A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 239 – Steamboy

Steamboy – October 25th, 2020

When I was in college I avoided most Victorian lit courses, but given that I was an English major and it was a small school well, eventually I had to grit my teeth and do it. I lucked out, though, and the year I had to take the class (it was that or something worse and I needed the upper level credit) the specific focus was on the culture of the time as shown in literature. Victorian Material Culture was the title of the class, and while there were some things I disliked about the class, I ended up getting a good deal out of it. Sure, I had to read Trollope and my classmates were scandalized by my lack of interest in Austen. But I also got an excuse to visit the Mütter Museum, and I got to read about the Crystal Palace, which is featured in this movie. It might not be related in depth to the movie, but I can’t help thinking about that class whenever I see something steampunk-ish.

Steampunk’s a lot bigger now than it was when I was in college and I’ve been mildly interested in it for a while now, but not so much that I know everything that’s out there. I like the concept of it though, and I like the concept of this movie. It’s pretty pure Victoriana steampunk action/adventure, with steam powered everything and a giant flying castle and arguments about whether mankind is ready for the moral issues advanced steam power will inevitably bring up. The main character is a boy named Ray Steam, whose father and grandfather have been researching a way to make steam power more compact and powerful. They manage it, but of course that’s where the moral issues come in, because much like nuclear power in our own timeline, this super steam power in the movie’s timeline will obviously be put to use powering weapons. I won’t go into too much detail trying to describe the various factions and how they shift and align, but suffice it to say that Ray is caught in the middle, trying to decide who’s telling the truth and what that truth really means. What’s one person’s “benefit to all mankind” is another person’s war machine.

Eventually it all comes to a head with a huge battle in the middle of the London Exposition, destroying the Crystal Palace (which was doomed in our timeline as well, alas). There’s a hell of a lot of wrangling between the various figures in power. And to be honest, the movie never really portrays any of them as completely and utterly evil. They’re all men who can see the potential in this new scientific discovery, and who then get wrapped up in how to harness it. It seems inevitable that they’d turn to weapons. But I’m not going to try and read any allegory into it. For one, it has a giant flying castle that freezes the Thames. If I was taking my Victorian class then perhaps I could have horrified my professor by attempting to write about this in relation to real Victorian literature and to the spreading use of electricity. But I’m not. I’m watching this for fun. And it is fun.

This is not a deep movie. The moral issues are spelled out quite plainly for all to see. The characters have sweeping arguments about scientific discovery and furthering mankind’s progress and all that. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. The Iron Man movies touch on it as did Real Genius before them, and I’m sure there are more examples I’m not thinking of off the top of my head. It’s not revolutionary. But it is fun. It’s got lots of great animation, both hand drawn and computer generated. It’s got fun action scenes and flying machines and the castle itself. There are gears and pipes and gauges and levers. There’s humor, like when one of the steam-powered amphibious suits can’t climb steps. There’s a steampunk version of Asuka from Neon Genesis. And it’s all put together quite well. But, well, I’ve got a problem.

The closing credits are a series of minimally animated images that show some of what comes after the movie, and I found myself wishing that this hadn’t been a full feature film but a series instead. Perhaps with the events in this movie worked into the background as flashbacks and backstory for Ray’s superhero persona. It feels like an origin story without the hero it’s an origin for, which is too bad, really. I would have loved this as a feature film explaining the history behind a character I’d come to love in series. It feels like it’s leading up to something, and the credits hint that the creators of the movie wanted to show where it was leading to. So why don’t we get more than semi-stills and tantalizing tidbits? The movie was great fun, but there should have been more to it. It should have been part of something bigger in scope so those credits don’t feel like such a tease.

October 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Steamboy

October 25, 2010

Steamboy

In 2004 I saw ads for a grand new adventure from Katsuhiro Otomo. “From the genius that created Akira!” blared the previews. Naturally I was intrigued and had to pick the movie up. And just as naturally it could not hope to live up to the extraordinary level of Akira. I mean how could it possibly? It is, however a fun steampunk adventure story set in late nineteenth century England.

The movie begins when child inventor James Ray Steam receives a package from his grandfather, who is supposedly in America, containing a mysterious orb. It transpires that this orb is one of three super steam batteries constructed by Ray’s father Eddie and his grandfather Lloyd. Contained within these compact spheres are unimaginable amounts of ultra-high pressure steam which may be harnessed to drive practically any invention. Grandfather Lloyd has stolen the steam ball from his employers – the nefarious O’Hara Corporation – and his son Eddie who plan to use this power to drive the ultimate collection of war machines, which they will sell to the highest bidder. After a very cool chase scene involving a nasty steam locomotive that chases Ray through the streets of Manchester and a diabolical zeppelin with giant red mechanical claws Ray and the steam ball are captured and returned to his father. There is a clash of philosophies between Eddie, Lloyd and the English inventor Robert Stephenson, and Ray is caught in the middle. Ultimately there is open war at the grand English Exhibition with Robert Stephenson and the full might of the English navy on one side and Eddie Steam’s collection of dastardly steam powered inventions on the other. Ray must choose sides and figure out to what use his father’s and grandfather’s inventions should be put.

The movie has a lot of simply astonishing animation of course, which I always love. There are constant jets and plumes of steam which I suspect were hand animated. There are colossal mechanical devices rendered in detailed cell-shaded 3-D. Even the backgrounds are more dynamic than in your usual animated film because the film makers managed to do some 3-D sets that look for all the world as though they were hand painted (a clever blending of hand painted textures with computer animation.) Probably one third of the film is given over to the extended battle and climax to the movie, and visually it does not disappoint.

However… I found myself somewhat thrown by the world building, and the characters in particular. Perhaps it comes from being a native English speaker. I think that many of the references and jokes that were somewhat heavy-handed to me would appear like clever homages to Japanese viewers. There’s the family name of Steam for one thing. Then there’s the annoying privileged heir to the O’Hara fortune, Scarlett. (Yes, Scarlett O’Hara.) Robert Stevenson would seem to be a reference to author Robert Louis Stephenson (indeed there’s a Jekyll and Hyde reference very briefly in one of the establishing shots.) Furthermore it took me quite a while to get used to all these British people in period British garb and in the heart of London speaking Japanese. It’s just odd.

I also really hate the character of Scarlett. She’s completely odious and I know that by the end of the movie I’m supposed to care about her, but I don’t. She hits her dog at the start of the movie, and from that moment on I was totally done with her. There’s no redeeming somebody who would ever hit a dog. Besides, she’s a spoiled, self-obsessed, oblivious brat for pretty much the whole film. At times I think her complete ignorance and naivete is intended to be comical, but I just found it irritating.

I enjoy the tech of this movie though. The multitude of steam powered suits, submarines, flying machines, tanks, walkers, and of course Steam Tower itself are all cool and fun to watch. If I turn my brain off and just enjoy the spectacle there’s a lot here to like. Let’s face it, steampunk is just awesome stuff.

One of the best parts of this movie is the series of images over the closing credits. They depict the further adventures of Ray at the start of the twentieth century. We see him deploying some mysterious lightbulb like weapon over the trenches of WWI. We see him and some others using steam-powered packs to fight and evil fleet of zeppelins. We see a colossal mechanical gargoyle that looks like it’s going to destroy the Eiffel Tower. (or maybe that’s a trick of perspective.) As Amanda says it seems that there’s a whole series of adventures of Steamboy that take place after this movie which might have been cooler to watch than this was.

Maybe in some nearby universe there’s an entire anime series based in the world of Steamboy (just as Steamboy itself is in a universe not too much removed from our own.) Sadly in this universe we only have this one movie and fun as it is it fails to fully grip me. I love the spectacle of the movie but it still feels empty to me. Unlike Akira which seems more amazing to me every time I watch it. Still – that’s a standard no movie should be asked to live up to.

October 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment