A Tale of Two Babels

I just finished watching Metropolis–twice. First, Whiny the Elder and I sat down to see Fritz Lang’s 1927 original Metropolis. I expected to be bored by the silent film, and in some ways I was. The musical score was not the best, and the forced overacting and slow pace of that era are hard to get over in this MTV world. On top of that, the VHS copy I borrowed from Sgt. Grump was made from a print that had visual hiccups for the first ten minutes. Whiny gave up after two.

Once things settled down, I saw an amazing film. Metropolis created the sci-fi film genre. A subterranean worker class slaves at running the machines that power the beautiful, decadent city above (a nod to Orwell’s future society of Morlocks and Eloi). The only thing that keeps them going is a saintly girl, Maria, who tells them stories of morality and justice, like the Tower of Babel. Meanwhile, the corrupt overlord of Metropolis schemes to replace the workers with robots created by a mad scientist. They create a new, robotic Maria to trick the workers into open revolt. This will allow the overlord to show the world that the workers must be destroyed and replaced by his artificial men.

The overlord’s son falls in love with Maria and tracks her down in her underground lair, where she is preaching to the workers. The son provides Lang with the chance to show off some amazing special effects and scenes (especially for the 1920’s). At various times, the madness of the son manifests itself in harrowing dream scenes–including the sight of the workers being swallowed by a monster after an explosion rips through one of their zones.

This film rings down through the last 75 years in other movies, like Brazil, Blade Runner, Dr. Strangeloveand A.I.

The second Metropolis was last year’s anime film by Rintaro. According to all production and marketing stuff I can find, this is not a remake of Lang’s film. Instead, it is based on the comic book works of Osamu Tezuka from the 1940’s.

This Metropolis is the story of subterranean worker class slaves (both human and robot) who run the machines that power the beautiful, decadent city above. The crowning achievement of Metropolis is The Ziggurat–a Tower of Babel, touted as the ultimate achievement for humanity. (hmmm….)

Meanwhile, the corrupt overlord of Metropolis schemes to create a female robot in the image of his dead daughter with the help of a mad scientist. They create a new, robotic girl named Tima, and that is where the similarities begin to come apart a bit. The overlord, Duke Red, plans to use this ultimate robot to power a super-weapon that will enslave the world. His plans are unhinged by a detective and his nephew, who are seeking to arrest the scientist, and the Duke’s adopted son–who is a major robot killer.

This movie is beautiful, and the jazz soundtrack lends a quirky feel. The destruction of the city while Ray Charles sings, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” reminds me of the wonderfully odd pairings of music and visuals in Brazil, Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I loved it.

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