Metropia is more about a state of mind than it is about story, which is probably why so much effort was put into its look. Director Tarik Saleh, who was once a graffiti artist in his native Sweden, has overseen a unique and unsettling dystopian vision – a cold, claustrophobic, virtually colorless world of shadow and filth, the skies perpetually gray and smoggy. Under the supervision of Isak Gjertsen, sickly-looking characters are brought to life through startlingly effective animation techniques, with photographs of real people edited and stylized via Photoshop and manipulated via Adobe After Effects. It’s not exactly cutout animation, although it does have the crude feel of a living storybook. Without a doubt, simply looking at this movie is an experience unto itself. One hasn’t seen anything quite like it before.
And that may be the film’s biggest weakness. Once we see past the technical innovations, we quickly realize that the plot is one of exceeding simplicity, if not total unoriginality. It takes place in the year 2024, at which point the world is rapidly running out of oil and the European nations have formed a vast network of interconnecting subways, known as the Metro. Roger, an average working man from Stockholm (voiced by Vincent Gallo), has refused to use it, instead riding his bike to and from work, despite being illegal. One morning, he discovers his bike has been smashed, forcing him to use the Metro. He doesn’t like it. It makes him feel uncomfortable. It also makes him hear a strange voice in his head, one that tells him what he should do and how he should feel. Is he going crazy?
While riding a train, he notices a passenger. She looks an awful lot like the model in the ads for Dangst, a bestselling brand of shampoo. He follows her, although he knows he’ll be late for work. She knows she’s being followed, and she calls him on it. Her name is Nina (voiced by Juliette Lewis), and in spite of the voice telling Roger to deny it, she knows that someone is in his head, speaking to him. How does she know this? She doesn’t say anything much to begin with, although she does lead Roger to a conference overseen by Ivan Bahn, the head of the railroad company Trexx (voiced by Udo Kier); as powerful business owners from all over the world look on, Bahn demonstrates the … effectiveness Dangst has once it has been massaged into the scalp and rinsed off. “Dandruff shampoo,” Bahn says, rather cryptically, “has only one known side effect: It gives you dandruff.”
Meanwhile, in another part of this vast underground network of stations and escalators, a reality show called Asylum is in full swing. The audience cheers manically as contestants find themselves strapped to elaborate chairs adorned with flashing light bulbs; if they hope to avoid being ejected up through the streets and into the nearby ocean, they must provide, in thirty words, an adequate reason for why Europe is the place of their dreams. Talk about a Eurocentric viewpoint.
I’m intentionally being vague with this description, although it has less to do with not spoiling anything and more to do with exemplifying the psychological nature of the plot. We have the obvious external themes, namely those of control and manipulation, of keeping consumers under the thumb of powerful corporations. In other words, themes of the working class being at the mercy of those in a position of power. But then there are the internal themes, specifically the idea that individual freedom is the key to societal freedom; if just one person knows that everything he or she says and does is being watched, if the thoughts of just one person are under someone else’s command, then there’s absolutely no chance of widespread independence. The good news is that it usually takes just one person to change the status quo. Perhaps it’s ironic that, for Roger, defeating the Trexx company depends on a Hello Kitty plush doll, quite possibly the best symbol of corporate-fueled consumerism since Mickey Mouse.
But will audiences respond to these subtexts? Or will they be distracted by the distinctive visuals? And will it matter that very similar subtexts have already been explored to varying degrees of success? There’s no denying the film’s craftsmanship – its dingy look, its otherworldly animation, its mysterious tone, its somber mood, its psychological undertones – but when it comes to its plot, it feels awfully pedestrian. Some films work well when story plays second fiddle to style. In this case, however, it seems as if something important is missing, something that could heighten it to a level above a mere display of creativity. There are many great technical accomplishments in Metropia, but ultimately, it tells a story that isn’t quite worthy of the work that went into it.