This review originally appeared in Issue #1 of Paste Magazine in the summer of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.
If you’ve seen Fritz Lang’s early silent film Metropolis you’ll recognize some thematic and visual influences on Osamu Tezuka’s animated Metropolis: society divided into strict caste divisions of one form or another, the attempt to create a beautiful world via the sweat of the impoverished and outcast, worker rebellions, and of course, a misguided faith in technological and social progress. The film opens with this last element: as if watching an old war-time newsreel, we see in black and white film of Metropolis’s mastermind figure, Duke Red, standing proudly atop the pinnacle of the so-called Ziggurat, a skyscraper-plex of near-stratospheric height, and billed as the zenith of humanity’s scientific and intellectual progress.
Metropolis’s action begins as an elderly detective and his nephew Kenichi, seeking a renegade genetic engineer, arrive in Metropolis just in time for the city’s grand unveiling of the Ziggurat. Meanwhile, at Duke Red’s behest the rogue geneticist, Dr. Laughton, has built the final piece of the Ziggurat: an artificial being with an esoteric purpose. Tima, as the humanoid is named, is destined to sit on the “throne” of the Ziggurat. Unfortunately for Tima, Rock—not the wrestler, but an angry young man (angry, perhaps, at his being drawn with a Shoney’s Big Boy haircut) who calls Duke Red father and who leads the Gestapo-like Marduk party—has other ideas. Rock’s interference in Duke Red’s plan for Tima serendipitously coincides with Detective Shunsaku’s search for Dr. Laughton, and the chaos that follows leads the characters from the clean beauty of upper Metropolis down through the social and technological strata of the city to confront disturbing truths about the nature of humanity, and its progress forward.
Part carnival, part apocalyptic-noir fable, Metropolis would feel much like Blade Runner or Dark City if it weren’t so much fun to take in. To watch this film is to revel in its vibrant, sometimes stunning visuals. One feels almost guilty, like a pauper passing as royalty at a feast, enjoying such a visual treat so lightly—as scene after scene reveals the colorful and evocative evidence of the creators’ attention to detail, in the service of complete evocation of a world. Some scenery that appears for virtually no time onscreen betrays evidence of hours upon hours of detailing. The art design is highly stylized: characters appear as round-faced caricatures, cars and buildings have a nostalgic poster-like quality, and the music places the action in an alternate-dimension Jazz Age.
Don’t expect a futuristic action film a lá Wesley Snipes or Sly Stallone: there are plenty of moments where Kenichi and Tima seem merely swept along by whatever activity is happening in their vicinity. And yet those moments of contemplative stillness and inertia often serve to allow us to see Tima as charmingly—indeed, occasionally gloriously—human in her experience of the world around her, learning and living richly even in the dirty corners of Metropolis.
The world of Metropolis is the world of Osamu Tezuka, known widely for his series Astro Boy, and Kimba the White Lion. The director of this film, Rintaro, worked for Tezuka for many years; the latter refused to allow Rintaro to animate Metropolis. After Tezuka’s death Rintaro joined Katsuhiro Otomo (best known Stateside as the man behind the most widely recognized anime film, Akira) to bring Tezuka’s original world to life as a big-screen dystopian fable of love. If Tezuka were still alive, they acknowledge, the film would never have happened. The two could only make this story live again in the death of its literary father.
And thematically, the impact of an absent father looms behind such characters as Rock and Tima, and—to a lesser extent—Kenichi, whose own parents are nowhere to be seen. Parents and guardians in any form are almost completely absent from the film. Metropolis, both thematically and as an example of production, asks, “what happens when a father points us onward but abandons us? What does it mean to pursue the path left for us to follow in solitude?
In a film named Metropolis the end must inevitably be cataclysmic. What will seize you, though, and draw the film into sharp focus is the film’s denouement. Rock hits the self-destruct button (hey, it’s a sci-fi movie—these things are required), and the control room of the Ziggurat detonates in a moment of silence. Then, we hear—of all things—Ray Charles break into “I Can’t Stop Loving You” at top volume. The song plays throughout the destruction of the Ziggurat, and this one directorial choice makes the whole movie worth watching. Like an emotional standing wave, it resonates back through what we’ve been watching for two hours, and many motives that seemed muddled or confused suddenly stand out in clarity. Most importantly, it brings cohesion to a film about the future that presents that future in terms of a nostalgic past. We reach forward to find and get what we have lost and left behind as a culture and as individuals, and great outcomes depend on how well we can reconcile ourselves to our basic inability to retrieve the past.
And that is the last and enduring message of Metropolis—that despite the inevitable and semi-cyclical ruination of humankind’s aspirations for greatness and advancement, despite the fracturing and incompletion of kin and kindness, the individual may make new meaning, give love anew, and hold to principles that preserve real life over aesthetic or commercial interest.