DIRECTED BY: Tarik Saleh
FEATURING: Voices of Vincent Gallo, Juliette Lewis, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, Alexander Skarsgård
PLOT: The world’s oil supplies are drying up, and Europe is now connected by a network of underground railroads known as Metropia, where a young man named Roger begins to hear a voice in his head.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The standard tale of dystopian grimness and corporate conspiracy is given a fresh twist via a Gilliamesque art style, shampoo-based mind control, and rejected asylum seekers launched away in rocket chairs.
COMMNETS: I’m told that director Tarik Saleh’s most recent feature outing—The Nile Hilton Incident, set in revolutionary Egypt—was a stellar piece of neo-noir crime drama. I personally avoided it, since modern politics gives me a migraine, but it had enough impact to net Saleh a directing gig on the acclaimed “Westworld” series.
When Metropia came out, though, Saleh was still largely an unknown; and fittingly, the film—despite clearly being intended for an international audience—made little impact either inside or outside Scandinavia; after all, by 2009, neither dystopian tales, nor animated films aimed at adults quite carried the novelty they once did.
But in many ways, Metropia seems quite well-aware of this. Really, perhaps that’s one of the best things that can be said about this film; it never tries to be more than it is. It isn’t under the illusion that the tale it tells of resource depletion, corporate conspiracy, and a bleak, excessively urbanized future is especially new; as a result, it makes an effort to avoid jamming its finger into the viewer’s chest the way some such films might do. To be sure, the grimness of the world that mankind has created for himself is still very much evoked—a half-crazed man in the subway soapboxes about the days when seasons still existed, and Juliette Lewis’s character laments how every city looks identical nowadays—but for the most part, the film clearly assumes that, by now, you’re familiar with the sort of desolate and drained world that humanity is rapidly heading toward, and doesn’t feel the need to spell it out in excessive detail.
Instead, the plot concerns itself chiefly with two things. The first is an elaborate conspiracy, implemented by the owners of the metro, Trexx, to read and control the minds of the European public via a leading brand of dandruff shampoo. The second is a standard love triangle.
The conspiracy plotline might be lacking in certain aspects. It follows a tried and tested structure, and, at the film’s climax, is brought down a little too easily. Nonetheless, the film seems conscious of this flaw, opting to evoke this familiar tale of corporate conspiracy in an unpretentious manner that focuses on its impact upon a single isolated individual, while portraying it in a quietly tongue-in-cheek manner (to reiterate: the mind-control is accomplished by the use of dandruff shampoo).
Of course, there are points when the comedic undertone is overemphasized (most notably in a brief, almost cartoon-like sequence, largely unrelated to anything else in the film, where the protagonist watches a live game show where rejected asylum seekers are launched off a bridge from spring chairs). But even in those moments, the delivery is deadpan enough for the film to retain its general sense of grounded self-awareness.
The love triangle, meanwhile, doesn’t do anything new with the formula, and the film, seemingly aware of this as well, doesn’t provide it much in the way of either attention or screentime. The subplot does offer a decent means of giving the protagonist a stake in the world, and a reason to hurry home from his clandestine investigations.
But as many guess before even watching it, the film’s defining characteristic is its singular animation. Through an unusual blend of CGI and motion capture, the characters, with their outsized heads, uncanny faces, and strangely puppet-like gait, evoke a digitized form of Terry Gilliam’s cutout animation style, with the characters bringing to mind sombre and gloomy bobbleheads. It’s unique, to be sure, and not in a way that feels gimmicky. It suggests a strangely harmonious meeting between the comically exaggerated and the grimly realistic, which fits with the film’s tone of cynical social commentary undercut by tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.
Considered in terms of its individual parts, Metropia might be mistaken for nothing special. It’s a fairly standard conspiracy thriller, in a fairly standard dystopian setting, in an unusual animation style. But taken together, these aspects create a film that, while perhaps not ground-breaking, is refreshingly self-aware in its approach to a familiar tale, telling it in a way that delicately spices up this grounded and grim tale of a dark future with an overlay of surreal, deadpan humor.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s more interesting for its ideas and atmosphere than its story, but Saleh’s weird imagery and alienated animation style—a strange marriage of photo collage, CGI sophistication and cut-out animation with figures that suggest proletariat kewpie dolls—creates a unique world.”–Sean Axmaker, seanax.com (contemporaneous)