Friday, December 31, 2004

Metropolis (2002)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen (again) 26 December 2004 in Jay's Living Room (DVD)

There are a great many good movies made every year. There aren't quite so many great ones, but they've accumulated, so there are great movies to be seen on a regular basis. Enough that I don't always remember the initial impression a masterpiece. I remember exactly what went through my mind as I walked out of the Kendall Square theater on 2 February 2002: "I want to see this again. Right now!."

Putting the DVD in the player a few years later, I initially find that my excitement has waned a bit. The opening is still majestic, and Toshiyuki Honda's score is still jazzy and fun. That soundtrack has been in whichever CD player I'm near ever since the film's US release, because it's so incongruous: We've grown to expect science fiction to be scored with a symphony, or something electronic, but instead the Metropolis Committee hired a jazz sax player, and he creates a group of themes that are flexible enough to show the bustle of a vibrant city, a foreboding of danger, and hope after disaster. But, somehow, since the last time I saw it, I lost my affinity the Tezuka-styled character designs. I maybe giggled a little at the movie's attempts at profundity.

But after a while, that cynicism wears off. Screenwriter Katsuhiro Otomo (famous in his own right for Akira packs the movie full of story, suggesting that what's happening is the culmination of much more, and making our view of a detailed fantasy world comprehensible without sacrificing its complexity. Director Rintaro does one of the best-ever jobs of integrating cel and CGI animation, and that's no simple task; in adapting one of Osamu Tezuka's early works (in an interview on the DVD, Rintaro and Otomo admit that they'd wanted to make Metropolis for years but Tezuka nixed it while he was alive), the cel-animated characters retain their cartoonish style while many of the environments are highly-detailed, built to awe.

The story is what you make of it - Ban, a detective, and his nephew Kenichi arrive from Tokyo hunting for Laughton, a mad scientist. Little do they know that this scientist is in the employ of Duke Red, the city's foremost citizen and architect of its gleaming new Zigguraut, who has a contentious relation with Rock, a robot-hunter who thinks of Red as his foster father. The lab is destroyed, Ban and Kenichi are separated, and Kenichi finds himself in the company of Tima, an android built by Laughton for Red, with both initially unaware that Tima is anything other than a human girl. As Ban and Kenichi try to re-unite, they find themselves in the midst of a battle for control of the city. And then...

And then, Ray Charles. Ray Charles shows up on the soundtrack in a moment of musical audacity that must be seen and heard to be believed, but as much as the song ("I Can't Stop Loving You") seems to contradict what's happening on screen, it cuts right to the heart of the movie: A boy who loves a robot even as its human exterior and heart is stripped away, a son who loves the father who won't acknowledge him, and a man obsessed with his lost daughter to the point of recreating her. It's an action scene built to make the audience cry.

And it does. By the end of the movie, I want to see it again, because it's just that fantastic, no matter what foolish doubts I'd had an hour and a half earlier.

No comments: