Perhaps the saddest thing about Metropolis is that, despite having the necessary elements to make a great movie, it lacks the guts to deliver; each part is predictable, not explored in enough depth, and somehow doesn't tie in very well with the rest.
In essence, a robot girl called Tima is the key to a mighty weapon; she goes missing, meets up with Kenichi the protagonist, and a chase through the city's underbelly ensues. Chuck in a hasty revolution by the oppressed underclass, some straight-forward political intrigue, omit any tackling of gritty questions and you pretty much have it. At its most involving, the story veers into Pinocchio territory, whereby Tima learns to experience emotions and form relationships until she believes she is human. Where the plot lets itself down is in the way it does not bother to connect us with the human suffering in Metropolis. For example, Tima and Kenichi briefly come into contact with the leaders of the underclass uprising, but they don't get involved, stay long enough or get to know anybody well enough to help the viewer understand why, somewhat undermining the movie's message about how sad it is that humanity is giving way to progress. A little internet research reveals the original manga by Osamu Tezuka as full of twists and quirks which tells me the anime polished a lot of the wow factor away.
Despite that, the setting is masterful, especially the paradoxical nature of Metropolis' society; it is very technology-heavy whilst maintaining a strong hostility towards the robots that run it. For example, Pero the robot guide explains that robots are not given human names because that would infringe upon ‘human rights'. In my opinion, this reflects the human irony of proximity breeding hatred as well as the sad fact that we can't help but ‘improve' upon ourselves when we know we don't like where that progress takes us. However, that's about as eye-opening as Metropolis gets; to a large extent it is predictable and simplistic.
The story may not be jaw-dropping but the animation certainly is; in terms of style, this movie lives up to its name. Firstly, CG is almost seamlessly integrated with the rest of the animation, making for breathtaking panned shots of tall, colourful blocks, spiralling staircases, flocking birds and milling crowds. The attention to detail is delightful and generous helpings of wide shots help us appreciate that fact. My favourite scene animation-wise is when the protagonists first descend to Zone 1 of Metropolis and we are met with an atmospheric, dirty and depressed world reminiscent of 1930s New York. A few simple shots provide an instantaneous sense of hopelessness. Just fabulous.
Metropolis also stands out from a lot of its contemporaries due to the way the cute, old-style character designs contrast with the mature and disturbing subject matter. Think Kimba the White Lion with a serious budget and you're on the right track; heads, feet and hands are big and rounded, with exaggerated facial features and no real detail in hair or clothes.
The soundtrack is based on early to mid 20th century jazz; bluesy sax sounds, up-beat jazz music, and smooth swing numbers meld perfectly with the look of the movie to deliver a potent manipulation of your viewing experience. I love the slow-mo chase involving Tima, Kenichi and Rock, when the music takes on a catchy beat that actually makes me want to leap up and bop. Not to mention the poignant use of Ray Charles' ‘I can't stop loving you' during one of the most climactic parts of the film, which is, once again, eccentric genius.
Metropolis is a moral tale and as such its characters are convenient cardboard representations: Kenichi and his uncle are guests to Metropolis and so the viewer's eyes and ears, Tima is the sacrificial lamb of innocence, Duke Red represents the unbridled ambition of science, Rock represents ideology, and the political antagonists such as the mayor are the vultures of the conflict. Needless to say, you come to understand the roles and views of the characters within seconds of meeting them.
Arguably the most interesting character is Rock because his cute character design masks a psychopathic, trigger-happy personality. I found that both in English and in Japanese, his voice had the most drama, and his parallel motivations of love for Duke Red and hate for robots were a car crash waiting to happen (the waiting being half the fun). Still, while it's great to watch an unstable character let loose on the screen, it's disappointing when the reason for his behaviour is never explained. Why does Rock love Duke Red and show such loyalty to him when Duke Red never seems to show love or even gratitude in return? And why does Rock hate robots so much when he was brought up by a father who seems to have no problem with them? Similar questions arise and remain unanswered in the case of other characters too, and in the end it is difficult to care about any of them much.
Metropolis harks back to the days when sci-fi explored possibilities and used those possibilities to glean an understanding of human nature. It is the kind of tale we don't really see much anymore because our era belongs to the cynic and, let's face it, morals are kinda passé. However, despite its flaws, there is a fanciful flair to Metropolis' approach which still makes it enjoyable.
Metropolis is a grand high-tech city-state populated by humans and robots alike. It is in these streets that Detective Shunsaku Ban and his sidekick Kenichi search for the rebel scientist Dr. Laughton who unbenounced to them, is developing a super android named Tima as a tool for the Duke of Metropolis. What starts out as a normal case turns into mayhem as the scientist is murdered, and the true plans of the Duke are finally revealed...
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