Anticipation can be a double-edged sword. Especially if a film follows on an epoch-making predecessor and the wait has been more than a decade. A record-breaking opening weekend is virtually guaranteed, but whether the film can live up to the inevitably inflated expectations of its hungry audience is quite another matter. Just ask George Lucas.
And so, sixteen years after the earth-shattering Akira arrives Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy and falls right into the trap. But its problem is not just in the heads of its audience. Steamboy's problem is quite simply that it's not a good film.
Victorian England. Ray Steam is a teenager from the newly industrialised city of Manchester who has a knack for mechanics. His father and grandfather are both renowned experts on steam-driven technology, working in a laboratory in far-off Alaska. One day a package arrives at Ray's mother's house, containing the two experts' brand new invention: a steam ball, an odd spherical device that harnesses an enormous energy potential. No sooner has Ray opened the box or a pair of sinister gentlemen knock on the door in an attempt to get hold of the contraption. Ray escapes on his self-made unicycle, but he is pursued by the heavies, who are hell-bent on getting their mitts on the metal ball. Despite the help of a mysterious stranger, Ray and the device are captured during a chase that involves a steam-driven truck, a train and a zeppelin and the boy is dragged off to the lair of the millionaire O'Hara. There he finds out that his father and grandfather are engaged in a bitter rivalry over the use of their common invention and that various forces want to use it to their own dastardly ends.
That Otomo sets his story at the dawn of the industrial age may come as a shock to those who had the director pegged as a science-fiction filmmaker, but the move makes perfect sense if you consider that this was a period in which man, for the first time in its existence, had to learn to deal with the presence of machines in his daily life. Not without reason has Otomo referred to the film as 'steampunk', indicating the thematic similarities with cyberpunk.
However, this is also where the problems start, because the film does nothing with this premise. It never once explores the impact of this large-scale mechanisation on people's lives, like the director has done in his SF works. Here it remains simply a background, the Old World setting showing no more understanding of 19th-century England than The Last Samurai did of 19th-century Japan. It's merely a quaint varnish over a bogstandard plot rehashed from thousands of B-grade Hollywood actioners. The script, by Otomo and Millennium Actress scribe Sadayuki Murai, obediently follows the stock "baddies chasing the hero for the top secret steam ball / computer disk / microfilm" formula, with a lack of imagination that is incomprehensible for two such talented men.
The resulting film is a succession of action set pieces that grow increasingly spectacular and increasingly noisy as the film progresses, culminating in a ridiculously drawn-out, 45-minute climax that packs in so many explosions that the viewer quickly grows annoyed at first and bored soon after. Tension comes in the form of warnings about a "dangerous drop in pressure" injected into the story at regular intervals and from scientists pushing their machinery until an engineer yells out a variation on the age old "I don't know if she can take much more of this, captain!" Adding insult to injury is the overblown orchestral score by Hollywood composer Steve Jablonsky, of Pearl Harbour fame.
To be fair, the visual design of Steamboy is very impressive in its minute attention to details in both the backgrounds and the actual animated objects. You can understand why this film was delayed so many times just by looking at it; you can almost count the rivets on the villain's mechanic mega-fortress. If only they had spent a fraction of that time on the script, because now Steamboy is nothing more than the work of a few great craftsmen wasted on a cookie-cutter story padded out to two hours with lots of explosions.