- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2002

The Japanese animated feature "Metropolis" opens with an endorsement from James Cameron, who says he feels that its images "will stay with you forever." The chase and demolition spectacles that dominate the last reel are more likely to stay with Mr. Cameron because they appear heavily indebted to his "Terminator" thrillers.
It's a little more surprising that the movie also borrows quite a bit from its vintage namesake: Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" of 1926, revived only last weekend at the National Gallery of Art. A famously inventive, pathbreaking science-fiction allegory, "Metropolis" was subtitled "A Tale of Mankind in the Year 2000." It achieved pictorial grandeur in the form of futuristic sets and visionary spectacle. Unfortunately, it also remained at the mercy of a crackpot scenario that tried to juggle class enmity and social reconciliation within a futuristic, autocratic metropolis (scenically inspired by Lang's first visit to New York City) where industry and labor are lured to the brink of disaster.
The captain of industry who dominates Lang's Metropolis is echoed in a character named Duke Red in the Japanese variant. The naive heir apparent named Freder becomes a homicidal, orphaned son named Rock, intent on killing any entity that might interfere with his lust to inherit dad's power. Duke Red himself prefers a cyborg goddess named Tima, commissioned from a mad scientist, Lawton, and intended to adorn the city's most dazzling skyscraper, the Ziggurat.
In the Lang original, a mad scientist named Rothwang constructed an evil robot double of a saintly working-class ingenue named Maria. The false Maria was exploited in a somewhat stupefying fashion to foment insurrection among the proles who manned the machines of Metropolis, hastening a slaughter that would appear to leave the machinery in something of a bind even if the underclass ceased to be a nuisance. Happily, the heroic efforts of Freder and the true Maria head off total destruction and promise a better tomorrow.
The love match in the Japanese version is genetically problematic. Tima, who escapes the lab and wanders about uncertain of her provenance and purpose, is rescued from a subterranean junkheap by a chirpy juvenile named Kenichi, who arrives in town with his Uncle Shinsako, a private eye hired to collar Lawton for "human rights violations." A guerrilla movement led by a young malcontent named Atlas professes to champion the working class, rather difficult to detect in an urban setting where robots appear to do most of the work. There's even a gumshoe tour-guide robot who fills in the visitors about Metropolis.
Duke Red is being set up for murder by a Mr. Big called the President, so that's a wrinkle Lang overlooked. The immediate source material for the new "Metropolis" was a popular comic book. For the most part, it's the jealousy of Rock that seems to prop up the scenario; he remains murderously solicitous about the foster father who rejects him, knocking off numerous enemies and rivals. Tima, who has more in common with Rima, the Bird Girl of "The Green Mansions," than Lang's Maria, looms as Rock's ultimate target because Dad considers her sheer perfection, evidently the cutest leap ever taken up the evolutionary ladder.
A subculture of movie freaks has emerged that invokes the term "anime," meaning Japanese animation, as reverently as a similar group invokes "film noir." Not an acolyte of either genre, I often find it difficult to share their enthusiasms. That reluctance is intensified with an example as grandiose yet defective as "Metropolis," which entertains mythic pretensions but remains a ponderous, frequently absurd potboiler.
Japanese illustrators seem to have a flair for backgrounds, props and pyrotechnics, but characters and expressive motion remain a sprawling problem area. I'm always puzzled when characters with Japanese names seem to have no racial dimension as illustrative figures; on the contrary, they tend to resemble characters from vintage American comic strips. Kenichi, like the Pokemon kids, might have stepped out of "Gasoline Alley." Uncle Shinsako could date back to "Bringing Up Father."
Moreover, the figures have trouble moving smoothly and fluidly. Even motions as simple as turning and leaving a room seem to tax the skills of Japanese animators. Chase sequences aggravate the disillusion by requiring such feats as running, shooting and grappling. The most ambitious spectacles are backloaded into the last reel, when Tima belatedly emerges as the pivotal character and acquires supernatural accessories galore, turning into a magnetic monster also meant to bring a tear to the eye. There's no need for a "Terminator" sequel in which Arnold Schwarzenegger has to impersonate a yellow-tressed teeny-bopper. The new "Metropolis" takes care of that zany variation.
*-1/2
TITLE: "Metropolis"
RATING: PG-13 (Occasional graphic violence in the context of an animated science-fiction spectacle)
CREDITS: Directed by Rintaro. Screenplay by Katsuhiro Otomo, based on a comic book series by Osamu Tezuka.
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

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