Why the best sci-fi film of 2010 is the Avatar of 1927

I just saw the best sci-fi film of 2010 the other day. The odd thing is that it was made in 1927, 83 years ago, and it's been that long since the movie has actually been released in its complete, uncut form.

I'm talking about Metropolis, German director Fritz Lang's classic film about a futuristic city where the elite and wealthy live in gigantic, glittering towers while the workers are forced to labor endlessly over the massive, overheated machines that keep the city running and live deep underground in sunless caverns.

The most expensive silent film ever made (it cost five million Reichsmark, or $200 million today), Metropolis was arguably the Avatar of its time, a cinematic epic that used pioneering production design and special effects to explore social and political issues through a sci-fi lens while also providing thrills, romance, action and spectacle.

The main character of Metropolis is Freder (Gustav Frohlich), a careless young man whose father, John Fredersen (Alfred Abel), rules Metropolis. While idling with a gaggle of girls in a private garden one day, Freder is struck by the sight of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a saintly young woman who appears with a cluster of ragged-looking children and proclaims, "These are your brothers." Entranced by Maria and curious about the children, Freder investigates the underground world of the city's workers and is shocked by their living and working conditions.

Meanwhile, his father, worried about a possible plan by the workers to revolt, aims to create an incident so that he can clamp down on them and enlists the crazed scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to make a robot duplicate of Maria. Instead of reassuring the workers that a mediator will someday come to solve their plight, as Maria has done, the robot incites them to destroy the machines that maintain the city. Rotwang also has an agenda of his own—he seeks revenge on John Fredersen for stealing his wife and wants to make the destruction of Metropolis permanent.

When Metropolis premiered in Germany in 1927, it ran 153 minutes and was not an immediate success. It was cut considerably for overseas release, down to as little as 90 minutes, and much of the movie's plot became confusing or illogical as a result. Even worse, a lot of the cut footage disappeared over the years and was considered lost. A restored two-hour version was released in 2002, but it wasn't until 2008—when a nearly complete 16mm print of the movie was found in Buenos Aires—that it became possible for modern audiences to see Metropolis almost as it was originally intended (a few seconds of footage here and there are still missing).

Two and a half hours is a long sit even for today's movies, but Metropolis now zips by. With its full storyline, several subplots and character development all re-introduced, it's richer, more exciting and more spectacular than I remember it ever being before. The visuals are still staggering, including the images of the workers slaving away at the machines, the climactic flooding of the underground city and the creation of the robot Maria, while the movie's themes, although often delivered in a dated or simplistic fashion, are still relevant.

There had been science fiction films before Metropolis, going back to 1902's short A Trip to the Moon, but never one attempted on such a scale. Its visuals and production design have influenced countless movies throughout the decades, from 1931's Frankenstein to 1982's Blade Runner (compare shots of the city from both movies to see what I mean). The golden, metallic robot that goes on to imitate Maria has become an iconic image in pop culture.

Sure, it's old, it's silent and a lot of the newly restored footage has not stood the test of time well. So why is Metropolis still so great? First, because it's amazing to see what filmmakers were able to achieve 83 years ago, without the benefit of modern special effects, and second, because it strives to be about something while still giving audiences an awesome experience at the movies. These days, with remakes, reboots, sequels, video-game adaptations and even movies based on toys flooding the multiplexes, Metropolis almost seems fresh.

The complete Metropolis opened in Los Angeles earlier this month and will be making its way around the country before arriving on DVD and Blu-ray this fall. Go here for playdates and more info. If you're a sci-fi fan, you owe it to yourself to see Metropolis.

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