Some films remind you why you ever placed your faith in art

It’s easy to forget the transformational power of art, until a film comes along and challenges you to remember.

That’s Metropolis, a 2001 anime based on Fritz Lang’s 1927 original about a young robot heroine created by the megalomaniac Duke Red to control a vast supercomputer and take over the world. The film does not elaborate on the spirit of Lang’s film – technological existentialism, the anxiety of steel replacing flesh – but instead goes after the most fundamental experience of animation, Fischinger with a plot. Depth is unnecessary: all life resides at the surface, pulsing, glowing, confronting, withdrawing.

Tima, the robot heroine, gazes upwards, caught in a beam of light
Robot heroine Tima gazes up at Metropolis

The city setting is another Fascist vision, but one soon undercut by the seditiousness and rebelliousness that permeate everything on the screen. A riot of light, colour and jazz greets us when we are taken into the undercity of the lower caste, but even though it is clearly overpopulated, there is a sense of space which is lacking in the wealthy overcity.

Everything feels agitated, as if the effervescent screen surface wishes to rise up in sympathy with the revolution taking place in the plot. In the climactic explosion near the end, the union of sight and sound rends altogether as we watch it with Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” playing over the muted action. It’s really quite beautiful.

A shot of the jazzy undercity, known as Zone-1
The jazzy colours of the undercity

Metropolis achieves continuity with the grand themes of science fiction while presenting something wholly new, a vision of the conjunction of colour, movement, sound and affect, and leaves a permanent mark in its wake. Does it matter that the ideas are not terribly subtle, the story handled clumsily, the characters more like caricatures?
This is a film that reminds us of some central truths about the aesthetic experience, and asks us where in that experience does the origin of action lie? If the role of art is to shake us up, keep us on our toes, then this is a great work of art.

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