Steampunk Education, Part 3

On the Indamixx once again – this week I’m attempting to mix and edit Antithesis on it. Recording on it worked well already, though I am encountering issues with the thing’s root authentication – but more on that in my LinuxJournal article.

For this weekend’s foray into steampunkiness, I ordered my outfit for Steamcon. It should be quite dapper.

Now, on to Steamboy.

At first blush, this is a gorgeous film. The artwork is fabulous, the sense of form and movement is spectacular. I’m not actually a big anime fan, but the previews made this movie look gorgeous – a cut above the usual anime standard in terms of visuals and in terms of story, and “Anime Steampunk” seemed a combination just weird enough to be interesting. Besides, these were the guys who did Akira, which was gorgeous.

As the film got rolling, I began to think that Anime Steampunk was a more sensible combination than I thought at first. If there’s one thing that Anime is spectacular with, it’s rendering scenery, and the Victorian London setting, complete with steam-powered giant power plants, gave this film a rich, palpable atmosphere from frame one. Inasmuch as Steampunk is a style, this film must be a perfect example.

The first act of the film was very promising, beginning with a provocative teaser about mineral water miners and moving straight into the story of a young boy – the oldest son of the Steam family – who wishes he could be off sharing adventures in engineering and scientific discovery with his father and grandfather, both of whom are great inventors.

Like The Rocketeer, this film sits in the retro-scifi corner of steampunk, where speculation is made upon technologies known to exist at the time, and Steamboy does a good job of sitting in that genre. The corners of the world are filled up by background (and sometimes foreground) elements of the world of the time – wanted posters for Jack The Ripper, a piece of the plot featuring the crystal palace of the Great Exposition. Sure, the two events weren’t quite contemporaneous, but they still tickle the cockles of a history geek’s heart. The historical flavor is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, dotting its landscape with family names like “Steam” and character names like Scarlet O’Hara and Robert Stephenson (both meant to evoke the flavor of the era rather than stand in for the historical or fictional personages), and this added to the charm of the first act.

Now, you may be asking yourself why I keep referring to the first act?

The reason is that the first act presents a glorious film opening, filled with well-realized characters inhabiting a well-developed world. At the end of the first act, the writers even go in for a bit of intellectual sophistication, explaining the film’s McGuffin in very sharp, intelligent, layman-accessible language that is for the most part fully compatible with the mechanics and operations of steam power (so long as you ignore a couple little thermodynamics issues which are, honestly, very minor).

The story takes a hard left turn into idiocy at the beginning of the second act, and from there it’s all down hill. By the end of act three the film’s initial glory is largely lost, and aside from a few really creative moments and ideas the viewer is mostly left with a large, steaming pile of incoherent dog shit. If you’ve been reading this blog or listening to my podcasts for any appreciable length of time, you’ll recognize this as an uncharacteristically disparaging statement, so let me explain:

The central point around the story turns is the destructive uses of science. Essentially, there is an evil, warmongering charitable foundation which funds research in order to keep the defense contractor that created the foundation in business. The Steam family has been retained by them to create the ultimate steam-power capacitor, something that allows for unimaginably high pressures. The Steam family inventors laughably believe that the purpose of this research is to create a children’s theme park to bring delight and happiness to all children, and when this turns out to be only the tip of a larger industrial iceberg, Father Steam decides to sabotage the project, while Son Steam decides to carry on. Grandson Steam, at the age of about 10, winds up being the moral arbiter of this conflict.

During the course of the film we, the unfortunate viewers, are subjected to long-winded idiotic preachments that hammer home the following points:

All profit motives are evil (in so many words)

Trackless steam engines operating as battle tanks will mean the end of the idyllic, non-exploitative Victorian civilization.

The true purpose of science is to make the world peaceful by making children happy.

True science cannot coexist with any kind of business interests.

And endless rehashings of that sort from one angle or another.

Please bear in mind that we’re not talking about one or two stray lines, or ideas being floated for consideration, we are talking about pages of dialog of Grandfather Steam ranting to Grandson Steam. To reinforce the point, midway through the third act the O’Hara corporation deploys steam-powered cybermen to terrorize, maim, and kill everyone at the Great Exposition (because, as we all know, technologists are so evil that they can’t let a little thing like having the greatest military in the world shoot them out of the sky stand in the way of securing a military contract with the Grand Sultan of Arabia).

You think that’s bad? I promise, I’m being kind. Everything that this film started out with in terms of craft and intellectual sophistication get pissed away in the second and third act in an attempt to create the perfect lesson in Marxism for first graders (complete with the triumph of the steam-powered children’s amusement park at the end). It’s an insulting, stupid, depressing piece of crap – and all the more ironic for coming out of the wealthiest film studio in Japan, a nation of technocrats.

I’ve made no secret that I have no great love for either Marxism or Merchantilism, that I think they’re both destructive ideologies that are, in the end, highly destructive to both individuals and culture. That doesn’t mean that these ideas shouldn’t be discussed, or even encouraged, in films. A number of my favorite films have a strong anti-capitalist and/or anti-technological flavor (Blade Runner chief among them, but certainly not standing alone). But the difference between Steamboy and intelligent treatments of the same subject matter is as broad as the difference between Michael Parenti and Michael Moore. The socialist and progressive traditions in Victorian and Edwardian culture gave shelter to ideas that turned out to be deeply destructive (Eugenics and the Temperence movement chief among them), but it also achieved noble articulation from the pens of thinkers and authors such as H.G. Wells, Betrand Russel, and Jules Verne, who understood the complexities of a developing industrial society and had genuine concern for both the plight of the underclasses and the dispensation of the enormous industrial power that humanity suddenly possessed.

Steamboy is well within the Victorian intellectual tradition in its starry-eyed idealism about science for the sake of science, and in its distrust of capitalism. However its articulation of these concepts is heavy handed, moronic, insulting, and embarrassing. That its writers were so incompetent that they had to preach in platitudes rather than unfolding their ideas through dramatic narratives is the classic hallmark of all self-important bad art.

What’s the first thing you learn in creative writing class? Show, don’t tell.

Steamboy is a failure on every artistic level for this reason. But damn, the first twenty minutes sure are a feast for the geek in me.

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