Movie Review: “Steamboy” (2004)

There is a boy, and he is quite proficient with steam.

Title: Steamboy (2004) IMDb
Director: Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Lead Voice Actors (English): Anna Paquin (Ray Steam), Alfred Molina (Dr. Eddie Steam), Patrick Stewart (Dr. Lloyd Steam)
Musical Score: Steve Jablonsky (sample here)
Length: 126 minutes
Rating (US): Rated PG-13 for action violence.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “In [alternate] 1860s Britain, a boy inventor finds himself caught in the middle of a deadly conflict over a revolutionary advance in steam power.” (courtesy of IMDb)
Reason for Beginning: I love 2D animation and have long been interested in the steampunk genre – this movie promised both! Plus it’s available free on YouTube Movies!
Reason for Finishing: The animation is fantastic and the characters are interesting.
Movie Rewatchability: Mainly because of the beautiful animation; the story really isn’t as good as it should be.
Director Rewatchability: I’d definitely watch this director again, though in this film he relies too much on extended action scenes with minimal plot. Ôtomo directed the famously violent Akira (1988), which doesn’t interest me much, and an anime remake of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which sort of interests me because I’m a fan of the original silent classic.
Recommendation: Yes, it’s a good, interesting film, mainly visually. Good music, too. Plot was weaker than expected, though, and there’s little emotional content or character development.

Key Thoughts

“Science exists to make people happy.”
~Dr. Robert Stephenson

The first half of the movie is the better one, in my opinion. It starts in 1863 at a scientific mining lab in Russian Alaska, where father-son inventing team Drs. Lloyd and Eddie Steam are searching for a perfectly pure mineral water. Something causes a mysterious explosion that engulfs Eddie in freezing gas and creates a strange pressurized metal ball (a “steam ball”), which contains the sought-for liquid. The elderly Dr. Lloyd cries out for his son, but must leave the dangerous wreckage.

Skip to 1866, Manchester, England, where Eddie’s son James Ray lives with his mother and sister, working at a textile mill and, in his spare time, inventing contraptions like the coolly improbable monowheel (improbable with his technology at least). Apparently they still don’t know what happened to the elder Steams. That changes rather suddenly, when on the same day Ray receives a package from his grandfather containing the steam ball  and a visit from some ominously-dressed men claiming to be from a Foundation that really owns the ball. Since Dr. Lloyd’s letter told Ray to keep the ball safe from the Foundation, the boy escapes the men on his monowheel. But they give chase with an assortment of increasingly massive and improbably-cool steampunk machines and automobiles. Ray just manages to find temporary safety with Dr. Robert Stephenson, the man whom Dr. Lloyd had said to give the steam ball to, but before he can deliver it he is snatched into the air by a giant steampunk-helicopter-thing and taken to…well, beyond that would be spoilers, safe to say.

In fact, I’m pretty sure every steampunk machine is by definition improbably cool, so let’s just make that assumption for the rest of this review and save me the trouble of repeating myself.This first half is often exciting and involving, but there are still little hints of problems that will become more pronounced later on. Side characters aren’t established very clearly, and even the relationships between some of the main characters are a little confusing at first, just from the way they are introduced, even though the family relationships really are simple. And in retrospect, the chase with the monowheel and steampunk machines, while exciting, also isn’t as innovative as it should be – though I wasn’t thinking that as I watched it.The second half of the movie certainly has some interesting developments, but unfortunately the story gets hijacked by a long series of action scenes. In London, the Great Exhibition is taking place in the beautiful Crystal Palace designed by Prince Albert. Of course, in real history the Exhibition took place in 1851, but seeing as this is an alternate steampunk timeline, I guess it’s fine for the movie to set it fifteen years later. But back to my point. The interesting plot slows as a great battle unfolds in the middle of London, a battle that lasts, oh, forty-five minutes at least. At least it’s not mind-numbing like a Michael Bay Transformers sequence; it’s populated with characters we care about. But sadly most of that character development halts to make way for steam tanks/robots/jetpack-soldiers/submarines/etc. blowing holes in each other.That’s the main source of my slight disappointment: the characters held the promise of being very interesting when they were introduced, helped in great part by the voice actors and animators, but they never were as clearly defined as they should have been. I would pick out characters I liked or didn’t like, but then the movie introduced just a couple shades of ambiguity about them that, rather than adding very much depth (it did add a little), tended to just make them murky and harder to care about.

Steamboy doesn’t really know what it wants its story to be about. The supposed message has to do with the evils of using science to make weapons, but then it spends most of the screen time on elaborate combat sequences with super cool weapons destroying each other instead of with story and characters. It tries to cast both sides of the conflict as morally grey, but I don’t buy it – one side is clearly justified in what they are doing, and the other isn’t. The movie would be stronger if it acknowledged this.Also, there are some huge plot holes with the plans some characters make. The battle in London is part of the antagonist’s plan, and yet it seems utterly counterintuitive to his stated goals. Steampunk soldiers slaughter dozens, if not hundreds, of people at the Exhibition before any kind of reaction is shown from the British government, even then it seems like there should have been a stronger reaction.

I wish the story had focused more on Ray himself, because he is an interesting and likable protagonist. He has a few character-based heroics, but most of his actions come down to what he has to do to survive. In fact, I’m not even sure he really gets a chance to make the one big moral decision that’s presented to him – he’s generally on whichever side isn’t chasing him at a given moment (unless his grandfather’s around to talk sense to him).

Still, these critiques are important only if you are hoping for this to be a truly great animated movie. It’s no Miyazaki, but it is still pretty good. We don’t get to see steampunk in the movies very often, and certainly not with this level of enthusiasm. The action scenes, while too much and not quite as innovative as they should be, are nonetheless well-animated and fun. Wide shots in particular are beautiful to look at. And as little as I got to know the characters, I did like them, and cheer for them.

Also, it has a Steam Castle!

Other Reviews
Roger Ebert @ the Chicago Sun-Times

Screencaps from Monsters and Critics


Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

4 thoughts on “Movie Review: “Steamboy” (2004)”

  1. I’ve been curious about steampunk as a genre for some time, but I always feel somehow intimidated by it, like there’s a whole backstory and world that I’d have to spend a lifetime catching up on before I half understood the place. You know? I feel the same way about sci-fi at times, but because I grew up with the basics of that genre, it’s less intimidating in my mind. Perhaps this is a place to start to wrap my brain around it! Any other suggestions you can make for reading/viewing would be appreciated as well.

    1. Aye, same here, and with sci-fi for me too. I’ve wanted to experiment writing both those genres, but haven’t got the courage yet. Fantasy, especially medieval fantasy, is less intimidating for me because I grew up with it, I studied medieval and ancient history and literature, and I continue to read it.

      This movie is a good non-intimidating introduction to steampunk. It just gives enough background details to set up its story, and then runs off to have fun with its crazy machine designs. This is only my second steampunk movie I’ve seen, really; the first a short film called The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello. That one definitely focuses more on story. Beyond that, the only steampunk I’ve read as been at tHP! +)

  2. Looks like a fun little diversion. I’ll have to check it out. Have heard about the genre but never looked into it because it seemed a little far-fetched and maybe just a little anachronistic, too. I know there are several alternate history novels along these lines but have never read any of them. Still trying to catch up with my back-log of SciFi novels. BTW– if you want to write good (so-called “hard SF”) you’ll need to be up to speed on science & technology. I can see where that might be a little intimidating. I agree that it has a lot to do with what you grew up with. I read Heinlein’s Rocketship Galileo when I was in the 5th grade and developed a real love for the techno-literature of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. It started to get a little weird and pschobabble-ish withe “New Wave” SF writers of the 60’s and onwards. But there are a few good “hard” SF writers today, e.g. The Saga of the Seven Suns and a number of others. Thanx for the in-depth review; it made me want to see the movie!

    1. It’s worth a watch; maybe even worth owning for someone really into animation (I’d consider buying it if I found a really good deal). The difficulty for me in trying to write steampunk does have to do with my not knowing much about steam or gear technology, but also with the fact that the most interesting aspect of the genre (to me) is visual: all the neat machines and designs that can be imagined with such limited means. I’m not an engineer or a designer, and can’t really design those things myself, but it’s why I think movies might be the most ideal medium for steampunk. The other attraction, however, is the way steampunk can mix stories, settings, and characters right out of Dickens or Twain with sci-fi or even fantasy plots.

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