Sometimes, you watch or read something that seems to be the apotheosis of a movement or genre. In my case, that movement is steampunk and that something is Steamboy, the 2004 animated film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo (of Akira fame). Take any screenshot of this film and it oozes steampunk. It feels, in its own strange way, almost pure steampunk, if there is such a thing.
Despite being a Japanese production, the film is set in Britain, the country that, more than any other, is the lynchpin of the steampunk genre. The smoke-filled skylines and dirty cities come straight out of a Dickens novel.
Steampunk exists to reimagine the Industrial Revolution, and that is what Otomo does. Specifically, the plot takes place in Manchester, that great city of textile work that was one dubbed “Cottonopolis”, and one of the birthplaces of modern industrial society. It is only fitting that such a quintessential steampunk story should take place in such a quintessential location.
The protagonist, Ray Steam (which is such a steampunk name for a character), is a young man in that city of warehouses, whose father and grandfather were both great scientists working to improve steam technology, which in this universe is much more advanced than our own. He is thrust into a world of intrigue and violence when he receives a message from his grandfather in a box that also contains a mysterious device. Not long after receiving the package, he is pursued by the agents of an organization that has more sinister intentions for that peculiar piece of machinery.
The arrival of the pursuers gives rise to the first of many spectacular action sequences in the film. This first one involves a steam-powered road vehicle and a monowheel before intersecting with a train and an airship. As soon as I saw the action sequence, I responded much the way I did at the paradrop scene in Overlord (review here): the moment I knew I was going to love this film. Otomo and crew get the pacing of just about everything right, and the result is a pulse-pounding thrill ride through Victorian England that many films could envy.
It is a Victorian England that is well-realized and rooted in historical reality. A good portion of the film is set at one of the Great Exhibitions, the Worlds’ Fairs that served as beacons of the “progress” European empires (and the United States and later Japan) would espouse as their gift to the rest of humanity. (Of course, the rest of humanity would often object quite strongly to having such modernity dispensed upon them.) So much of the plot is about technology, who gets to control it and who should benefit from it. Juxtaposing that theme with the setting is incredibly poignant.
Additionally, there are two cameos by historical figures, one immensely famous and one significantly less so.
The characters are frankly hit-or-miss. The best work is done with the Steam family line: son Ray, father Edward, and grandfather Lloyd. Each illustrates a different view of what technological progress should mean, from the humanistic to the ruthlessly capitalistic. Most of the other characters are fairly one-sided.
The other major issue I have is with the pacing. For much of the second half of the movie, there is barely enough time to breathe.
Consider what Gareth Edwards had to say about the 2014 Godzilla:
It makes the big things look bigger when you’ve just had a quiet moment. If everything is whizz-bang constantly throughout the whole movie it just becomes nothing. So you have to carefully go to quiet and restrain things so that the other things hit you hard.
The latter half of Steamboy lacks such moments. By the end, you will have appreciated what you have seen, but you’ll also be a little worn out.
That is not to say this is a bad film. Far from it. This is steampunk at its finest, reimagining the age of smokestacks and poorhouses, and showing what is possible in such a time and place (with a little added imagination, of course). High time we reviewed it for Never Was!