Cult Film Review: Steamboy (2004)


Over ten years ago, I was an awkward and geeky teen like many others.  Among my many hobbies was collecting all sorts of Japanese animation (or anime) titles.  Granted, this was the turning point from “crack is cheaper” to anime being readily available at a decent price.  Some time during ’03/’04, a program on G4TV/TechTV announced a new movie by the director of AKIRA (Katsuhiro Otomo) which takes place in a dystopian Britain. Here, a young inventor must protect a secret experiment from greedy businessmen and power-hungry bureaucrats after losing his father and nearly losing his grandfather in an industrial accident.

At the time, I was slightly new to the emerging “steampunk” fad, so I was coloured intrigued!  Upon watching the movie, I found it to be an enjoyable action picture with a cool protagonist I related too.  Now, it’s over a decade later and I’m a fair bit different from my slightly younger self.  So, how does this picture hold up today?  Let’s turn some valves and let loose some steam as we discuss “Steamboy”.

The film starts out in Alaska, then Russian territory. A determined scientist and his father are working together to perfect an orb-like device that captures seemingly infinite steam power. Needless to say, the device malfunctions and destroys the facility. Back at the characters’ home, a young boy named Ray struggles with his family identity as well as his working class status. Boys pick on him, calling his family insane for the “weird experiments” they take part in. Upon making his way home, his grandfather shows up to entrust him with a strange sphere-like device. Soon after, a shady organization tracks the orb to the residence and demands it’s handed over. The grandfather informs Ray to run away with the device. After chaos breaks out and destroys his house, the organization dispatches an incredible tank-like machine to track down Ray. After a near death experience, he escapes onto a train where members of British government are on the way to an exhibition in London. They become fascinated with the device and try to assist Ray however they can… But, not before the organization strikes again and captures the boy! Ray comes to and meets a brat hailing from the Americas, whose family happens to own a large part of this organization. Her interest seems to be more in the company’s success, at least before learning a little more about Ray.

As Ray tries to figure out what’s going on, it’s revealed the real man behind the curtain is Ray’s supposedly-deceased father. He went into hiding after his partnership with his father crumbled, only to be a part of this shadowy group. His greatest achievement is his Steam Castle, utilizing the orbs to keep the behemoth flying in the skies. The father begins to slowly coax Ray under his wing, until Gramps is shown to be a prisoner on board the flying castle. He escapes as Ray finds him attempting to sabotage the impressive vessel. When questioned, the grandfather asks if Ray really believes his father’s ilk. After thinking about it and witnessing the organization’s cruelty, he decides stopping the Steam Castle is for the best. However, it’s too late! The craft is operational as the science exhibition has begun!  Meanwhile, the government people from before are nothing more than power hungry bureaucrats (just like the organization!), leaving Ray betrayed.

Attempts by the government to thwart the tower continuously fail as its impressive defenses mow them down. The bratty kid realizes that maybe she shouldn’t take apart in what amounts to warring against everything that isn’t pro-Steam Castle. Not content with staying on the ground, our precursor to Columbia takes to the skies and begins to unleash a super-weapon down below, freezing anything in its path. Ray becomes disgusted with his father’s mad mission, trying any way he can to stop it.  Needless to say, the thing starts crumbling around him as his father realizes his dream is dead.  He teams up with the grandfather to prevent this thing from annihilating everyone.  Ray and bratty friend help to get the giant tower away from where others could be hurt as they barely escape.

Now, whether it’s a mistranslation or intended, the dialogue turned me away from a lot of the severity of the scenes. For one, Ray loves to shout “FATHER” and “GRANDFATHER” whenever something bad happens. For that matter, he acts the same frantic way even when addressing them.  It wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t constantly shout “FATHER/GRANDFATHER” every couple minutes, even when the rest of his sentences sound somewhat calm.  Plus, this talk of how SCIENCE! works came off is comically hammy and really took away from some potentially deep drama that the film had to offer. Instead, we got pulp-style camp that showcased how silly works about super-science really are. While this allowed for the film to be enjoyable, it made the characters overall less interesting.  To be honest, the using of SCIENCE! for a better tomorrow reminds me of the dialogue from the Fallout New Vegas: Old World Blues DLC.

I got the basic gist of the plot, but that didn’t stop me from scratching my head at the characters’ motivations and inconsistencies. I’m all for development, but a lot of the time it felt rushed or sporadic.  The father jumped between pondering science to aid others and joining with his shadow organization to wage war against EVERYONE!  To be honest, I would have preferred if he was stuck in his “tech brings peace and love” nonsense leading to him breaking when it’s used against innocents.  As for the grandpa, he went from “science for peace” to some really weird romantic pastoralism that feels more critical of science than critical of its misuse via plutocrats and governments.  And worse than both of them is the rich girl, who bounces between a whimsical curiosity and getting angry at everyone who doesn’t immediately obey her silly commands.  She honestly went from being annoying to just making my head spin in confusion.  Also, the sudden backstabbing but not backstabbing of the father at the end didn’t make sense.  He realized his dream was over and his creation is literally crashing in front of him.  There’s no reason for him to try to ditch the grandfather… and he apparently doesn’t anyway.

The plot itself is pretty filled with random holes and inconsistencies.  While I respect that it plays with your head when you feel like it ended, it seems to go on and on with nothing really happening.  The illusion of “happening” occurs with a random whirligig exploding or a thingamabob going haywire, but that’s really it.  The pacing becomes an uneven mess because of it.  Instead of a thurough story, we’re treated to a wide variety of scenes and segments that are loosely connected.  At least the first half of the film sort of made sense in that regard, even though the plot didn’t give Ray that much time to recover after nearly being squashed by a train and… whatever that other thing was.

That isn’t to say this film isn’t also kinda awesome!  The intro has this aspect of mad science to it; remote location, a huge team feverishly working to steam inevitable doom, tensions raising as some super machine is about to go crazy!  It’s a fantastic introduction to the movie.  The general aesthetic of the super-science has a place without feeling like the excessive nonsense common within steampunk nowadays.  In a way, it reminds me of Miyazaki’s take on Howl’s Moving Castle.  But, that’s not a bad thing, as I see this as a nice homage of sorts.  And even if there’s some really obvious mid-00s CGI in this movie, that doesn’t stop almost all of the scenery from being captivating to downright beautiful at times.  From the imagery of a Victorian London to the improbable gadgetry inside the Steam Castle, almost everything in this movie catches the eye in one way or another.

All in all, the movie is a very flawed one.  It is far from the masterpiece that is AKIRA.  However, it’s still a visual marvel and just as much as its predecessor was in the 1980s.  For what it’s worth, I never felt bored while watching this picture.  Whether it’s my snarky and derisive laughter at parts that didn’t quite work or the beautiful imagery, there was plenty to keep me entertained for 2 hours.  Steamboy gets 6 bursts of steam out of 10 for being an overall decent movie.

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