I first saw this film at a cinematic screening (The Nova, great place) but I was being slack and didn't review it. I've just finished watching a somewhat dodgy copy of it, and will probably have to find a better one to watch, so the review might change in the near future.
The title begins by zooming into a truly amazing city. A city monstrous in size, modern in science and archaic in style. It's extremely interesting in itself and it also makes an excellent stage. Within this city the completion of a centerpiece building, an absolutely massive structure, is being celebrated. This building represents, in many ways, the pride and power of the city that surrounds it. It is a structure seemingly large enough to dominate the city and even affect the world itself.
Naturally enough it also serves as a focus for all that is negative about the city and the beings from whom it is formed. Financial power and political power both want to command. Many of the people, feeling themselves without power or wealth, want more power to lead themselves. And, at the bottom of the heap, are the robots who are the foundation of the city but exist without any freedom. Indeed, vital as they are, they are hated by many within the city specifically because they are such vital slaves. However the current balance within the city, seemingly stable, is about to change.
That's really just the stage, not the story. So why does the story not occupy pride of place in the synopsis where it belongs? The reason is exactly similar to my feeling about this title in general. In a lot of ways the stage is more the star than the actual story. A story which, to be frank, seems curiously fragmented.
In theory it begins with a Japanese detective, his son, and a local police robot (who's cooler than both of them) investigating a report. Apparently a highly wanted scientist, of the mad and unscrupulous variety, is at liberty within the city. But really his eventual role is less important than his creation. And his creation is less important than another characters hate for his creation. And the main reason for his hate seems to be another characters love. Describing this stuff without spoiling it is hard, so instead i'll try to explain why this is an issue at all.
The original metropolis was a battle between social classes within a dehumanizing modern society. There's echoes of that here, but it's not the story. Unlike in the original the people of this Metropolis seem to be doing reasonably well. The plight of the robots is a powerful story, but it also seems under-developed. The characters we meet, even those that are robots, have little to do with the repressed masses. Even one robot who is a member of the lowest order of menial robots ends up being a hugely sympathetic character. Somewhat hard to write a "revenge of the robots" story when they all seem relatively likeable and friendly. There's some politics, and a crazed super-science scheme, in the background but even these are not the true story either.
In reality the story that contains power is a very human tragedy. There is a young female child who is almost completely innocent. One figure, an older and established man, in the story wants to raise her to divine heights. A third figure, who has a charming mix of insane intensity and no moral qualms, is consumed with hate and jealousy towards her and an unrequited love. The remainder of the city is simply a stage while they play this out. The story these characters are acting out is almost disconnected from the actual city, and even from many of the events leading up to it. And this story has some problems. The female, being totally innocent, is extremely passive. Events and change happen to her but are not caused by her. Why the older man, in many ways her father, wants to change her and what he wants her to become seem illogical.
Thankfully the third character makes up for it. A young, cunning and skilled male who's willing to force events to work the way he wants. He basically drives the story at every stage. He's an excellent villain, an intriguing puzzle and an intense presence. He starts the story rolling and he triggers the end. As such it's almost tempting to call him the star of the show. He certainly does a lot of work to keep it all rolling.
So at the end of the day we have an interesting, and reasonably well told, story. But it's a story that seems to be missing some pieces and is dangerously disconnected from the wider environment. Much of what happens in the movie has no deep meaning in terms of this core story we're actually watching. Which both robs those events of power and breaks the pacing of the main story. It's quite enjoyable, but it did mean that the movie exhibited a lack of focus which keeps it from being a true classic. Which is a shame, because it certainly seems to have all the pieces, and the production value, to allow it to reach that level.
Actually, I guess the production itself is also a product of disconnected parts. The character models, including robots, are designed as a homage to Osamu Tezuka's archaic manga style. They're pretty clearly computer assisted, moving with an imposing fluidity and complexity, but they're superficially crude and caricaturish. Around them is the rigorous and detailed, strongly computer animated, world of this city. With a wonderfully quixotic appearance, lovingly detailed references to older days (1930's perhaps?) and a beautifully designed sense of mechanism. At times it's as if the machinery of the city itself is poking through the surface. You can really tell that a designer had a great time coming up with these scenes. It looks fantastic, highly novel, and makes for some great screen shots. The production values, clearly on a cinematic budget, are also more than capable of supporting the designers vision. This is a movie you really could watch with the sound off and still enjoy. In fact perhaps that would be better because some of the voices seemed a little crude, perhaps intentionally to match the appearance, and the anachronistic music (1930's again?) was sometimes very cool and sometimes quite out of place.
It sounds like I'm being really negative in this review. And to a large extent I am. I'm describing things that subtract from the high average quality this title maintains. I'm more pointing out that it is not a flawless work rather than saying it is bad. I'd certainly recommend that you give it a try, especially on the big screen if you want to absorb some of the graphics, but I would recommend realistic expectations.