Thursday, July 29, 2010

"The Complete Metropolis" Review

Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” was the first film I ever rented from Netflix. The (then) two-hour German expressionist science fiction masterpiece carried an immediate appeal for me I know not many will share. Nevertheless, I was excited at the prospect of seeing the film again, and on the big screen this summer, now ‘complete’ with 25 minutes of newly integrated footage uncovered in Buenos Aires in 2008.

Other than that the experience was marred by a crummy digital projection, the new cut of the film is nothing short of revelatory for fans and cinephiles. The restored scenes, which were cut in 1927 following early criticism, expand the scope and breadth of the narrative, rounding out a much more human film.

It’s a shame so little could be done to spruce up the supplemental material. I was initially put off by just how starkly it contrasted with the clean, relatively well-preserved 35mm whole; the 16mm additions are matted along the top and left of the frame, and are so scratched that the scenes appear to exist amidst an omnipresent rainstorm. But bad as they look, their benefit to the film is undeniable. My only real objection to their inclusion is in two to three second insert or reaction shots, where splicing in the new content seems more distracting than it is productive. Largely, however, the aesthetic unpleasantries are worth the emotional payoff of a more satisfying story.

The other issue is that “Metropolis” was already a long film, and one that isn’t always easy to appreciate in a modern context. Fortunately, its narrative backbone is a simple but timeless ‘workers vs. social elite’ fable, and the sincere, if unchallenging, plot makes plenty of room for contemplation. It’s easy to just slip into Lang’s world, and though the pacing and running-time hardly render it accessible, what’s really incredible about the film is how well its visuals still hold up.

The towering, angular cityscapes, oppressive walls of machinery, and the now iconic “machine man” are stylistic triumphs that look great today and have had obvious influence on more recent science fiction/fantasy classics, from the dark metropolis of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” to character design for “Star Wars.” The fact that it was even possible in 1927 is as incredible as Kubrick’s half-centennial “Space Odyssey” was for 1968. Maybe more so.

It’s rare and awesome that a piece of art is as ahead of its time as “2001” or “Metropolis” were. Fritz Lang’s film may not be a 2010 audience-pleaser, but in its flawless realization of its world, it’s every bit on par with something like “Inception.” Lang’s vision of the future is in many ways still our own, which helps account for its long shelf life. The forward-thinking design and fantastic visuals make it easy to forget that it saw release twenty years before Isaac Asimov published his compilation, “I, Robot.”

“The Complete Metropolis,” though not completely complete, is absolutely the best way to see the film. Despite the fact that certain scenes are still (and likely always will be) missing, this is the closest its come to a definitive version. Those with a vested interest in the history of film, particularly science-fiction film, absolutely need to seek it out if they haven’t already—The new cut is even worth reanalysis for those underwhelmed by the previously available version. It's a real treasure, however, for longtime fans, who’ll be glad to hear the 25 extra minutes, while not pretty, substantially benefit the story. For the first time, “Metropolis” really breathes.

However, if my unfortunate theater presentation has taught me anything, it’s that Kino’s home video release later this year will be the real attraction. I’ll be picking up the blu-ray come November, no rental required.


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