Steamboy (2004) Movie Review

It’s Manchester, England, and the year is 1866, sometime during the Industrial Revolution. Our hero, mechanical whiz kid Ray Steam, toils as a mechanic at the local textile plant, when one day a package arrives from Ray’s grandfather, Lloyd. Inside is a mysterious ball-shaped metal device accompanied by blueprints and instructions. No sooner has the mailman left do a pair of agents from the O’Hara Corporation appear at the front door to claim the package, followed by Lloyd Steam himself, hell-bent on keeping the ball away from his former employers, the O’Hara Corporation.

Ray eventually eludes his pursuers and makes his way onto a train where he meets Robert Stevenson, a former colleague/rival of Ray’s late father. (If this Stevenson is supposed to be the author of the same name, the movie never makes it clear.) Ray barely has time to tell his tale before he’s stolen away by an O’Hara airship and flown to the Steam Castle, the company’s base of operations. There he meets Scarlett O’Hara, granddaughter of the corporation’s owner; Scarlett is a Paris Hilton-type spoiled brat, complete with yappy little rat dog. Ray also meets his father Edward, who is very much alive, but is now part machine. Edward reveals that the metal ball sent to Ray is the “steam ball,” an almost unlimited source of energy Edward and Lloyd have created, and which everyone wants.

For sixteen years, fans have waited for Katsuhiro Otomo to direct another full-length animated movie. In between, he completed the “Akira” manga in 1990, directed the live-action horror/comedy “World Apartment Horror” in 1991, and teased anime fans with his involvement in numerous movies and side projects. For a while, it seemed as if he’d lost all interest in directing animated movies. “Steamboy” is supposedly the culmination of almost a decade of work by Otomo and his production crew, and the result has the feel of a movie that’s been tinkered and meddled with for far too long, like a certain prequel trilogy you might have heard about.

While “Steamboy” is not terrible, it feels safe and generic, offering no surprises and playing out exactly as you’d expect. The movie shifts from chase movie to cautionary tale loaded with monologues and conversations about the dangers facing mankind in the face of advancing technology and the thirst for forbidden knowledge. After this lull, the movie throws in a few more revelations before clumsily switching back to action mode to deliver a finale that takes up over 40 minutes of the 125-minute running time, and all of it seems to take place roughly in real-time.

The movie was budgeted at about $20 million, the highest ever for a Japanese animated movie, and there’s no question that “Steamboy” is an expensive and amazing toy. On the eye candy factor alone, the movie delivers with tons of computer-generated art that incorporates some cool camerawork, insanely detailed props and dynamically rendered backgrounds fused with traditional hand drawn art, all of it done in Otomo’s distinctive style. But the fact is, the CG and hand drawn hybrid style just isn’t new anymore, and has lost some of its “wow” factor after the likes of “Titan A.E.,” “Blood: The Last Vampire,” “Metropolis,” “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence,” and pretty much every Disney movie of the last five years.

The movie’s use of “steampunk” technology and the Victorian England location means there are some interesting retroactive/”what if” equipment on display. Most of the gadgets in the movie would feel right at home in an H.G. Wells or Jules Verne novel. Unfortunately they’re not entirely innovative, as Hayao Miyazaki took a crack at similar material back in 1987 with “Laputa: The Caste in the Sky”, and even farther back with his “Famous Detective Sherlock Holmes” TV series. Frankly, Miyazaki’s earlier works were a lot more entertaining, not to mention a whole lot cheaper, than “Steamboy.”

If it’s unfair to judge a movie for falling below expectations, is it any fairer to fault it for being too straightforward? Otomo’s two most prominent movies of the 90’s were “Roujin Z” and “Memories,” two movies that were quite different from each other but were nevertheless loaded with sly humor and satire, some of it political. “Steamboy” is just another cautionary tale of the dangers inherent in scientific advances, with the steam ball obviously filling in for nuclear energy, genetic research, etc.

From the moment we see Edward Steam’s part-mechanical body, we know he personifies science run amok. And when an assortment of foreign dignitaries show up at Steam Palace for a demonstration of arms developed by the O’Hara Corporation, the film helpfully offers the insight that warmongers will always pervert science for their own means. (Interestingly enough, while those dignitaries include representatives from Europe and the Middle East, the period setting allows Japan to escape from the finger pointing.)

If any of the movie’s themes sound familiar, it’s because the same grounds were covered just as heavy-handedly in Otomo’s past films, including the highly acclaimed “Akira”. And in the long run, that’s the problem. Sixteen years and $20 million have resulted in little but a Cliff’s Notes version of Otomo’s filmography, regurgitating themes he’s already dealt with, and far better, in previous films. Considering the time, money, talent, and resources at his beck and call, Otomo’s “Steamboy” seems like little more than a missed opportunity.

Katsuhiro Ôtomo (director) / Sadayuki Murai, Katsuhiro Ôtomo (screenplay)
CAST: Kiyoshi Kodama …. Robert Stephenson (voice)
Manami Konishi …. Scarlett (voice)
Katsuo Nakamura …. Loyd Steam (voice)

Buy Steamboy on DVD