06 November 2010

Civilization by Committee (Metropolis Tezuka/Rintaro)

I never thought the time would come when I'd actually get to use the following analogy to describe a film.

Take the DeLorean, the DMC-12, arguably the most famous (if not most recognizable) car in film history. Despite its place in pop culture and history, in terms of automotive design, it's something of a spectacular failure. The fact is, no single element of this car's design is uncool or ill-conceived, but putting them all together on the same car simply doesn't work. The Double-Y chassis designed by Lotus gave the car's mid-engine layout fantastic handling, but the stylish gull-wing doors gave it too high a center of gravity to take advantage of it. The stainless steel body looked striking enough, but was almost impossible to maintain. The engine was a collaboration of three great automakers, yet their combined efforts were staggered by changes made to comply with United States emissions standards.



Rintaro's Metropolis is a DeLorean.

Perhaps it's a matter of expectations being too high, but I was really disappointed by this film. Of course, when your story is patterned after one of the most influential and iconic films of all time, it can be a heavy and cumbersome premise to run with. Imagine if Disney decided to start making films based on the works of William Shakespeare rather than classic fairy tales. There would be no denying the visual craftsmanship, but Disney's usual vibrantly charming animation style and art direction would undoubtedly clash with the dark and subversive tone of something like Titus Andronicus. Dark twists on Disney characters have worked in past instances such as the Gargoyles television series, the Kingdom Hearts games, or some of the lesser-known Mickey Mouse comics like The Throg Ray Wars, but a tragedy about a roman general whose daughter is physically mutilated and takes his revenge by making a meal of her attackers served to their own mother would simply be going too far. Metropolis has this same issue of tonal conflict in that the themes it deals with are done a massive disservice by its presentation. Maybe if the character designs were a little less cartoonish and cuddly, or if the backgrounds were less busy and realistic. Maybe if the score were either a more traditional orchestra or a full-on jazz ensemble throughout instead of jarringly flip-flopping between them at rather inappropriate times. Maybe if there had been a little more clarity of vision to the art direction and design, perhaps there would be fewer distractions that break the immersion into an otherwise beautifully-crafted world. Sadly, however, they distract only from deeper flaws. Beneath the visuals and sounds lay the plots and characters. This is where substance has a chance to step forward and let style save face. Sadly, it doesn't fare much better.

The plot of Metropolis is rather cluttered and scatterbrained, littered with false starts and half-baked ideas, but it's ultimately linear enough that a decent summation can be given before addressing its flaws. The film begins with the celebration of the finished construction of a building called The Ziggurat, a massive tower in the center of the city. There is some unrest surrounding the building's construction because of suspicions that its purpose is completely military and not at all civil. These suspicions are correct as the ziggurat's crowning feature is a device capable of generating sunspots, which causes chaotic interference with all electromechanical devices, namely robots. The weapon is controlled from a single room adorned with an ominous-looking throne. As for who sits in the literal seat of power, Duke Red, the lead military authority in Metropolis, hires the mad scientist Dr. Laughton to construct a new kind of android not only indistinguishable from a normal human, but also modeled after his deceased daughter. The duke's intention is for Tima to take the throne and be the main controlling component of the weapon. Rock, Duke Red's adopted son, feels this plan is all wrong and that it should be the Duke himself who takes the seat. The conflict stems from Rock's resolve to seek out Dr. Laughton's secret lab and stop him from completing construction of Tima. Coincidentally, Laughton is being pursued by Detective Shunsaku and his nephew Kenichi, who rescues Tima from the wreckage of the lab following its destruction by Rock.

The first and most obvious problem that arises from this premise is a question of motivation on Duke Red's part. Why would he want a robot in control? Is it some kind of stalemate tactic, with a robot not recklessly using a weapon that affects other robots? If that's the case, why would the robot be made in the image and given the impression of being the duke's own daughter? If she thinks she's human, wouldn't she then make human decisions? On the other hand, if we look at it from the superhuman angle (as Duke Red and Dr. Laughton insist Tima is), why would a superior being be concerned with or have a better viewpoint of the petty affairs of lesser beings, let alone be in charge of the arsenal? There are just too many factors to see the logic in this plan.

Speaking of multiple factors, the second glaring flaw this film has is that it has no singularly apparent protagonist. At first, we might think Kenichi is the hero and, for all intents and purposes, he is despite being notably absent if not literally unconscious for nearly one-third of his total screen time. More often than not, he serves as a kind of bargaining chip to lure Tima out of hiding; Rock uses a forged letter from him to lure her out of Duke Red's home, and Duke Red himself keeps Kenichi captive in the ziggurat, knowing that his detective uncle will have Tima use her superhuman powers to search for him, thus bringing her to her potential seat of power at the ziggurat. It's an ironic (even cute) twist on the damsel-in-distress trappings of an adventure story, but Tima is too underdeveloped as a character to make it a full role-reversal.
Later on, we're introduced to Rock, whom we almost are led to believe is the real lead (especially if you knew going in that he's an original character created for the film, which I didn't). His should be the most interesting character arc, desperately trying to gain his adopted father's approval yet not being able to keep silent about his father's irrational and immoral decisions. That he doesn't understand his father's plan should make him the audience-identification character given that we don't understand the plan, either. However, he's just too unlikeable to relate to; normally, we can forgive an arrogant anti-hero's antics because of the faults of his personal life or because he eventually commits some redeeming act of selflessness or kindness (Save the Cat, as screenwriters say), but this latter action never comes to pass. He enters as a dastardly antagonist, and exits as one as well, leaving only a body count in his wake.
Detective Shunsaku could have also made a good lead, but he only comes center stage and into his element after Kenichi is taken by Duke Red. When introduced, he comes across as comedy relief, second fiddle to his nephew (again, the one we first believe to be the hero). Even during his separation from Kenichi following the destruction of Laughton's lab, he only offers occasional points of insight before resorting to his usual pratfalls and farcical misadventures. All this just makes his taking the wheel toward the finale that much more unprecedented and difficult to take seriously. Playing the fool in act one only to come out on top before the final curtain is a difficult trait to have in a hero because it throws the audience for a loop and breaks their relationship to the character, which is why more often than not it's reserved for villains or other traitorous denizens of fiction. The only other surefire way it works on heroic terms is when the narrative turns its focus to how the supporting cast reacts to these seemingly out-of-character moments by the lead(*), but this doesn't happen as no one is surprised by or ever doubts his actual competence.
As for the supporting cast, two of the characters who could have made decent contributions to the plot are rendered virtually ineffectual by the same revolving-door narrative structure that marginalizes the main cast. Pero, Detective Shunsaku's city-appointed android assistant, for example, serves the Red Dwarf's Kryten-esque role of "Exposition on Legs" minus any actual personality or relevance, making his death as pointless as that of the man who caused it. That man is Atlas, whose name is an unsubtle reference to objectivism(**), our second-most useless character. Between his late entry and hasty exit, coupled with the fact that the most interesting part of his character arc is his staring match with Pero at the onset of his workers' revolution, he's only one rung on the ladder above Pero in terms of importance to the story. Furthermore, the very revolution he's essentially the face of is by far the least important subplot of the film, which is a shame given how central the workers' revolt was in the original Metropolis. They speak out against the upper class, but their violence is directed at the machines they insist took their jobs, one of which is described as being too dangerous for humans to do in the first place. Overall, the revolt just comes across as incompetent and misguided; One scene a pair of Zone 1 citizens can be seen curb-stomping a robot, and the next scene an entire crowd of them are standing in awe of a firefighting robot putting out a burning building in their zone. For them to then take to the streets and massacre every robot they come across only emphasizes how misdirected the revolt is. Of course, it is entirely possible that the robot massacre is merely a prelude to what should be their real and proper objective of storming the ziggurat, which ends in a slaughter before they get to the front gate, but that just raises more questions about their motives. If the ziggurat was their real target, and the robots were not hindering them (except for Pero to stand in the middle of a very wide street and calmly advise that their demonstration disperse), why the massacre? Sure, the workers' revolt in Lang's Metropolis was equally misguided and needlessly violent, but that's because it was deliberately misguided by a plant in their own ranks. Atlas is no plant, so our only conclusion about him is that he's just an idiot leading a herd of sheep through a minefield. That's not sympathetic, that's suicide.
It's entirely possible that these casualties of characterization and plot development are redeemed by having more fleshed-out backstories and exposition in the original manga. This, however, I cannot accept as a saving grace to the film, or any film adaptation for that matter. An adaptation should do justice to its source material but ultimately stand alone. If the film can't be bothered to tell us enough about Atlas to make him an important character, then the film shouldn't have him in it. If a point made in the source can't be expanded upon or at least done justice in the film, it needs to be omitted and worked around. It's the same problem I have with The Last Airbender and every Harry Potter film since the third one, with them feeling less like adaptations and more like ancillaries. Lastly, even if one were to try and take the source material into consideration as a way of making up for all the film's shortcomings, it would do no good because not only is Rock an original character created for the film (and thus has no excuse), but much of the remaining cast members are actually borrowed from Tezuka's other works, so it's practically impossible to judge them in terms of the source material because they were quite literally never there to begin with.
As it stands, Rintaro's direction of Tezuka's Metropolis fails as a film, on both the style and substance fronts. It's a spectacular failure, true, but a failure nonetheless.

(*)The Irresponsible Captain Tylor is a textbook example of this formula and how it can work effectively as a narrative structure.

(**)Which has absolutely nothing to do with any of the themes explored in any version of Metropolis. In fact, if any character in Metropolis (2001/1927) exemplifies objectivism, it's Laughton/Rotwang (respectively), and they rank among the villains, so it's either a misnomer or a condemnation. Take your pick.
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