Sunday, 18 February 2018
Despite a lengthy production, Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy feels undercooked, if not outright incomplete. The film's first act crawls, failing to establish any firm, interior motivations for the nominal lead, teenage inventor Ray Steam. Otomo and co-screenwriter Sadayuki Murai keep Ray bewildered, a naive youth responding to the people who broadcast at him. Young Steam has a role to play, he carries the incredible valve reactor that everybody in Victorian London wants, but his primary function in the film amounts to that of a sounding board for the characters with actual objectives, specifically his Grandfather Lloyd and Edward, Ray's father.
Lloyd and Edward take on allegorical positions within Steamboy, behaving in ways that compliment overarching themes rather than organic, interpersonal actions. Grandfather Lloyd represents the altruistic, borderline heroic side of science. He's an old-world adventurer, working for the betterment of mankind. There's a sense that Lloyd has treated his life's work as a lark, always launching himself towards newer and more dangerous discoveries without fully taking the time to consider the implications. Edward is something much darker, offspring to Lloyd's irresponsible pursuit of the new. Edward represents modernity, an age of remorseless, mechanical reproduction bearing down on Victorian society. Edward is, basically, the 20th century.
Edward is a good man warped by his proximity to the bleeding edge. He alone carries the scars of his father's unquenchable curiosity. The creation of Ray's mechanical sphere wasn't just a massive technological leap, it was also catastrophic, injuring Edward to such a degree that he has had to lace his body with clockwork mechanisms. Discovery hasn't just catalysed Edward, it's seeped into his veins, warping both his body and the principals that drive him. This corruption manifests in the sacrifices Edward is willing to make to realise his goals. He has abandoned his family, not to mention his country, betraying his pre-accident identity to take up with an American arms manufacturer willing to cover the financial burden of Edward's ambitions.
As well as animating his shattered frame, Edward's post-accident body also allows him to integrate with his labours, acting as the organic ignition key for an enormous, unwieldy machine called Steam Tower. Concealed by an ornate architectural facade that recalls the work of Sir Christopher Wren, Steam Tower is actually a seething mass of pipes and machinery, a bloated techno-organic rendering of Pieter Bruegel's The Tower of Babel that sheds its ruinously expensive outer layers to drift around, demolishing London's terraced housing. Steam Tower is an obscenity, a creation that exists purely to demonstrate the scientific might of the Steam family. Without a lead character strong enough to wrestle control away from Edward it is this wandering catastrophe that drives Otomo's film. The aimlessness of this cataclysmic flying castle emblematic of a film that never quite settles into any mode of entertainment other than relentless, obsessively detailed spectacle.