Review: Metropolis

Metropolis may just be one of the most amazing movies you'll ever see. The only catch is there's a strong possibility it's not the movie you think it is. To clear up any confusion, Metropolis, the movie playing this weekend at Tampa Theatre and the subject of this column, is not the famous 1926 silent film by Fritz Lang. Lang's Metropolis is a film whose reputation precedes it to such an extent that more than a few of us feel like we've experienced it even if we've never actually seen it. It's a politicized sci-fi epic set in a futuristic city inhabited by oppressed proles and a callous ruling elite. The movie features a great sense of style, some arresting visuals (most of which still hold up pretty well), a mad scientist and a powerful female robot.

The Metropolis playing at Tampa Theatre this week is also a politically grounded sci-fi epic set in a fabulously stylized futuristic city stocked with working class underdogs, callous rulers, mad scientists and a powerful female robot. It does not, however, claim to be a remake, update, sequel or any other sort of revisioning of Lang's classic. Rather, Tezuka Osamu's Metropolis (as it is sometimes known) unfolds like a dream of Lang's Metropolis in some strange, parallel universe — or, if you prefer, a complex modern symphony that uses a handful of Lang's most recognizable elements as base notes.

The funny thing is, Tezuka Osamu — the guy who first conjured up the vision behind this Metropolis — never even saw Lang's film. As close as he got was glancing at a movie poster for Metropolis, from which he apparently drew all the inspiration he needed. That's not so odd when you consider that Lang himself was inspired to create the original Metropolis under circumstances not all that dissimilar. The idea for Lang's film also came to him after an immediate visual impression: the first rush of seeing the Manhattan skyline, glimpsed on a first visit to America in the early years of the last century.

There's one other major difference between Lang's Metropolis and Tezuka Osamu's Metropolis. The latter happens to be a feature-length anime — that elaborate and uniquely stylized brand of Japanese animation that has an enormous following in Japan, as well as a devoted, increasingly large fan base in this country and elsewhere in the West. The film is based on a 1949 manga (comic book) by Tezuka, who is a legendary figure in Japan as the creator of the '60s pop culture icon, Astro Boy. He was also the first guy to give his characters those absurdly enormous, saucer eyes that are now pretty much synonymous with anime.

The Metropolis of Tezuka and director Rinataro (no last names, please) is a massive, tri-level city, ruled at the top by an unholy alliance of corrupt politicians and industrial magnates. The lower, subterranean level is populated by a labor force of robots in a startling array of shapes and sizes. In between is a not-quite-middle class of humans angry and frustrated that their livelihoods are becoming increasingly precarious in a world where more and more jobs are being filled by robots.

The fears of the human population are fueled by Duke Red, a power-hungry industrialist who drums up anti-robot sentiment in pursuit of his dream of controlling Metropolis. The Duke's unloved, adopted son, Rock, is a trigger-happy fascist who leads an officially sanctioned urban force charged with blowing away any robot found outside its authorized zone or behaving in an inappropriate manner. Unbeknownst to Rock, however, Duke Red has commissioned an unhinged scientist called Dr. Laughton (named after the actor who played the granddaddy of all mad docs in Island of Lost Souls?) to create the ultimate robot — an immensely powerful humanoid called Tima, built as an exact replica of the Duke's own dead daughter.

Into this oppressive and, frankly, convoluted mix comes a young man named Kenichi, who befriends and eventually falls in something that resembles love with Tima. It is their sweet, childish love story — set amid the murky political maneuvering, gargantuan sets and bloody revolutions of this totalitarian tomorrow — that gives the movie its heart.

To be perfectly honest, neither Kenichi nor Tima nor any of the other characters in Metropolis is really developed in any significant way. It's a problem that plagues many otherwise fine animes — although most anime fans wouldn't really identify it as a problem at all. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, as in most animes, the characters here are supposed to function as highly stylized, larger-than-life signifiers, not as particularly deep or finely nuanced human beings. The second reason is even more basic: The movie is such a visual tour-de-force that it's surprisingly easy to ignore plot, characters and pretty much everything else beyond how absolutely incredible it all looks.

Simply put, Tezuka Osamu's Metropolis is one of the most spectacular animated films ever. Director Rintaro (a 60-year-old anime veteran who started his career working on Tezuka's Astro Boy) never fails to supply us with something extraordinary to look at, positioning his appealingly toy-like characters against a stunning array of vast, elaborately imagined and beautifully drawn backgrounds. Much of this is executed in a remarkable photo-realist style, carried off in a riot of vibrant color, ingenious composition, precise camera placement and movement that's alternately sensual and dramatic.

The city itself, the film's central character, is awesome in the truest and original sense of the word. An immense place, part Blade Runner retro-future and part Leni Riefenstahl Third Reich chic, the city of Metropolis is a dense, intricately detailed web of neon and shadow, a deliriously heady concoction of vertigo-inducing sky-bridges, impossibly tall deco-esque towers, underground labyrinths and massive industrial spaces. The scale of the thing, the sheer hugeness of it all, is communicated in the movie's every frame and the effect is both beautiful and terrifying. Tezuka originally dreamed up his Metropolis just a few short years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and the film speaks directly to those deep-seated fears of technology gone crazy.

It's all set to an unlikely mix of toe-tappin' Dixieland jazz that provides an oddly effective counterpoint to all the epic imagery. There's even an apocalyptic finale to end all apocalyptic finales in which Ray Charles' "I Can't Stop Loving You" is used in much the same way that Kubrick messed with our heads by playing "We'll Meet Again" over his closing doomsday montage in Dr. Strangelove.

Tezuka Osamu's Metropolis is Fantastic Cinema at its finest, mysterious but playful, poetic with barely a hint of dullness.

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