Steamboy: epic cyberpunk film shooting its load too quickly and running out of steam

Katsuhiro Otomo, “Steamboy / Suchimoboi” (2004)

A decade in the making, Katsuhiro Otomo’s second full-length film is an epic cyberpunk fantasy that carries a message about how science and technology should be used to benefit humans and promote peace over profit and war. The fairly basic story revolves around a young boy, Ray Steam, living in an alternate 19th century Britain, whose father Eddie and grandfather Lloyd have invented a revolutionary machine called a steamball. It contains immense power that is self-renewing and the Steam family’s financial backers intend to profit from the steamball by selling it to the highest bidders. Lloyd Steam flees the United States with the prototype after an accident has felled Eddie and sends the steamball onto his family in Manchester. No sooner does Lloyd’s daughter-in-law Emma receive the steamball than agents immediately surround the family home and Ray escapes with the steamball on his own monowheel invention. He meets Robert Stephenson, for whom Lloyd Steam had intended to send the steamball, but is quickly whisked away by the agents. Ray soon finds himself hostage with the Ohara Foundation which has continued to hire his father (whom Ray had believed dead) to work on more steamballs.

Ray learns that his father and grandfather have fallen out over how the steamball’s power should be used. Lloyd is a utopian idealist believing that the steamball must be utilised for peaceful purposes and its benefits given freely to all, rich and poor alike. Eddie is drunk on the power and influence he imagines the steamball will bring to him. As is the case with epic action sci-fi family-friendly flicks, whether the steamball falls into the hands of people with noble intentions or not comes to depend on young Ray being able to decide if his father or his grandfather is right. In this unenviable situation which has the potential to change the course of history in this alternate Victorian universe, Ray finds an unexpected ally in the unlikely form of the spoilt heir to the Ohara Foundation, Scarlett (groan!) and maybe her pet chihuahua.

Aiming for an international audience, perhaps to recoup the immense costs of its production, the film features a bland story that packs in as many implausible narrow escapes for Ray as possible as he navigates the treacherous currents resulting from the moral dilemma that he shouldn’t have to face. Both Eddie and Lloyd represent two extremes – one collectivist, one individualist – of a continuum that reduces them to warring mad scientists. Characters are stereotyped to the point of giving offence to most people – the brave boy, the spoilt rich girl, the grim jut-jawed father figure, the eccentric grand-dad – and many viewers may recognise the stereotypes as typical Japanese stereotypes drawn from samurai dramas. Honour in the form of family honour and personal moral honour becomes important. Too many coincidences exist for the plot to be plausible: Lloyd arrives home after a long absence in the nick of time to warn Ray just as the agents have parachuted into the family home and Ray meets Robert Stephenson very much sooner than he anticipates. Surprise, surprise, we discover later on that Dr Stephenson is not such a good guy either and this really poses a moral problem for Ray who realises that maybe grand-dad Lloyd, for all his knowledge and wisdom, might not be entirely altruistic himself.

The animation has been lovingly worked over but the film moves at such a cracking pace that viewers are unable to fully appreciate the intricate detailing that has gone into many scenes. Too many dark neutral colours such as fifty shades of grey feature throughout the film. It’s as if Otomo and his team, once they started working on the visual technical details, lost sight of the overall work and allowed it to escape too far away from them. The film divides into two distinct halves, the first half being mostly exposition and the second half turning into no more than a serious of explosions, crises and the narrowest of escapes in which luck figures more strongly than quick thinking, ingenuity and skill. The second half of the film is so crowded with cliched cliff-hangings (and equally banal dialogue about being masters of the universe with scientific knowledge) and cor-blimey explosive scenes in which most of London is destroyed that viewers might well consider fast-forwarding through the lot of them and return to normal speed in the closing scenes where Ray and Scarlett leave his squabbling forebears going down with their proto-Titanic in the Thames River.

There are parallels with Otomo’s earlier work “Akira” and a number of characters could have been lifted straight from that film and deposited into this one with no difference at all apart from a change of clothes. Many viewers are likely also to compare “Steamboy” with the Studio Ghibli classic “Laputa, Castle in the Sky” which features similar protagonists, one of whom also has a compromised relative, and which takes place in an alternative Victorian universe where airborne technology got a head-start over our part of the cosmos.

I’m rather sorry that “Steamboy” founders on such a weak and derivative story and cartoonish characters (well, yes, it is a cartoon but it could have been more than just a cartoon) as the animation is stunning and really deserved a worthy plot and original themes.

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