Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Steamboy (2004)

Steamboy is not a very interesting movie.

It seems like a harsh thing to begin a review with, but the harhsness is required by how celebrated the film has become. It marked the second feature film helmed by Katsuhiro Otomo, whose first and most famous work is the overblown and incomprehensible mess Akira. With Steamboy, Otomo left the obtuse material of Akira behind, revealling that there is ultimately no "there" there.

The story revolves around the conflict between three generations of the Steam family - grandfather Lloyd, father Edward and son James Ray - and how to use their greatest invention, the Steam Ball. Industry faces off against inspiration at an alternate history Crystal Palace Exhibition as corporations and governments vie for control of this fantastic source of compressed steam power and the Steam Tower doomsday weapon using it.

The Steam Ball is itself an allegory for atomic power, or perhaps any form of technology, and therein lies the main fault of the film. We've seen this movie before. A lot of them came out in the 1960's, when there was substantial angst over the future of humanity in the face of the atom. Michael Rennie came down from the stars to warn us about it and James Mason floated up from the depths to protect it.

The one-note refrain of Steamboy is the same as nearly every other superficial meditation on how technology can be dangerous if put in the wrong hands. If you've seen any Science Fiction movie of the 1960's, you've essentially seen Steamboy. It is well-known that Otomo was deeply shaped by his experience growing up in the era, and perhaps that is coming out in this belated Atomic Age parable. Unfortunately, it adds absolutely nothing to the theme or the discussion. It can't even muster the sort of personal sensitivity of a film like Gojira. It just says nothing worth saying.

The problem of how to deal with technology in an appropriate manner was never fully dealt with in the 60's anxiety over nuclear power. The atom was merely assumed, what constituted technological progress was merely assumed, and the dramas of UFOs and Vernian weapons of mass destruction were played out along those paradigms. The only issue was whether or not the atom would be harnessed for creation or destruction.

Since then, more and more thought and attention has been devoted to the problem of progress itself. The technological paradigm is itself being challenged, and often found wanting. As Jerry Mander notes in In the Absense of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, "the idea that technology is neutral is itself not neutral - it directly serves the interests of the people who benefit from our inability to see where the juggernaut is headed." He provides a list of questions that any thinking society should ask when presented with a new piece of technology:
Which segments of society benefit from a new technology, and which segments do not? Who gains and who loses? Does a new technology concentrate power or equalize it? Does it serve democracy or not? How does a particular technology affect the human conceptual framework: what we think, how we think, and what we do know and can know? How does it affect the way we view ourselves and our relationships to each other, to the planet, and to other living creatures? What about effects on human and planetary health? Finally, all things considered, is it better or worse for the new technology to be introduced? And if we want it, at what scale of operation?
As examples, Mander points out the atom and the computer as technologies which are not at all neutral. Instead, he argues, they favour centralized authority and most benefit those already in power. Atomic energy requires an investment of thousands, even tens of thousands, of years by a centralized authority to deal with the byproducts. Compared to the amounts of information and money being efficiently shared via computer between military, governmental, media and corporate institutions, the idea that a PC and an internet connection is somehow liberating for the half-billion of the world's people who can afford one is laughable, even if they use it to publish "radical" activism tracts. Even in the process of them doing so.

No concerns like this are mentioned in Steamboy. None of Mander's questions are considered. Instead, the same common wisdom from 50 years ago is repeated: technology in the hands of bad people is bad but technology in the hands of good people is good. It can't even be said to gird up this deficient, overly simplistic and outdated thought with intriguing characters or engaging dialogue. The only thing to recommend about Steamboy is its art. It's a very attractive, well-animated, well-designed film. It looks stunning, and that is all.

Steamboy may serve the interests of newcomers to the genre of Scientific Romances in anime, for whom it is their first and only exposure. There are much better films to be recommended, however. Hayao Miyazaki's films - such as Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky - are far more nuanced in their approach to technology and timely in their concern over our relationship to nature. Obliquely, the Galaxy Express 999 series is also a more involved study of the effects of technological society on the human person. 999 also emerges as more imaginative, as do such OVA as Read or Die and such series as Escaflowne. Interested individuals would be better served seeking these out.


baralier said...

I think the main reason for this film's popularity is much the same reason many politicians get elected: they drag out the same old arguments and the voter makes their decision on what they look like.

I've personally never waxed lyrical about Steamboy's plot but it's its visuals that bring it to the fore. There's a lot of pseudo-19th century anime about but steamboy makes the effort to keep it looking close to the time period.

Added to this is that it's one of the few anime films that have been redubbed by leading American actors (as opposed to people who only ever do voicework).

All this has elevated it from obscure cosplay source material to prime focus for the burgeoning steampunk wave.

Cory Gross said...

Regarding the voice actors, they're actually the usual suspects who Disney drag out to voice Studio Ghibli films... It's nice for the X-Men to have something on the side, but the problem is that they're also not professional voice actors.

However, I think you're mostly on to the reasons why Steampunks get their rocks off about it. Like Steampunk, it's mostly visual. The substance isn't as important. What substance there is in political and cultural ideas is oversimplified and simplistic to the point of laughably wrong. It was a major, mass-market consumer release, thus being suited to a scene that doesn't like to dig to find better and more foundational work. And the main conflict was between a family of inventors, which satisfied their DIY fetish even though it's this family of inventors that are directly responsible for all the problems.

George Taylor said...


I *so* wanted to like this movie. We watched it and agreed that it was stunning visually--but we didn't really care about the characters.

But--great way to disguise a theoretical treatment (wrap it up in a movie review).

Great article!!!