Despite Brilliant Animation, ‘Steamboy’ Marred by Weak Plot

by Andrew Williams
Columnist

“Steamboy” plunges into the steam-punk world of Victorian-era science fiction with a complex, action-packed story of rivalry and corporate intrigue revolving around a critical scientific breakthrough in steam technology. The second major anime release by Katsuhira Otomo, the creator of “Akira,” this film held great promise but ultimately failed to satisfy.

Katsuhira and his company reportedly worked on the film for 10 years, drawing countless animation cells by hand and using computers to create special effects. The effort shows. The animation moves almost flawlessly and the background layouts are sometimes breathtaking in their lavish detail. Creative scene transitions and unique camera angles give the cinematography a nice artistic feel.

If only Katsuhira had devoted the same level of attention to the story itself, which moves solidly through the first two acts only to fall apart in a prolonged third act devoted almost entirely to loud, mindless and repetitive action sequences.

The movie opens in 1866, when a boy inventor named Ray receives a package in the mail from his grandfather Lloyd (voice by Patrick Stewart), who has been developing new technology overseas with Ray’s father Eddie (voice by Alfred Molina). Inside the package are a strange metal ball and a letter instructing Ray to guard it.
However, two conspicuously sinister men kidnap Ray and take him to the headquarters of a company called the O’Hara Foundation. Here he meets his father, now partially mechanized due to severe injuries from one of Lloyd’s experiments. He also meets the O’Hara family daughter, a spoiled brat who abuses her pet Chihuahua. Of course, her name is Scarlett.

It turns out that the metal ball contains steam under an extraordinary amount of pressure. As the plot unravels, Ray discovers that the O’Hara Foundation, with Eddie’s help, intends to use the invention to power its arsenal of war machines. The company plans to hijack London’s Great Exhibition (never mind that the exhibition actually happened in 1851) and use it to promote its new weapons to the world. With the aid of his grandfather, whom Eddie has been keeping prisoner, Ray exposes the plot.

At this point the film crumbles into absolute chaos, as the O’Hara Foundation spontaneously turns the exhibition into a war ground. Various retro-futuristic machines do battle on the ground, in the water and in the air, diving, shooting, colliding and exploding into tiny bits of hardware. Sure, the action is wonderfully drawn and executed, but after 40 straight minutes of constant motion I had lost all interest in the characters or the story. Instead I just felt bored. Action does not always create interest, especially when it occurs repetitively and with little context.

Somewhere in the middle of all this the movie attempts to raise a number of what really are intriguing ideas about the limitations of science and technology and the power they can have over mankind. Unfortunately, the delivery of these ideas undermines whatever depth they might have had. Characters constantly debate one another, making long, dramatic speeches that sound grand but fail to communicate anything truly profound.

A better movie would have conveyed its central concepts primarily through visual means, using dialogue sparingly and then only to show clarity or response. “Steamboy” wants to be profound, but its attempt is somewhat amateurish.

The movie had enormous potential and it tries hard to succeed. You can tell how hard the artists worked to bring all this creativity to life. The trouble isn’t with the story but the story’s execution, and in the end all you’re really left with is a series of beautiful pictures illustrating what might have been.

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