Header Ads

Steamboy (2004)

I’d not been in London long on the dull, grey Saturday afternoon in 1990 when I made a solo trek to the Scala cinema in King’s Cross and, along with about thirty other wide-eyed nerds, had my brain short-circuited by the stupendous Akira, the granddaddy of the anime medium as we know it, which was on a limited run in the capital. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that movie had on me, in those pre-internet, pre-app days. It did not simply ‘define a genre’ for me, it captivated me. For two hours, it was like stepping into another world. I left the theatre breathless, teary-eyed, not sure what I might do next, finally ending up stumbling around another wasted dystopian cityscape – King’s Cross, before they tarted it up.

Fifteen years later when I heard that its director, Katsuhiro Otomo, had made a steampunk movie, and not only that but with a voice cast including Patrick Stewart (!!) and Alfred Molina, I was almost beside myself with excitement and anticipation.

The 126min Steamboy spent ten years in production, and remains one of the most expensive anime features ever made, costing around $20m. Honestly, I don’t think $2m a year is a terrible burn-rate for anything and $20m is peanuts for a movie feature, but after ten years of cogitation, scripting, drawing, painting and animating, you kind of expect something mouthwatering.

Steamboy eventually came out in Japan in 2004, and in the US/UK a year later, and has been released in various DVD and Blu-ray formats since, including a lovely boxed collector’s edition which is worth getting if you like that kind of thing. This latest release (2018) is presumably aimed at draining the final few drops of revenue from the market to bolster the movie’s otherwise disappointing box office receipts ($18.9m).

Put a pin in that, we'll come back to why the movie didn't return its budget.

Our tale begins in an alternate Russian Alaska in 1863, where engineer Lloyd Steam (Stewart) and his son Eddy (Molina), amid colossal amounts of rusty pipework and hissing clouds of steam, are trying to perfect their miracle invention: the Steamball, an extreme-pressure device the size of a volleyball which can be used to power large machines without the need for huge boilers.

In this pre-flight, pre-combustion engine, slightly alternate world, you shouldn’t have to be told how groundbreaking this invention might be, although rest assured it will be hammered into you repeatedly across the course of this two-hour animarathon, like a rivet into one of Professor Steam’s pipes. Alas, as wonder-devices are wont to do, the Steamball malfunctions, burying Eddy under a pile of ironmongery. The next we hear of our spherical friend is three years later, when it turns up on the Alternate-Manchester dining table of Lloyd’s grandson, Ray – our hero – with instructions to take it to Robert Stevenson, the great (real) steam inventor.

Five minutes after the post arrives, so do dark representatives of the mysterious financiers of the project, The O’Hara Foundation, who want ‘their’ property back. Five minutes later, Lloyd also turns up, announces that Eddy is dead and stalls the spooks while Ray escapes on his own invention – a nifty steam-monocycle – with the Steamball.

We are then treated to a thrilling chase scene featuring Ray’s ‘bike’, the baddies’ steam-car, an airship-crane and a steam train aboard which, by pure chance, is the great Mr Stevenson, who catches the plans for the Steamball as they fly in through his window. What are the odds of that? (Answers on a Babbage Analytical Engine, please…) And what's not to love so far, eh?

The baddies get the ball as well as Ray and Lloyd, avoid destroying Alternate-Manchester Piccadilly Railway Station, and next we know, we are in Alternate-London at the site of the Great Exhibition, where a mysterious Steam Castle awaits the ultimate power of the Steamball…

Steamboy will just about reward the two-hour investment of your time if you’re a fan of steampunk, or if you simply enjoy beautiful anime; it is incredibly detailed, artfully-drawn with a grandeur and ambition to its production design which few non-CGI anime can boast.

Steamboy is beautiful. It is exquisitely-produced. But it’s no Akira.

Some in the industry have blamed the movie’s poor box office on Sony Pictures’ decision to release it only to minor screens in the US at the time, rather than give it a general release. This contention rests on the notion that a wider audience would have propelled it to greater success, but there are a few problems with that theory, not least that neither characters nor plot are really very compelling.

Neither Steamboy nor its progenitor are family films, per se, but whereas Akira allowed misunderstood adolescents everywhere to identify with its broken, frustrated protagonists, the machine-obsessed Ray and the priggish young billionaire Scarlet O’Hara (she of the Foundation and angry chihuahua) struggle to make us care sufficiently about their fate.

The choice to make our hero so young is a curious one. Ray is at the centre of a plot riven with geopolitical machinations he is too naive and poorly-educated to grasp, so leaves us with no real hero, no vehicle for our own revulsion at the excesses of the military-industrial complex. He is clearly not interested in girls - the choice of Anna Paquin (True Blood) to voice him in the dub reinforces the fact he is a child, not a young man - so Otomo's attempt at creating a pre-adolescent love interest between him and Scarlet falls flat.

There is an attempt to set Ray up between his father and grandfather, but the tension between the two of them eventually relegates Ray to a supporting role. His father is clearly far more interested in his machines than his children anyway, content to leave them for years to go off tinkering in the Arctic; grandfather obsessed by a naive worldview which seems to regard any collateral loss of life from his sabotage activities with almost complete indifference.

The tension between father and son, Lloyd and Eddy Steam, is the narrative highlight of  Steamboy, brought to life by the voice-talents of Patrick Stewart and Alfred Molina in the English dub. Their disagreement about the role of science recalls the grand theme of Akira, but here we are simply talking about the means to an end: socialism (Lloyd) or capitalism (Eddy). Both are equally idealistic, equally naive, a neat centring of the movie in the politics of the late 19th Century.

Alas, Otomo all too often has our protagonists shouting their political disagreements over a backdrop of exploding machinery. As Miss Scarlet puts it while the Steam Palace falls apart around them: “This is no time for your annoying philosophies!!” Quite.

Trapped under its own heavyweight philosophical clockwork, Steamboy fails to be quite as exciting as the director’s first work. The parable may be the same – we think we can control technology, but we can’t – but whereas in Akira the consequences are world-changing, out-of-control steam-power doesn’t pose quite the same threat as mutant mind gone crazy.

(If, during the ‘great reveal’ you think “hold on a minute, didn’t they do that in Wild Wild West?” then yes, you are correct, they did, and WWW was five years before Steamboy, but that’s what you get if you take ten years to make a movie. 'Pwned' by a camp Kenneth Branagh with a terrible accent and terrible moustache.)

In Akira, Otomo’s neon-drenched future Tokyo is a dark city of wonders: heart-in-mouth bike-rides set to a pulse-quickening techno soundtrack, giant animated vampire teddy-bears and kids who can explode main battle tanks with their minds.

Fast-backward ten years and his Alternate-London, for all the charm of glass exhibition palaces, steam-powered cannon-gurneys and dreadnoughts in the Thames, feels stiff and starchy. The promise of the early build-up around Alternate-Manchester and the chase is never matched, and we care rather less about the characters as the story unfolds and we find that all of them – with the exception of the noble Ray – make some pretty dubious moral choices.

I wanted to love Steamboy for two good reasons: because I love the whole concept of steampunk, and because I loved Akira.

Don’t get me wrong, I like it, I like it quite a lot. In 'star' terms it's more than a three but less than a four, a seven not an eight, and it never challenges the unequivocal ten I gave Akira on that cool afternoon outside the Scala twenty-eight years ago. If I was pushed, I'd give it a four, but I recognise that's a little sentimental.

It is beautiful to look, has a few thrills and spills and some neat ideas, but perhaps I expected just a little bit more from ten years’ work and the genius director.

Ultimately, for me, Steamboy just didn't have quite enough traction.