Visual effects in `Metropolis' are otherworldly


April 26, 2002|By Michael Wilmington | Michael Wilmington,SPECIAL TO THE SUN


** 1/2 (two and one-half stars)

If you need any evidence that we're living in some kind of Golden Age of movie animation, look no farther than Metropolis, the latest example of imported Japanese anime - and one of the more dazzling.

Here is a film of staggering technical and visual virtuosity, filled with utterly amazing images that's also entertaining and engaging for children and adults on several levels. Yet in the era of Shrek, Waking Life and Monsters, Inc., not to mention the string of anime hits that includes such modern classics as Princess Mononoke, Ghost in the Shell and Akira (the last directed by Metropolis writer Katsuhiro Otomo), it may arouse only a ripple of interest among fans and cultists. Too bad. Only a decade ago, Metropolis might have caused a sensation.

Set in a future world where domed cities are divided into carefully tiered social communities, with the robot slaves on the bottom and the tyrants on top, the film centers on an intrepid man-boy detective team, and on a runaway girl-robot, Tima, who was created by mad scientist Dr. Laughton for shadowy tyrants on top. Its source is a famous 1950s magna, or Japanese comic, by Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and Kimba, the White Lion, and a great pioneering mentor-figure in both magna and anime. Obviously though, both this movie and Tezuka's original comic owe heavy debts to Fritz Lang's classic 1927 German silent sci-fi epic, also called Metropolis, which was likewise about a futuristic society built on industrial slaves (human ones), a mad scientist and a female robot (the "False Maria"), corporate chicanery and social rebellion.

Lang's Metropolis was a futuristic nightmare-fable. Here, everything is more Disney-fied and chocolate-frosted, with playful slapstick and cute, wide-eyed characters (and also some horrific ones). But stretching behind those characters are computerized backgrounds so dense, imaginative and beautifully detailed, they knock your eyes out. The film shows us vast city blocks filled with pedestrians and flying cabs, cavernous laboratories and huge factories.

Director Rintaro honed his skills under Tezuka on television versions of Astro Boy and Kimba, before directing features like Galaxy Express 999. He and his collaborators have incredible eyes, prodigious technique. This movie might be described as the Blade Runner of anime. It's also a lot of fun.

I suspect Metropolis will be a hit or cult item somewhere along the line, if only on video. Seeing these images on a big screen now, though, is occasion for delight.

Michael Wilmington is movie critic for the Chicago Tribune.


Directed by Rintaro

Unrated (Japanese with English subtitles)

Released by TriStar

Running time 107 minutes

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