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  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan

from Film Forum, 03/21/02

The other animated feature worth catching this month is for grownups only, and it may prove harder to find. Metropolis is a futuristic sci-fi epic that recalls Blade Runner, the Terminator films, and even the recent A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). Boiled down to its essential plot, it echoes the Bible's story of the tower of Babel, a connection acknowledged within the script.

In the crowded, advanced, multi-layered city of Metropolis, the President is slowly losing power to an ambitious and deceitful man called Duke Red. The Duke plans to control the world using technological weapons that cause sunspot activity and threaten the earth with dangerous levels of radiation. At the same time, he employs a scientist to create a super-being—a robot girl named Tima—who will sit on a throne atop the city's tallest tower, the Ziggurat. When the Duke's jealous son tries to assassinate Tima, a kind-hearted journalist named Kinichi rescues her, and the two strike up an unlikely but touching romance.

Metropolis's animation is a mix of flat, overly simplistic cartoons and convincing, three-dimensional CGI animation, some of the most dazzlingly complex visual imagery ever created for the big screen. Katsuhiro Ôtomo, who wrote the script for the famous and hyperviolent Japanese animated epic Akira, is responsible for adapting this script from a 1949 Japanese comic series. It's a more optimistic story than Akira, affirming the possibility that machine and humans can exist harmoniously and perhaps outlast the coming apocalyptic consequences of technology abuse.

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says, Metropolis is "visually stunning. … The story doesn't always make sense, however, and the animators lay on the violent metaphors a bit too thickly. The violence too frequently seems gratuitous. The apocalyptic ending is well worth seeing. The movie even cites the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, and Kenichi's uncle makes a positive reference to God in the movie's otherwise non-Christian dialogue."

Doug Cummings (Chiaroscuro), on the other hand, finds a lot of sense in the story as he compares it to the 1927 Metropolis film by Fritz Lang. He sends in this review:

Lang's film was a thinly-disguised biblical allegory involving a city ruler (the head) who unites with the working class (the hands) through his intermediary son (the heart) in a Gothic cathedral, but it's remembered more for its grandiose visions of a futuristic city. The epic came during a time of severe economic depression in Germany and embodied the ideal merging of technological dreams and spiritual values that many hoped would produce a successful State.

While the more recent animated film shares many of Lang's basic narrative setups (a city ruler hopes to unite the city's factions through an "anointed" being), its differences are noteworthy. The next 73 years of the 20th century suggested to many that technological utopias were quite possibly wholly unattainable, and because Japan is the only country to have experienced a nuclear bombardment, it's no surprise that much of its science fiction questions the integration of body, soul, and technology. Tezuka's Metropolis (directed by Rin Taro) may have a 'head,' but its son is a militant killer, its 'heart' is a naive kid who is in over his head, and its 'hands' are an assortments of abused machines and robots just waiting to malfunction. Nevertheless, the ruler decides an advanced robot fused with human emotions just might be the answer to all his problems, but the mixture of unchecked power, a lack of identity, and psychological vulnerability only spells certain annihilation.

The film strips the original narrative of its Christian allegorical basis and reformulates its various parts to emphasize humanity's tenuous grasp on technology. The mounting chaos is brought to colorful life through a pastiche of visually elaborate backgrounds against simple caricatures, Japanese social settings to a score comprised of big band jazz numbers, future visions with touches of the 1940s, and cyberpunk ideas conveyed through retro, saucer-eyed faces. Nothing in the film seems to entirely match-up, making everything anachronistic. It's as if the animators themselves cannot contain the world in one aesthetic, but pile on a hodgepodge of styles and voices too numerous to unify, overwhelming the film with its lack of a fixed identity. Beautifully drawn and consistently entertaining, the film nevertheless feels like a massive technological experiment in search of a unified perspective—which is exactly its point, of course.