So I’ve been a part of this role-playing game for most of the last two years, which took place in a steampunk Atlantis setting. The game ended a few weeks ago, but apparently, I’m still not over it, because today, I found myself composing a rap parody of “The Humpty Dance” in the voice of my character, and now, here I am presenting Katsuhiro Otomo’s 2004 steampunk epic, Steamboy.
Otomo was the writer/director behind one of the most famous anime films to hit American shores, 1988’s Akira–a dazzling vision of an apocalyptic future. The story didn’t make sense in a conventionally Western way, but holy God, did it have atmosphere and style!
But as much as I liked Akira, I had never gone out of my way to see Steamboy until I just happened across it on Hulu. I had heard it was disappointing, and from a story amd character standpoint, it is. But my God, the technoporn!
It starts off with mysterious men who extract a mysterious fluid from a deep cave and then transport it via submarine to Alaska in the 1860’s, still a Russian territory. Two men play principal roles. One is a crusty old man who insists on pushing the boundaries with whatever experiment they’re doing with that awesome giant copper pressure chamber. He is Dr. Lloyd Steam (voiced by Patrick Stewart).
The other man is a large, Smeaton-like* fellow named Eddie, Lloyd’s son (voiced by Alfred Molina).
He’s upset that his father is trying to push things too far, too fast. And he’s right, there is an explosion of steam that destroys the lab, but leaves behind a mysterious black metal ball with a pressure valve.
Some time later, we meet young Ray Steam (voiced by Anna Paquin), who we’ll learn later is Eddie’s son and Lloyd’s grandson. He’s a dreamy young man from Manchester in northern England, who aspires to be an inventor like his father.
Some local tough kids taunt him about his parentage and general weirdness, so he whacks one across the head with a pipe fitting. He’s not a wimp.
The next day, a mysterious package is delivered from Granpda Lloyd: the mysterious black ball. Not two minutes after it arrives, two mysterious men show up claiming it was delivered by mistake and should be given to them. But Grandpa shows up not long after and tells Ray that his father is dead. He orders Ray to flee with the ball and give it to someone named Robert Stevenson.
Ray takes off on his latest invention, a giant motor-wheel that looks like a steampunk version of the bike General Grievous rode in Revenge of the Sith. Which would be really cool, except the bad guys are driving a sort of steam locomotive that doesn’t need tracks. Whoa!
Ray’s bike is destroyed, but he is saved by the arrival of Robert Stevenson, who tells Ray that the men are from the O’Hara Foundation (they sold weapons to both sides during the American Civil War and made an obscene fortune). The Steamball, as it’s called, must be kept out of their hands at all costs.
Which is when the bad guys grapple the train with a freaking zeppelin and kidnap Ray and the Steamball.
The story moves to London, where an impressive steamship docks, bearing an unusual passenger: a teenage girl in a red dress whose name matches that of the ship–Scarlett. Yes, her name is Scarlett O’Hara.
She joins Ray for an odd dinner party, along with the chief executive officer of the O’Hara Foundation and a cyborg giant who just happens to be Ray’s father, Eddie. Wha?
Turns out, Eddie didn’t die in the accident. But he and Lloyd had a falling out. And in the meantime, Eddie has completed work on the Steam Castle, a gigantic building/machine that he plans to demonstrate at the upcoming London Exhibition. The Steamball is one of three that provide power to the Steam Castle. Eddie can’t wait until he can demonstrate the full power of the battlestation, uh, castle, and unleash the full powers of Science to transform people’s lives. He’s a little scary.
Not that Ray thinks so. He’s happy to work with his dad on the Castle, riding around in a cool-ass bathysphere.
But all is not well. For Grandpa Lloyd has busted out of a holding cell and plans to destroy the Castle for good. While Ray is searching for a pressure leak, he encounters his grandfather and is forced to endure a tiresome rant about how Science is meant to be pure, not driven by Greed or profit motive. Eddie has become pure Evil, Grandpa says, and must be stopped.
Ray is not persuaded, however, until grandpa shows him a chamber containing dozens of armored, steam-powered war wagons, including the one that chased him and destroyed his bike. Ray is pissed and decides to help his grandfather steal the Steamball back. And my God, the art direction in this movie is amazing.
There is a confrontation, and Ray is nearly shot, but manages to escape, saved at the last minute by Stevenson’s assistant.
Ray turns the Steamball over to Stevenson, not realizing that a) his father is crazy enough to try to operate the Steam Castle on two balls, and b) Stevenson has been playing him. Stevenson has no interest in protecting Science from greedy capitalists. His only interest is protecting England from whoever might try to harm her.
A dozen warmongers from around the world arrive for a demonstration of O’Hara weapons, while Stevenson and assistant prepare Â to attack the Steam Castle with inventions of their own. Yeah, this will turn out well…
First, O’Hara routs the British cops with armored Steam Troopers and a spider-like tank…
But Stevenson counter-attacks with his own steam-powered battlewagons. Then the Foundation unleashes their air force…
Basically bozos with bombs, but they do a lot of damage. As Ray is realizing the folly of giving up the Steamball to Stevenson, the workshop is destroyed by a crashing flier’s bomb, and Ray is free to pursue his own path.
Luckily for us, that path involves using the Steamball and a crashed flier’s gear to construct a jetpack…
At the same time that his father is launching the Steam Castle, which is actually a giant flying machine, something like a Victorian version of the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Which, by the way, is controlled from this awesome pipe-organ-styled console.
Ray fights his way past a flying guard to land on the Steam Castle at about the time it’s crashing into the middle of London after having frozen the fleet attacking it in the Thames (its exhaust is like liquid nitrogen, intensely cold).
Lloyd shoots Eddie, planning to self-destruct the castle and end its evil forever. However there are two problems…
Number one, he didn’t plan for the castle to be in the middle of London. And number two, not only is Eddie not dead, but he believes in the power of science to inspire. Now that he has demonstrated the power of the Steam Castle, it is only a matter of time before someone else copies their feat, or surpasses it. In this way, Eddie feels he has served mankind by ushering in a Golden Age of Science.
Eddie retreats into the bowels of the castle with his control console. However, all is not lost. The castle was originally designd by Lloyd as a childrens’ attraction, apparently, and those controls are still intact. So while Ray goes toÂ the boiler room to reattach his Steamball, Lloyd heads down to the original control panel.
Ray hooks up the Steamball, but first he has to play a game of Where’s Waldo?
In the end, Eddie and Lloyd end up working together to get the Steam Castle, now transformed into some kind of walking amusement park complete with Merry-Go-Rounds and a Ferris Wheel…
out to the Thames, where it can blow up safely. Ray, meanwhile, uses his father’s emergency escape jetpack to save Scarlett and become a Victorian superhero, inspiring kids across London to follow in his footsteps.
So, yeah, the story is a little hackneyed, and the political and philosophical arguments get a little tiresome (as Scarlett yells toward the end of the movie, “This is no time for your annoying philosophies!”), but on a pure technoporn level, this movie is breathtaking. The steampunk milieu is depicted as well as any movie anywhere. The amount of research and design that went into this movie is stunning.
If you like the genre, you owe it to yourself to watch this film at least once, just to make your mouth water at the pure Victorian technoporn. As of this writing, the movie can be viewed for free at Hulu.
*Smeaton was my character in the game, a large Scottish engineer whose name is now synonymous with awesome.
Maaaaaaan… I always kind of wanted to watch that. Now I HAVE to! Just for the technoporn… *drools*