2005, Movie, PG-13, 106 mins


AKIRA writer-director Katsuhiro Otomo's boy's own steam-punk adventure simultaneously celebrates scientific invention and deplores its perversion by venal men. Alaska, 1866: A team led by father-and-son scientists Lloyd and Edward Steam (voices of Patrick Stewart and Alfred Molina) experiments with steam power, ratcheting up the pressure until an accident unleashes a scalding cloud. Later, in industrial Manchester, preteen inventor Ray Steam (Anna Paquin) receives a mysterious package from his grandfather. It contains a small, black metal "steam ball" capable of concentrating previously unimaginable power, and instructions to guard it until it can be delivered to a man named Robert Stephenson (Oliver Cotton). Above all, Ray must make certain the ball does not fall into the hands of the O'Hara Foundation. Moments later, Ray is on the run from the Foundation's men in black, a steam-powered all-terrain vehicle and a zeppelin with a grappling claw that plucks him right off a moving train. Trapped in the luxurious O'Hara Foundation Pavilion in London and subjected to the self-absorbed chatter of stuck-up Miss Scarlett (Kari Wahlgren), a girl his own age who's sole heir to the O'Hara munitions fortune, Ray is stunned to find himself face-to-face with the father he believed dead. But Dr. Edward is a changed man, augmented with metal parts and aflame with devotion to the power of science. Dr. Lloyd is there too, unkempt, ragged and held prisoner by his own son, who insinuates that Lloyd has gone mad. The culmination of their joint research is the O'Hara Pavilion itself, a steam-powered marvel whose special features go far beyond lights, elevators and fanciful devices like an automated treadmill for Miss Scarlett's dog. The "steam castle" is the lynchpin of the Foundation's plan to sell futuristic weaponry to international dignitaries in town for the London Exposition, and it is the battleground on which Drs. Edward and Lloyd will settle their conflicting visions of the way science should serve humanity. And young Ray will have to choose a side. The characterizations are shallow (though greatly helped by an unusually strong English-language voice cast), but Otomo's retro-future vision of England is brilliantly detailed and utterly captivating, everything 2003's THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN should have been and wasn't. The sci-fi wonders, including an army of shuddering robo-soldiers and one-man, steam-powered bombers with delicate wood-and-linen wings, are truly marvelous and go a long way toward making up for the film's erratic pacing. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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