Sunday, November 11, 2007

Anime Review: Steamboy

He may or may not be a superhero.

Steamboy, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Screenplay by Sadayuki Marai and Katsuhiro Otomo. Voice talent by Anne Suzuki, Masane Tsukayama, and Katsuo Nakamura. Bandai Visual Company, 2005. Rated PG-13.

Read other reviews here.

As a note, I was supposed to write this yesterday, but Deej wouldn't get off the computer, so blame him.

So, Steamboy. I was surprised at the mixed reviews this movie received. Though many critics were underwhelmed, it looks to me to be a competent and enjoyable piece of steampunk, even if it is low on brains. It deserves to be watched for the animation if nothing else: Katsuhiro Otomo, director of Akira, reportedly spent ten years working on this movie, and it is undeniably a visually impressive film. I'm not sure it's ten years' worth of impressive, but it's impressive nonetheless.

Set in an alternate world 1860s Britain, Steamboy's protagonist is Ray Steam, a boy genius with a knack for steam-powered machinery. His father, Dr. Eddie Steam, and grandfather, Dr. Lloyd Steam, are away from home, working in Alaska on a new wonder device known as the Steamball, which is something like a miniature steam-powered nuclear reactor. When Ray receives a Steamball in the mail from his grandfather, he is soon beset by violent men who chase after him with a creative array of steam-powered equipment, determined to retrieve the Steamball for some nefarious end.

We soon learn that the Drs. Steam are working for the O'Hara Foundation, an American weapons manufacturer bent on using the Steamball to create weapons of mass destruction and sell them to ee-vil foreigners for profit. Dr. Eddie Steam, rebuilt as a cyborg after a steam-related accident (alas, he never says, "Ray, I am your father"), is all for the plan, but Dr. Lloyd Steam, turned into a shirtless, bearded, philosophical wild man after Eddie's accident gives him second thoughts, wants to sabotage everything and destroy the Steamball, which is now powering a massive mechanical fortress known as the Steam Castle, built for Britain's Great Exhibition (which, I believe, did not happen in the 1860s). Eddie and Lloyd spend the entire movie trying to injure or kill each other, all while spouting a lot of verbose rhetoric. Eddie talks at length about how technology is man's salvation, and Lloyd talks at length about how man inevitably uses technology for evil. They never develop their arguments, and after a time it becomes easy to tune them out. Ray spends most of the movie bouncing back and forth between them, but never clearly achieves a worldview of his own.

Somewhere in here, the storyline takes a hike and the brainless action takes over. Representing the O'Hara Foundation in Britain, improbably, is a spoiled, bratty young girl, Scarlett O'Hara (?!?), who spends most of her time being obnoxious or putting the moves on Ray, who proves to be quite the shrinking violet ("my voice-over is being done by a woman, okay? I'm not into that"). Without her knowledge, young Scarlett's butler-cum-oily salesman demonstrates the Steam Tower's awesome weapons technology by starting a war with Britain, a war the O'Hara Foundation apparently hopes to win even though it's fighting from a single building built on British soil. You can add this to the long list of dumb things not to do when you're a supervillain. At this point, explosions, bursting pipes, gushes of steam, Ray Steam flying around with a steam-powered jetpack, and Scarlett running around and demanding to know what's happening, take over the movie. The action sequences keep coming and coming as Britain's own steam genius, Robert Louis Stevenson (?!?), fights back with his own mechanical inventions. Eventually, the Steam Castle turns out to be a spaceship or maybe just a hovercraft, or...ah, who cares, anyway?

Though a largely enjoyable watch, Steamboy suffers two, maybe three, major problems. First, it's an action movie without a point. What kind of evil corporation in its right mind would start a war--and fight that war itself--solely for the purpose of demonstrating its products? The movie's last third runs on the hope that blowing up Victorian London is so much fun, viewers won't notice they're blowing it up for no reason.

Second, Ray Steam is a passive character. His father and grandfather do all the talking (a lot of talking) while Ray kind of stands there. We know Ray doesn't want people to get hurt, and we know Ray wants technology to be used for good and not for evil, but why? The movie is entitled Steamboy, which gave me the impression it was about a boy, but the boy doesn't have a very assertive role.

Third, the end credits are agony. Under the credits is a series of intriguing images showing what happens to the characters later in life. We see Ray using his jetpack to become a steam-powered superhero who battles technologically enhanced evil wherever he finds it. Ray fights a mechanical dragon in Paris and has angst-filled facial expressions. We see images of a technologically beefed-up World War I with Zeppelins and paratroopers. We see Scarlett O'Hara growing up into a spunky fighter pilot, and we can assume she and Ray will meet again as either friends or enemies. A number of reviewers have said they'd rather be watching that movie, and I don't blame them. The end credits, sadly, are more interesting than the film they follow. Based on those images, I assumed Steamboy must have been a manga series before it was a film, and that the end credits must be showing images from that series. A search, however, turned up nothing. If Steamboy is a manga, it hasn't been printed in the U.S.

Still, for all that, Steamboy's action and interesting visuals never flag, and it does at least give a little to think about. If you like steampunk, you'll probably enjoy it. If you've never before experienced steampunk, Steamboy is a decent introduction to the wacky sub-genre.

As for that on-going argument between Eddie and Lloyd Steam, I'm going to have to cautiously side more with Lloyd, partly because Eddie is a cyborg and you know how cyborgs always turn to the Dark Side (Darth Vader, Lord Dread, and Doctor Octopus are more machine now than man, twisted and ee-vil). Besides that, there's that little matter of human nature.

Once upon a time, some people foolishly argued that a technologically advanced civilization would necessarily be more peaceful. Their error lies is in believing that technological progress and moral progress inevitably accompany each other, but this belief is false, as Western Civilization has adequately demonstrated over the last century or so. Greater technology will not make you humans better; it only gives you the ability to help or harm each other in greater numbers than was previously possible. The battle of wills between Lloyd and Eddie, while juvenile, does adequately capture two extreme viewpoints in the Western world--that technology is inevitably our salvation or inevitably our damnation. I think reality is somewhere in between: technology is a tool, and people will use it as they have always used their tools, for both good and evil. Science, in and of itself, has no morals, and so must be guided by morals derived from another source. Arguably, this is the viewpoint young Ray eventually lands on, for though he is against the development of super-weapons, he nonetheless uses technology for good, at least in the end credits.

Some years ago, I read a review, I believe in Scientific American, of the movie Gattaca. The reviewer complained about Gattaca's view that people would inevitably use genetic technology for evil. That reviewer probably knew a good deal of science, but didn't understand humanity quite as well as Gattaca does. Genetic and embryonic science are quickly becoming, so to speak, the Steamball of the twenty-first century. There is good that we can do with this knowledge--and there is also a world of evil we are already doing. Already, for example, large numbers of women in the UK are aborting children with clubfoot or cleft lips. Knowing a child will have a cleft lip ahead of time, and being able to correct it, is good, but people can still use that knowledge in the wrong way. Technology is not inevitably evil, but human nature ensures that it will be used that way nonetheless, sooner or later.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Steamboy:

Myth Level: Medium (some universal themes, typical hero)

Quality: Medium-High (amazing animation, fun universe, weak script)

Ethics/Religion: High (family-friendly, good message, contains prolonged action-violence)
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