Steamboy almost doesn't run out of you-know-what...
I was a big fan of Japanese filmaker Katsuhiro Otomo's famous feature-length animation, Akira. Even almost 20 years later, that film's amazing visual style, interwoven story and massive-scale events still holds up against newer, long-form animated films, in my opinion. (Roger Ebert's review of Steamboy is much more critical than mine.)
Steamboy looks very different from Akira. Instead of Akira's futuristic post-World War III Japan, Steamboy is set in a modified version of Victorian England. It is a world and a time in which the Industrial Revolution is still in full swing, and steam power is still a major technology.
Ray Steam is a young Manchester boy whose father and grandfather have developed the steamball, a mysterious iron orb capable of generating vast amounts of pressure, thanks to a mysterious "heavy liquid" (an obvious metaphor for atomic energy). Steam drives the movie's symbolism as well as the mechanics of Ray's world. Everywhere, you see wisps of steam coming from underneath trains, or hissing out of various contraptions.
Ray's father has disappeared mysteriously (is there any other way?) A couple of strange and sinister-looking men show up at Ray's home, intent on collecting the steamball, saying they have been sent by Rays' father. Ray's grandfather appears suddenly (voiced unmistakably by Patrick Stewart) and warns everyone that these men are not to be trusted. Ray grabs the steamball and runs off. This is where we really start to see where the world of Steamboy differs from Victorian England. Ray hops into this contraption that looks like a motorized hula hoop and chugs off awkardly down the road. More bad guys show up, one of whom is driving a massive steam-powered automobile which looks more like a bulldozer than a car.
At this point, I went from "Wow" to "What the...?" Why does the bad guys' vehicle have to be so dang big - like the size of a small house - while Ray's steam-powered (albeit experimental) little escape vehicle is only the size of a large barrel hoop? Technologically, this and a few other things in Steamboy seemed inconsistent to me, but dramatically it worked very well, reinforcing Ray's smallness to remind us of his low odds of success. In this way, Otomo uses his technological symbols masterfully. It makes more sense symbolically than it would if you were looking at it purely from an engineer's perspective.
Anyway, Ray is pursued and captured, in spite of the best efforts of Robert Louis Stevenson (really), and his blonde-haired assistant, a young man whom I hoped and expected would provide some support for poor young Ray.
Ray finds himself in a fine dining hall, and this is where we meet the movie's most annoying and repetitive character, a snotty rich blonde girl named (get this) Scarlet O'Hara. I really disliked this character intensely at first. She had little to contribute to the movie other than to act as an opposite to Ray's background and values, and use the word "horrid" in almost every freakin' sentence. I suppose she was supposed to represent bourgeoise upper-class English society, but I really found her to be an annoying and useless character, with rare exceptions (read about this further down).
Ray's Dad walks into the room much to Ray's shock. This is handled actually very well, in an understated, almost comatose manner. Ray's Dad walks in, Ray's face is shocked, but instead of a confrontation, an attempt at a hug, or a long line of exposition, he just watches his father sit down and says nothing. I got the impression Ray was helpless or didn't know what to say, and that the differences in his Dad's appearance and manner had stopped Ray cold. This is a case of "less is more" in the movie's style and dialogue, and unfortunately, one of the few places where it happens.
Ray becomes essentially an employee in his father's creation, called "The Steam Castle", a massive architectural structure which sits adjacent to the London World's Fair. We see that his Dad has gone a bit bonkers as he raves about his plans to unveil his master creation to the world. Ray discovers his Grandfather limping around inside the guts of the castle, desperately trying to sabotage the machinery and undermine his son's plans. Grandfather convinces Ray that his father is now mad, and that nothing good will come of his plans. With his help, Ray steals the steamball back from the heart of the Steam Castle's engine, leaving his Dad with only two balls instead of three.
Ray is reunited with Robert Louis Stevenson, whom we had believed would be his protector, but is actually working in the interests of the British government, which sees the technology of the family Steam as a threat to British sovereignty and national security. Thus, a large battle ensues on the Thames between the British Navy and forces emerging from the Steam Castle.
In one scene, Otomo has Scarlet stupidly walking outside in the pitch of battle, vainly trying to find out what's going on, and looking for Ray. (This reminded me of the old Emporer from the movie "Ran", who had gone mad, walking along a beach in a daze.) For a moment I saw Scarlet knock-kneed with fear as her little red and white parasol was blown inside out from the shock wave of a big blast. This said to me that the aristocracy is ridiculous in the face of war. I had hated Scarlet because she was useless and incapable of taking care of herself (in spite of her arrogance and claims to the contrary), but for that moment, I actually began to feel sorry for her for that same reason.
While all this is happening, a slimy couterier/salesmen praises the efficiency of the Steam Castle military technology to a cadre of international arms buyers sitting on a balcony above the battle. We watch a scripted demonstration begin to go wrong, and the international arms buyers try to escape in a waiting drigible.
The realization that Stevenson is acting on behalf of the British government, and the cold and realistic emphasis on military purchasing and battlefield strategy turned Steamboy from a child's adventure movie into a more sophisticated drama. Ray is caught between opposing forces, and can hardly trust anyone.
At the height of the battle, Ray's Dad, sitting in his glass-enclosed control room (looking like a cross between a mad scientist and the Phantom of the Opera) unleashes his ultimate surprise of the Steam Castle. We watch something the size of ten city blocks and 20 stories high slowly propel itself into the air on massive jets of steam.
Briefly but strikingly, we observe the side effect of this: at the level of the London streets, massive billows of steam flow towards the camera, almost identical to the smoke and debris seen in the famous 9/11 news footage.
But, still missing it's critical third ball (which Ray is riding around on, trying to evade flying enemy soldiers), the Steam castle cannot stay aloft for long. Scarlet O'Hara says "horrid" a few more times, and we watch the Steam Castle crash into the ground.
This is where I expected the movie to end, with the bad (?) guys having been defeated, but I must say that Otomo's story kept the idea of good and bad ambiguous right up to the end. Even Ray's father and grandfather, whom I had seen as working against each other through most of the film, work together at the end, trying to get the Steam Castle aloft one more time. In a nice moment, Ray's Dad (whose delusions seem to have relaxed a bit by this point) tells his father that they can show off a bit of the GrandFather's original vision for the Steam Castle. GrandDad yanks on various levers and turns some large wheels (of which there are many in every scene), and we watch as carousels, flags and all kinds of mechanized entertainments fold out of the Castle. Pipey fairground music plays, delighting the Londoners as they watch from their apartment windows. The Grandfather's vision was one of benevolence and entertainment - fun - as opposed to the Father's seriousness and focus on military and economic power. We're shown a trail of air bubbles and a small periscope going down the Thames, telling us that Ray's father and grandfather have escaped together.
What's it all about, Otomo?
In this movie, Victorian England provides a metaphor for almost any first-world nation, but I immediately assumed it was aimed squarely at the United States. Steam power represents the atom of course. Similar to Otomo's movie Akira, the spectre of atomic weapons is present. Obviously, this still resonates for the Japanese people, most of all, as they have certainly paid the highest price of it.
Although the story seemed to run a little flat for me, with more emphasis on explosions and action than character or story development, I still liked this movie. Otomo apprently spent 10 years deveoping this movie, and I must respect the quality and beautiful style of his visuals. It has a cautious message to give about the applications of technology, and it helped me realize that on a moral and social level, we may not have yet evolved that far from the Victorian era after all.