So Paul and I watched Steamboy last night. It made me really sad.
If you’ve not seen it yet, you’d best turn away — I’m going to spoiler the heck out of it. You’ve been warned.
Steamboy’s the most recent effort by Katsuhiro Otomo, the same director who did Akira. Others have done better reviews of it than I, so I won’t bother doing a recap of what happened in the movie. I’ll only tell you what made me so disappointed.
So, Steamboy’s father and grandfather, representing the two sides of science — progress at all costs, and progress in the name of humanity, respectively — wind up sending this gigantic floating war-castle rampaging through London. The castle depowers and winds up crashing through the city as it falls from the sky. The grandfather, though in opposition to his son’s warlike urges, realizes he must work with his son to extricate the faltering castle from downtown, where it’s endangering countless thousands. So the pull some levers, and the castle sprouts mechanical legs, and they walk it through the city, destroying several city blocks in the process, back to the Thames whereupon it explodes, showering the city with superfrozen water. The movie ends with the father and grandfather mysteriously escaping, and as the credits roll, we see that the grandson, the eponymous Steamboy, goes on to become a great warrior in the name of science, and the spoiled rich entrepreneur’s daughter goes on to become a great pilot-warrior int he name of science.
This ending, despite the brilliance with which it was executed, made me terrifically sad. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen too much destruction in the last calendar year — from the tsunami, to the Pakistani earthquake, to New Orleans — but I simply could not stomach the destruction of half a city being laughed off by the protagonist. Steamboy’s father and grandfather blew up half of London, killed thousands of people, invoked the wrath of the British Navy, and left countless citizens homeless. The protagonist’s response? “Oh well, that’s science for ya. Ain’t it great? I’m gonna be a fighter pilot!”
The odd thing is that Otomo’s previous film, Akira, was decidedly in the pacifist camp; behold the horrors of nuclear war. This film was far more ambiguous — both the father and the grandfather’s arguments were very persuasive, and the audience, like Steamboy, was forced to make up their own minds about which was correct. However, all the senseless destruction with no ramifications really made me queasy. I mentioned to Paul that this is one of the few reasons I like Mark Millar’s “The Ultimates” — when a creature goes berserk in a city and kills a thousand people, there’s huge sociopolitical fallout for it. Here, just on a rough guess, probably a hundred thousand people are dead, injured or homeless, and the ten-year-old kid just shrugs? That’s not just bad scriptwriting, that’s fucking insane. I don’t even care that the movie didn’t turn out to be a pacifist epistile; I just want some sort of acknowledgement that war has consequences.
Another issue was young “Scarlett” O’Hara, who was an absolutely atrocious character. She set the progress of more enlightened animated female heroines (please see every single Miyazaki movie ever made) back by about fifty years. Scarlett was so awful that the mere suggestion that Steamboy might have romantic inklings toward her was utterly laughable — I literally kept rooting for Steamboy to push her off the roof.
The movie, in its defense, is one of the most utterly beautiful, well crafted films I’ve ever seen. The artwork is breathtaking, revolutionary, astounding– and I think that’s why the ending hurt so bad. It wasn’t just muddy, ambiguous storytelling; it seemed like Otomo veered away from the message that he was trying to deliver throughout the entire film, and not sticking the landing completely devalued everything he spent the entire movie building up.
Otomo brought another layer of depth and relevance to story by setting his movie in London; it’s easy to blow off Godzilla when he’s stomping through a city you can’t relate to — but his London was so brilliantly rendered that anyone who’s so much as seen postcards of Big Ben would be affected by its destruction. However, when the explosions and destruction are so beautiful that their sheer magnificence nullifies the pacifist message that Otomo tries to deliver, a lot of that power is lost.
The sad thing is that it wouldn’t have taken very much to redeem the entire film. The final five minutes and the credit reel, if subtly altered, could have made this a magnificent story. Paul and I discussed this over breakfast this morning: What would Miyazaki have done with this story? Honestly, the entire film, right up until the end, had the distinct whiff of Our Hero Hayao. Here’s how we decided the ending to a Miyazaki-directed version of Steamboy would have played out:
Steamboy and Scarlett look out over the devastation of London. Their expressions veer from the exhaltation of survival to the realization of the destruction their relaitives have caused. Faces set in grim determination, they re-enter the city as credits roll. Through a series of highly-detailed, sepia-toned paintings, we see Steamboy repurposing his father’s siege engines to rebuild the city: The high powered “Steamtrooper” armor is used to heft fallen walls, the Leonardo-inspired flying backpacks are used to lift girders back into place, the aquasuits remove the wreckage from the Thames and rebuild London Bridge from below.
As years pass we see young Scarlett, inheritress of the O’Hara munitions empire, using her family’s dirigibles to airlift food to the poor, or wounded behind enemy lines. She is still a gladhanding young harridan, but she’s seen the horrors of war at age eight, and has no desire to spend the rest of her life selling people things used to destroy one another.
The final scene is an older Ray Steam and Scarlett working together in some sort of famous reconstruction scene, such as the rebuilding effort after the Spanish Civil war (Guernica placed strategically in the background), or the destruction of a French city during World War I.
Fade to black.
There, that’s far more satisfying, isn’t it? And not sappy at all. Redemptive. Way better than the two kids going on to be warmongers.
Anyway. I’m done ranting now. I gots more art to do. Final analysis: Incredibly brilliant, beautiful film. Shitty ending.