REVIEW: Hypnotic, Stop-Motion Metropia Misses the Bigger Picture
Dark and queer enough to catch your attention but lacking the story power to hold it, Metropia is an aesthetic in search of an author. The first animated feature from Swedish director Tarik Saleh, Metropia posits a familiar scenario -- middle-class male malaise -- in a near-future Europe made exotic by its fall into dystopian ruin. The allusions made by the opening titles to the environmental and financial crises that have ostensibly brought Europe together (the countries have been literally connected by an inter-continental subway system) are a little misleading: As they attempt to build a paranoid allegory around the monolithic potential of the European Union, Saleh and writer Fredrik Edin move further and further into the experience of a call-center employee named Roger (voiced by Vincent Gallo). Ultimately this approach shrinks the scope of a setting that seems designed for bigger things.
Although the story is set in Stockholm and then Paris, the striking combination of still and 2-D animation and the oppressively homogenized atmosphere have all of Europe looking about the same. The landscape is a brownish-gray, and the human figures roaming it are slightly bobble-headed, with large, fixed eyes. They are rather hypnotic to look at -- three-dimensional at some angles, mere pencil sketches at another -- and their incarnation offers the film's best expression of its theme: studiously lifelike, they are not quite alive.
Roger is the most expressive of the bunch; melancholy and watchful, he leaves his girlfriend every morning for the joe-job he clings to for survival. Distrustful of the Metro, which is run by an enormous conglomerate called Trexx, he rides his bike to work, a big no-no in a country run by transportation interests. The idea of the subway -- something many of us view as an essential and appreciated part of city living -- as a diabolical construct falls a little flat. I imagine Saleh intended to highlight the potential for exploitation of a large population's trust and dependency on mass transportation; though it is displayed like a newly drawn war map, the grid still looks kind of cool to a veteran traveler. The authority of this supposedly ominous scenario is further undermined by the poorly integrated notion of a certain shampoo (when combined with a subway ride) as an agent of mind control. Michael Winterbottom's supple, brilliant Code 46 offers a more coherent and convincing vision of a tightly geographically controlled future, and where the psychic burden of such constraints will lead.
Having made the fatal error of using dandruff shampoo and riding the metro on the same day, Roger's mind is infiltrated by what turns out to be a Trexx employee named Stephan (Alexander Skarsgård). Soon after the unwanted voice begins messing with his head, Roger spots his "dream girl," a Kim Novak look-alike named Nina (Juliette Lewis), whom he follows to Paris, presumably in the hopes of spicing up his zombified -- if newly schizophrenic -- existence.
"I'm just so normal," Roger whines to Nina, right after she rocks his 2-D world but just before she entangles him in her plan to rule the new one. "The guy who's unhappy with his life, his job, his everything -- and he can't blame anyone else because it's all f*cking choices." "But what if they're not your choices?" she replies. It's certainly a new twist on an old complaint -- What if you're boring because the state wants you boring? -- but by the time it's posed, Metropia's narrative imagination has fallen too far behind that of its visuals to have any hope of catching up.