A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.


October 25, 2010


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 | , , , , , , ,

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