It’s Europe, in the year 2024, in the wake of a global collapse. Roger (voiced by Vincent Gallo) is a joyless corporate drone—information imparted, as it always is in films, by his employment as a cubicle-dwelling telephone representative. But he’s grown disturbed by the voice he keep hearing in his head, pushing him this way or that and insisting “You created me because you needed me!” He assumes he’s just going a little crazy, but one day he impulsively changes his route to work in order to follow Nina (voiced by Juliette Lewis), the shampoo ad model he’s infatuated with. And then she asks him about the voices in his head.
Metropia operates predominately as a cross between a futuristic sci-fi mindbender and a paranoid film noir riff—the former in its set-up, the latter in its payoff (which includes lines like “You mean nothing to them—they will kill you”). Roger is first taken in by Nina, then made suspicious of her by the voice in his head (provided by Alexander Skarsgård—his father Stellan also lends his tones). But why should he trust that voice? How much is he being manipulated? And who is doing it?
The animation technique, a peculiar hybrid of photography and drawing, is a touch off-putting, particularly in the opening scenes; the characters’ slightly oversized heads seem distractingly out of proportion, and the choppiness of their motion takes some getting used to. The images occasionally have a Gilliam-esque cut-out quality (particularly when they’re interacting with each other); by the end of the film, their cold eyes and smooth skin have something of that strange alien quality we associate with the characters in Zemeckis’s motion capture movies. The oddness of the imagery certainly creates an atmosphere—the film is almost entirely desaturated, with splashes of color used predominately for shock effect—but by the end of the picture, I wasn’t sure why they went to all the bother of animating, since it seemed primarily designed to look as much like live action as possible. What fun is the form if you’re not going to take advantage of it?
Gallo, whose character is made to look eerily like Moby, contributes just the right amount of jittery worry to his characterization. The occasional flatness of Lewis’ gin-soaked voice would seem a bad match for animation work, but that inexpressiveness is actually a perfect fit for her secretive, unknowable persona. Both inventive actors contribute to the odd but intriguing mood of the piece, and the intersection of events at the clever climax brings it to a smashing, unexpectedly involving conclusion. Metropia is not entirely successful—the technique is somewhat distancing, and the film takes entirely too long to get cooking. But it holds your interest, which is never to be taken for granted.
"Metropia" is screening on April 25, 28, and 29 and on May 1 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.