Taking cues from, but not imitating, the classic Fritz Lang movie of the same name, Metropolis has the ambition and the scope of the last great animated Japanese epic, Princess Mononoke. Metropolis isn't as profound or thoughtful as that movie, but it has so much style to burn and so much to show that it is every bit as impressive.
I love movies like this. I don't like to sit in a theater or in front of a TV for two hours and feel like I haven't gone anywhere. Metropolis creates a whole world that is real enough to believe in, and yet totally a product of imagination, that it becomes less like a story and more like a visionary act.
The production team reads like a Who's Who of anime greats: the director is Rin Taro, of X and Dagger of Kamui fame; the writer is Katsuhiro Otomo, of Akira, and the original story was by the "God of Manga," Osamu Tezuka (creator of Black Jack, Atom Boy, and many other classic characters). Each of them delivers their own specialty: Taro fills the screen from edge to edge with spectactle; Otomo's script deals with the same kind of conspiracies of power and apocalyptic devastation that Akira did; Tezuka's story is about individuals seeking their own humanity in an increasingly inhuman world.
Metropolis takes in the same kind of wild, sprawling future city that would make the designers of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element sit up and wonder if they had been cribbed from. Buildings reach to the sky like abstract sculpture, while in the subterranean levels below, the proletariat wrestle with each other in shantytowns and recycling robots scrub the streets clean. Into this city come two visitors: the young Kenichi and his uncle, a detective, who are looking for the mad Dr. Lawton.
Lawton has built an android, Tima, for his employer, Duke Red, who plans on using it to wrest control of the city in a coup. He has also built the Ziggurat, a massive tower which can control the sun, with which he plots to take over the rest of the world as well. But Red's adopted son Rock does not want Tima taking control of the Ziggurat, and he plans on killing Tima and anyone who stands in his way. When Rock tries to destroy Tima, Kenichi rescues the android and the two barely escape with their lives. The chase that ensues, leading from one layer of the city to the other, is exhilarating and eye-popping.
Kenichi and Tima become friends, with Kenichi helping Tima become more human even while everyone else around them is convincing her that she's not. (In one of the best scenes, she takes to writing his name by copying letters out of the newspaper.) Duke Red uses the Ziggurat's electronic throne to strip away Tima's humanity, but not without a cost — and the cost may be more than the city itself can bear. Rock himself is an interesting character, loaded with jealousy, desperate to do anything to ensure his father's attention.
The movie starts with a bang and doesn't stop moving for a second. There is not a single shot, not one frame, of Metropolis where every inch of the screen isn't being put to use. There's almost too much wonderment to take in at once; the movie definitely demands repeat viewings on home video (or better yet in a theater). Unlike The Phantom Menace, where there was a lot going on but none of it mattered, the movie's imagination is exploding at the seams in ways that draw us further in. I loved a hotel that's modeled after an old railway carriage, and a scene where Tima hacks into a computer network through a rotary phone (shades of The Matrix, or maybe better to say Scanners). The only downside is that sometimes the director's top-down staging of events makes things difficult to follow, but it grows less burdensome as the action unspools.
Most touching of all is the gallery of characters. They're given life and depth by the script; not simply treated as plot conveniences. Tima starts off as a mere tabula rasa, and by the end of the movie has grown into a creature capable of moral choice. Kenichi adores her, but can't face up to the fact that she is, after all, a machine — and that her machine side comes before her human side.
Osamu's character designs have also been closely preserved on screen, and they are an odd echo of the early Disney animation that he consciously emulated. Here, they look both classic and new, along with the rest of the style of the film, which takes old and new technologies and mixes them to produce something stylish and different. Both conventional hand-drawn figures and computer graphics were used to create the movie's look, which is sumptuous and colorful, not at all like the sterile and too-perfect forms we normally associate with CGI. And rather than go with a typically bombastic orchestra or synthesized music, the director uses Dixieland jazz and swing for the movie's score, with Ray Charles's "I Can't Stop Loving You" used to devastating effect near the end.
Why animation? I hear this question asked a lot, and I'm not sure I have a definitive answer. Metropolis is animation for the same reason that The Big Sleep is in black and white. Making a movie like this into live-action would somehow only cheapen it, make it seem less wondrous; showing Bogey in anything but silver tones would make him seem more like just another actor and less like a myth figure. Metropolis is techno-mythology on the same level as Dark City, and maybe even Fritz Lang's original vision, too.