The first feature Katsuhiro Otomo has written and directed since his watershed Akira
offers a fantastic, sepia-toned vision of the past-as-future. In place of the dystopic Neo-Tokyo of Akira
is set in England in 1866. Young Ray Steam receives a Steam Ball, a mysterious, powerful device, from his inventor grandfather. Governments and businesses covet the Steam Ball, and Ray finds himself in a murderous conflict over its possession. He's also caught between his father, a 19th century Darth Vader who builds terrible weapons for an American arms merchant, and his grandfather, who believes science should improve people's lives. Otomo uses computer graphics to create dazzling visuals that few recent films--animated or live action--can match: monumental systems of gears and pistons; machines that dwarf the Tower of London; antique weapons of mass destruction. But the dazzling imagery can't disguise the lack of a coherent plot and the flimsiness of the characters.
Steamboy is being released in a dubbed version that's been shortened by 20 minutes, and a more satisfying subtitled version that preserves Otomo's original pacing. Both versions suggest that Steamboy is the work of an important filmmaker who can't quite shape his awesome visions into a effective narrative. (Rated PG-13 for action violence.) --Charles Solomon