Campus Life

Rebuilding the Machine Man

What Metropolis illustrates about first impressions

Trying to figure out where I stand on the line between “good taste in movies” and “cinema snob” has been a bizarre process. Looking through my movie collection, the balance between “mindless but enjoyable fluff” and “underappreciated gems that I spend most of my time trying to show other people” is surprisingly even. One of my recent purchases, a blockbuster action-comedy starring Dwayne Johnson (while he was still credited as “The Rock”), even manages to fall into both categories.

The impetus for my cinematic identity crisis boils down to the question of whether it’s possible to predict a movie’s potential impact at its release, a question brought on by a movie experience I had last month. Once upon a time, German filmmaker Fritz Lang released the silent film Metropolis, about a futuristic-circa-1927 city populated by a downtrodden working class, their administrative oppressors, one mad scientist with a bum hand, and one Machine Man that would be indistinguishable from a human if it weren’t so good at “evil overlord” hand gestures. For reasons that probably seem rather silly in hindsight, large portions of it were cut shortly after its release, and for several decades the film could only be seen in a woefully incomplete form. Then, in 2008, a nearly complete print was found in Buenos Aires, presumably by a stubbly adventurer with a fedora and a whip digging through the rubble of an abandoned 8-screen cineplex in the Argentinean mountains.

The subsequent restoration is the most complete version of the film to date, missing only about five minutes of footage compared to the original theatrical release. To tell you that partaking of this priceless artifact last month was a life-changing experience would not only make any English-speaking screenwriter cringe, it would probably be much less effective than simply saying that it was very, very cool. My inner moviegoer and inner movie snob exchanged inner high-fives as I walked out of the theater, one because he had just seen the movie that kicked off virtually the entire genre of sci-fi and speculative fiction as we know it, and the other because the film he just saw delivered edge-of-the-seat thrills, nail-biting action, and a happy ending in spite of being a) completely silent, and b) German.

The moral of the restoration of Metropolis seems to be that rushing to tweak something based on first impressions isn’t always a good idea; tweaking at all often makes people uncomfortable (Mr. Lucas, I’m looking at you), let alone chopping up a film like you were making celluloid stew. Sure, in the digital age, the chances of losing anything forever as nearly happened with Metropolis is virtually nil — even if we might want to. One might argue that, given this summer’s lineup, the chances of anything fresh is even less. The top three at the box office this weekend are a book adaptation (Eclipse), a television series adaptation (The Last Airbender), and a threequel (Toy Story 3). Elsewhere on the top ten are a remake (The Karate Kid), another television adaptation (The A-Team), and what seems to me to be a rather unnecessary four-quel (Shrek Forever After). When so many of the big films are derivatives of preexisting media, it’s hard to imagine anything have the same level of impact on any genre as much as Metropolis, especially now that genres like romance, horror, action, and parodies thereof ending in the word “Movie,” have so thoroughly established. Even so, it’s important to remember in light of the headaches involved in putting Metropolis and its Machine Man together again, you never know when something might surprise you and be that one film that defines cinema for the next century. I don’t think Jackass 3-D is going to be it, but I’m sure the Darwin Awards will appreciate the word-of-mouth.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go catch up on yet more movie-watching. There’s a reboot (Predators) coming out I’ve been wanting to see, and I still haven’t even seen the latest comic book adaptation (Jonah Hex) and comic book adaptation sequel (Iron Man 2) while waiting for the DVD release of a folklore adaptation (Robin Hood). Hopefully the crowds waiting to see the sequel to Cats and Dogs won’t be fighting like... well, you know.