I often go back-and-forth in my mind about the extent to which I think of film as a narrative medium. Ninety-minutes to three hours is not much time to develop a story. Many of my favorite films, and those that I am likely to want to re-visit have, at best, loose narrative structures, but are resonant or vibrant in some other way – visually, emotionally, intellectually. On the other hand, there are films I love which are highly plot-driven, and tightly told, belying my skepticism about the narrative possibilities of cinema.
Then there are movies like the animated Metropia which short-circuit this internal debate by reminding me that, when addressing individual works, what matters most is what filmmakers want to do, and how well they do it, and not abstract discussions of theory. Metropia is a striking visual experiment that is also meant to tell story, but as successful as it is in achieving the former, it falters under the weight of its narrative ambitions.
Set in a near future where oil has virtually run out—climate change appears to have made the northern latitudes dark and wet – and the cities of Europe are connected by a single subway system, “Trexx”, Metropia is built around a day in the life of its main character, Roger (voiced by Vincent Gallo). Roger works at a massive corporate call center, and lives in a small studio apartment, festooned with Hello Kitties and other cute Japanese characters, with girlfriend, Anna (voiced by Sofia Helin). While a quiet sort, Roger also suffers from ennui and mild paranoia. He avoids the subway, choosing, unusually, to bike. He also suspects Anna of having an affair with a neighbor, Karl (voiced by Shanti Roney).
One day he finds his bike trashed, and is forced to get on Trexx, despite the warning of a stranger, with plastic bags on his feet, not to get on the train. Once in the subway, he begins to hear a voice in his head, and not the usual inner voice, or voices, that most of us hear, but an actual, independent voice. He also spies Nina (voiced by Juliette Lewis), a model who appears in the ads and on the bottles of the ubiquitous D’Angst Shampoo, which Roger, despite a shaved head, uses, as it seems, does everyone else.
Roger is not only compelled to follow Nina, he describes her later as his “dream girl”, Nina clearly, if subtly, wants to be followed. A cool looking blonde, Nina proves to be every bit the femme fatale she appears to be, but like any male everyman in an emergent film noir, Roger can’t help but fall into the web of intrigue into which Nina leads. This web is constructed from corporate greed and the exploitation of the individual’s dependence on the social and material networks that run through the subway, the TV, and the market.
This story unfolds as a messy pastiche of borrowed and half-formed ideas. Metropia cribs heavily from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), practically lifting story points and characters from the earlier work, as well as much of its look and feel. Like Sam Lowry (Jonathan Price), Roger is a small piece of a larger bureaucracy, albeit corporate rather than government, who suspects that all is not right with the world, and who reaches for liberation out of love or lust for a pixie-ish, and dangerous, dream girl. Both protagonists live in worlds where virtually no one is to be found outside, and where duct work runs everywhere, a strange sign of uneasiness. There are other points where the two films share common ground, a belief in the deadening nature of consumer culture, for example, but suffice to say I kept seeing and hearing echoes of Brazil while watching Metropia.
Most cinematic future dystopias are made from recycled material, but Metropia‘s original ideas never become fully formed or more than minor provocations.
For example, in the future world of the film, the most popular TV show is “Asylum”, a game show where prospective immigrants to Europe compete for residence. Losers are literally tossed out of the region. This show references the absurdist game and reality shows in Brazil, and Time Bandits (1981), but where those fictional programs are woven into the fabric of their respective storyworlds, offering clues to the frustration and alienation of the heroes, the brief looks at “Asylum” in Metropia have little to do with Roger. Indeed, while Anna appears to be of African or south Asian descent, her status is never at issue.
The missed opportunity here seems to be one to dig deep into the dangers of a ‘Fortress Europe’, one with a highly regulated and exploitative relationship with the outside. The interior world that most residents live in, going from subway, to cubicle, to apartment, would be an effective metaphor for this vision. As it is, the rights and treatment of immigrants from places like Africa and Asia, are treated for light satire and comic relief, and not as an integral part of the narrative.
More problematic for the story that Metropia does develop is the retro-futuristic nature of the media technologies it deploys. The cell phones all appear to be from the ‘90s, the surveillance devices from the ‘70s or ‘80s, and the central information and entertainment medium is television. The near future of the film seems to have more in common with the fears the infuse Videodrome (1983) than those that reflect life in the 21st century. Worries about what near universal TV access might mean feel quaint in a time and place where so many millions of people are in a state of constant mediation through their phones, laptop and desktop computers, onboard GPS, and gaming consoles. Likewise, corporate conspiracies to surreptitiously control behavior in direct ways seem less frightening when right now, every day individuals freely, and without much critical reflection, consent to having their identities managed and, in some cases, effectively owned by private enterprise; no brainwashing or mind control necessary.
By its conclusion, Metropia is further undone by the bloodlessness of its characters, especially Roger. He longs for Nina, but whereas Sam Lowry’s obsession with Jim Layton (Kim Greist) is the product of a series of vivid dreams, Roger’s pursuit of his ‘dream girl’ seems more like a whim, or adolescent fantasy, than a driving passion. His love for Anna is equally un-established. What these characters mean to each other is hard to discern. It does not help that every time Anna appears, she is shown talking vapidly on the phone, or staring blankly at the TV. Liberation by primal human emotion is a well worn trope in dystopian fiction, but that does not mean it speaks for itself. An audience needs to feel that emotion, too, to let love will out in the end.
As unique and interesting to look at as it is, Metropia‘s visual form and style also play a role in undermining the effectiveness of its narrative and emotions.
The characters are created from photographs of actual people, but transformed into figures with elongated heads and arms, and shortened torsos and legs. Heads are out of proportion to necks and bodies, and when the characters talk, mouth movements aren’t quite in sync with what’s being said. When they move, they walk and articulate their limbs in a stilted or choppy manner, much like the more photo real video game avatars.
The characters are weirdly fascinating to watch, and in a short film with little or no dialogue, could have been wondrous. Here, where they have to carry the weight of human emotion and dire situations, their uncanny resemblance to flesh and blood works against audience identification. While that may have been part of the intent, fostering critical distance for thought on the part of viewers, in a film that ends with love, it is an odd visual choice.
The Tribeca Film DVD includes two extras, a short, but snappily informative interview with director Tarik Saleh, and second interview segment framed by the film’s screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Metropia doesn’t lack for imagination, but it reads like the product of two forms of imagination, the visual and the narrative, that might have been better left to other uses or contexts. Sometimes a film, within its own logic and structure, fails to work as either story or artistic expression. Yet, failing from ambition, which Metropia does, is better than failing from its absence.