in full swing, steam engines are running mills and trains are arriving in Victoria Station on time.
The film starts off with a spelunking scene where the Grandfather Lloyd Steam, and his adult son Edward are collecting the purest mineral water possible in a cave deep under Iceland. They need it to create a vessel filled with the highest possilbe pressure steam, which the manage to do...though they do blow up a vast research facility in Alaska ("Russian America") and manage to cripple the son in the process. There's a certain amount of Darth Vaderesque pussyfooting around when the Grandfather claims that the son died, and it turns out that he's very much alive...but clunking around with steam powered prosthetics.
Zip over to England, where young Ray Steam, the next generation, is working as a steam mechanic (which smacks of child labor, but one supposes that's part of the era's charm) in a textile mill run by a giant steam engine. Ray has his own steam lab at home, and we're duly impressed by how close to the tree the apple has fallen for three generations. A mysterious package arrives containing a "steam ball" filled with ultra-high pressure steam, a sort of steam powered atomic battery, and close on its heels are men in dark gray, to take it away.
Steam powered marvels and mayhem ensue as the steam ball gets put to use by good guys and bad guys...though in the end it turns out that they're all pretty much the same, just looking at things from different points of view. What is science for? The salvation of the masses through cheap power? The bolstering of empires (or creation of new ones) through war machines? The making of toys for no other purpose than to delight children? Or possibly, though they make this point through the destruction of everything that the inventors have worked for, simply to create beauty and wonder.
The film has a romantic underscore, where Steamboy Edward, having been kidnapped by a megacorporation (or its preceedent, a foundation) becomes the object of interest for the spoiled young girl (Scarlett) who is heir to the foundation's fortune. She's not especially likeable, and despite this being animae, she's drqwn with petticoats and restraint, but under all those layers of pink cloth, we expect there's a decent person...though steamboy probably isn't ready to discover that for himself. She does come up with some of the best lines in the film though. When she breaks in on a demonstration of the engines of war that the foundation is showing off to visitng miltary, a demonstratation that involves attacking British troops, she admonishes her employee, in deadpan delivery...not to stop this maddness at once...but more calculatingly not to loose. A battle royal ensues, with Her Majesties might on one side, giant steam engines on the other, and steamboy in the middle, trying to figure out which side he's on, since they all look bad.
Don't walk out too soon at the credits, as there is about two films worth of sequels which roll by in brief snips and follow both steamboy and Scarlett through adventures yet to come.
The bottom line is that I liked Steamboy quite well, and recommend seeing it, but possibly seeking out the Japanese version first, and waiting for the English version on DVD