The 2nd Dimension

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Quick Rant: If there is one thing in this world that I really am no good at it is the ability to explain why I do or do not enjoy something. It's like I watch a movie and I really enjoy it so I tell everyone I know that they should go see it, but then they'll ask me what I think is so great about it or why do I like it so much and for some reason I never know what to say. And it's especially irritating when someone is bad-mouthing a movie that I really like and I get so mad and I want to retort with all of the film's finer points, but I just can't because I can never seem to be able to nail down just what those finer points are. It's pretty frustrating.

So you'll have to excuse the fact that this review of Steamboy is so late relative to when I actually saw the movie (last Sunday) because I've pretty much been trying to figure out what I liked about it myself. I know that I did like it -- I loved it in fact -- it just took me a while to nail down the logic behind my opinions. It still may not make total sense, but I'll give it a shot anyway.

The Review: I mentioned in an earlier post that most all reviews of Steamboy -- both positive and negative -- say that it has awesome action and visuals, but that the plot is pretty basic. And I totally agree on both points.

The plot is very strait-forward: a young inventor, Ray, recieves a mysterious object called a "steamball" from his grandfather and is told that it holds the secret behind the powerful science of steam. Ray must ultimately decide on the best use of the new technology while simultaneously trying keep himself and the whole of London from getting blown up in one phenominal explosion after another. Something like that anyway.

It is also true that the art and action of the animation are spectacular -- but not I don't mean it in the same way as in other types of action movies (I, Robot comes to mind) where the effects are kind of cool and the action if fast, but it doesn't really seem to add anything special to the overall experience. In Steamboy the visuals add a sense of scale and imagination that forces your brain (or at least my brain) to push itself just to absorb the hugeness of it all.

If there is one thing that Katsushiro Otomo is good at it is the ability to represent enormous settings and objects and events in a way that gives the audience a really solid sense of the emense scale of it all. He achieves this through a combination of relativity and an obsessive devision to detail. (I know he uses other techniques, but I'm just going to focus on the one I'm most interested in.)

When Otomo wants to give the audience a sense of size, he does not just draw a really big object, he goes the extra mile to add a ton of miniscule details. That way the audience can see what the size of the huge object is relative to the small details. This not only makes the object seem huge, but because there is just so much detail, it also feels very solid. Even the explosions seem so solid and massive purely because you can actually see the reaction of every tiny fragment of whatever object, building, or fortress that has been blown up.

So while many reviewers say that they were bored by the simple storyline; I was happy with it because it was involving enough to be interesting, but not so complex as to distract you from absorbing the awesome scale and intricate details of the action and visuals.

Of course, I also loved the variety of cool steam-powered inventions that were popping onto the screen from every which direction and at this awkward point I will give a nod to them because they really were imaginitive. But without that attention to detail (where you can almost see exactly how each machine worked -- another benefit to Otomo's attention to detail), they would have not been nearly as impressive.

I guess it's all in what you tend to focus on when watching a movie. If someone doesn't give two craps about the visuals and just tends to casually watch the objects move across the screen, then they wouldn't be interested in the detail and my whole idea of "relative scale" would be wasted on them.

That's not to say that I think that impressive visuals can take the place of a good story, because there have been more than enough movies that have proven that idea to be false. But I think that the art and animation in Steamboy is just too big of a factor to be casually tossed aside as a minor aspect to the movie.

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