Canadian Consulting Engineer

Steamboy

In our age it is easy to be oblivious of the fact that at one point in time -- not long ago -- the steam-powered engine was the most pivotal technology in existence. Indeed, how many inventions can cl...

December 1, 2004   By Jason Cairncross

In our age it is easy to be oblivious of the fact that at one point in time — not long ago — the steam-powered engine was the most pivotal technology in existence. Indeed, how many inventions can claim to have started a technological revolution? Director Katsuhiro Otomo obviously has an exceptional appreciation of history and casts his vision of this era in his explosive and visually stunning animated film “Steamboy.” The film has been in production for the last 10 years or so and is Otomo’s first movie since the spectacular animated epic “Akira.”

The story of Steamboy is set in Victorian England and centres on a family of brilliant mechanical engineers, in particular the youngest boy, Ray Stim, who possesses a genius-level understanding of mechanics. One day Ray receives a mysterious package from his grandfather with a note asking him to safeguard the parcel and especially to keep it out of the hands of the O’Hara Foundation. Of course, minutes later, men from the very same O’Hara Foundation show up looking for said package. Ray takes off in a steam power unicycle of his own design and the chase is on!

We soon find out that the package is in fact a small metal ball, a “steam ball” designed by Ray’s grandfather that has a near-limitless source of power. The fight for control over the steam ball and its power ignites a full-blown war between the O’Hara Foundation and the British government. Ray finds himself torn between two forces. On one side is his mad-scientist grandfather, who is maniacal and obsessive about keeping the steam ball out of the hands of the O’Hara foundation. On the other side is Ray’s father, who has become something of a scientific abomination. He is campaigning for Ray to join him in the O’Hara foundation with their goal to use the steam ball technology to create highly profitable weapons of war. Ultimately, Ray’s mentors are both more than a little crazy and not much use to him. He is left with only his own wit and his engineering acumen to save the day.

From a technical standpoint the film is awe-inspiring. Done in both digital and traditional animation, scenes of gargantuan metal cogs and gears engulf the entire screen. There are fantastical machines of war: steam powered suits of armour, tanks and airplanes. The most stunning contraption is the “Steam Tower,” a gigantic fortress that hovers menacingly over London towards the end of the movie.

The setting at the dawn of the industrial revolution is a device to pose ethical questions similar to those asked during the dawn of the nuclear age and the atomic bomb. Who should control this power, and to what end? Should technology only serve the people or should it profit those who create it? There is also a cold war subtext with two superpowers vying for the ultimate power.

Despite some problems — the action sequences are explosive and captivating, and the arguments somewhat heavy-handed — the movie is certain to provoke the puplic’s interest in science and engineering. (I found myself — not an engineer — looking up “steam power” on the Internet mere hours after watching the film.) Even if Steamboy does not compel you to ask questions about science or ethics, it is creative and engrossing, and likely to provide a pleasant distraction for a few hours.

Steamboy is scheduled for release in late 2004 or early 2005.

Jason Cairncross lives in Toronto and is the son of an engineer.


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