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Back to the future imperfect

Anime 'Metropolis' is a bold re-imagining of Lang's classic

Welcome back to the future. Welcome back to 'Metropolis,' the cinematic capital of tomorrow, since not long after the movies invented the future. It's one of our most vivid memories of things to come.

Property values may have skyrocketed since Fritz Lang first painted the town in 1926, but in many ways the neighborhood has changed little in three-quarters of a century. The place still takes your breath away Ñ and it's not just the smog.

The 'Metropolis' that opens today at Cinema 21 is not Lang's classic, but a new vision of the future built on Lang's foundation. Call it a reconstruction, newly blueprinted by three giants of Japanese animation. Directed by Rintaro ('Astro Boy,' 'Harmagedon') and written by Katsuhiro Otomo ('Akira'), 'Metropolis' is based on a late 1940s manga (we call them graphic novels) by Osama Tezuka.

The term 're-imagining' Ñ so self-importantly and mistakenly used for last year's remake of 'Planet of the Apes' Ñ actually applies here. Tezuka, Otomo and Rintaro genuinely re-imagine Lang's tale of a glorious futuropolis where the haves frolic in the heights while the have-nots labor in the depths.

In this new animated 'Metropolis,' as in Lang's version, a toweringly ambitious man with his own plans for the city turns to a mad scientist to help implement those plans through the creation of an advanced female robot. The plans are upset not only by the arrival of a Japanese detective and his nephew on the trail of the scientist, but by the murderously protective instincts of the empire builder's adopted 'son.'

The society is divided between human and robot populations, with a growing anti-robot faction and scheming politicians heating up the mix.

'Metropolis' likely represents a new watermark in the art of anime. The first 10 minutes or so constitute one of the most eye-filling and jaw-dropping openings since the last classic distillation of Lang in Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner.'

As the film takes us into the city's multiple levels, Metropolis becomes a place more 'real' than most live-action fantasies create. It's totally enveloping in its variety and sense of detail. The feeling of reaching backward and forward at once also is enhanced musically with a playful but oddly poignant musical score drawing heavily on Tin Pan Alley jazz.

There is so much here that a feeling of saturation threatens Ñ it's

almost too much. It's a common trait of anime, one that often makes the individual film ('Akira' is a good example) finally seem less than the sum of its parts. Once you've been overwhelmed Ñ which these films can do well before they end Ñ all that's left is a kind of emotional deflation.

But with the exception of the 1999 film 'Princess Mononoke,' which achieves real epic stature in a different style, 'Metropolis' emerges as perhaps the most stunning of its kind. Alternating blasts of violent action with jolts of color, humor and sweeping beauty, it's more skillfully constructed than most similar films.

'Metropolis' fills the screen in dense and sometimes startling fashion, extending Lang's lease on forever and leaving the future safe to go on failing.

Cinema 21 through Thursday, March 21, 616 N.W. 21st Ave., 503-223-4515