Losing Steam

Despite its creator's pedigree, Steamboy is mostly hot air

Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy will be released nationwide in both subtitled and dubbed versions. At the press screening, both were shown simultaneously in neighboring theaters, leaving the reviewer to choose which one to see. Your critic went with the subtitled cut, not purely for reasons of cinematic snobbery, but mostly because the dubbed version has been trimmed by about 20 minutes. So you won't read any assessment herein of the degree to which Anna Paquin does or does not sound like a young boy, or how well Patrick Stewart and Alfred Molina blend into the anime scenery.

Fans of Anne Suzuki (Returner) and Katsuo Nakamura (Warm Water Under a Red Bridge) are in luck, however. Suzuki is totally convincing as a boy in the way that Paquin might not be because of her familiarity to Western audiences. She plays Ray Steam, who will ultimately earn the title moniker by film's end. Steam is the latest in a long line of inventors, and he lives in the English countryside circa 1866. (Yes, Victorian England populated by Japanese speakers. If you're going to get all linguistically accurate here, go see The Passion again instead.)

Ray's grandfather Lloyd (Nakamura), a crazily shouting white-haired scientist likely named after Christopher Lloyd as seen in Back to the Future, works in a secret lab in Alaska alongside Ray's father, Eddie (Masane Tsukayama). Alaska, by the way, is still owned by Russia, but that doesn't turn out to be especially relevant. Together, they've discovered a mysterious liquid that can generate exponentially more steam power than water, but when they hook it up, there's an accident, and Eddie appears seriously injured or dead.

Smoke and Gears: Ray runs from a bigger, 
smokier machine.
Smoke and Gears: Ray runs from a bigger, smokier machine.

The sphere containing this liquid, meanwhile, shows up in the mail on Ray's doorstep right about the same time that Lloyd does likewise (so why did he bother to mail it?). Scary people in black from the mysterious O'Hara Foundation are after the object, and a chase ensues, culminating in London, where Ray is reunited with his father, who's now a cyborg (yes, a Victorian-era cyborg) and an employee of O'Hara. There's also a bitchy heiress to the O'Hara fortune, who, in the film's most groan-inducing moment, turns out to be named Scarlett (Manami Konishi).

With Grandpa and Dad on opposing sides, what's Ray to do? Before he can figure this out, the O'Hara Foundation reveals a massive arsenal of high-tech (for the time) weapons, and the British army tries to match them. The ensuing battle essentially takes up the movie's entire second hour.

Sci-fi readers call this type of thing "steampunk," a genre characterized by advanced technology powered by old-fashioned methods -- usually steam engines -- in the style of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. As a cinematic genre, it hasn't done so well -- think The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Wild Wild West. Today's audiences don't seem to dig retro, though one could also speculate that there hasn't been a great steampunk script since maybe Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Much of Steamboy is actually reminiscent of Wild Wild West, with a giant moving tower substituting for the giant spider, and the personalities of Will Smith and Kevin Kline being replaced by ... no personality at all, really.

Writer/director Otomo's 1988 anime epic Akira was not only a masterpiece of animation, but also a classic cerebral sci-fi action film. What made it great wasn't merely the style, the imagination, and the captivating vision of a dark future; the characters were memorable and offered much to like and dislike, as well. It would be too much to expect lightning to strike twice, but Otomo doesn't seem interested in character at all in Steamboy. Ray is a totally generic kid whose only key trait is that he invents stuff. His dad is slightly mean, and his grandfather is a crazy old guy. And Scarlett's nasty, though we're supposed to buy an unmotivated change in allegiances. (Still: She punches her flippin' dog!)

No, Otomo's fascination is with steampunk technology and gadgets (for a fun drinking game, take a sip every time steam loudly hisses out of something). It's a fetish that began with the short "Cannon Fodder," part of the anime anthology film Memories. This might be enough if Steamboy were visually groundbreaking, but it isn't. Next to recent releases like Ghost in the Shell 2 and Appleseed, its look is downright traditional. It is interesting to see an anime-style take on Victorian England, but the elaborate machines aren't even as fun to watch as the steam-powered robot suits in Sakura Wars. Otomo uses computers for certain camera angles, a couple of machines, and some cloud-type effects, but mostly, things look hand-drawn (Ray resembles a younger version of Akira's protagonist, Kaneda).

But hey, maybe 20 trimmed minutes and Patrick Stewart's intonations will make all the difference. Take your pick: In the Bay Area, both versions are playing.

 
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