Interstella 5555

The funny thing about silent movies is that they were never actually silent. It's rare these days to see any of these old B&W reels, save perhaps for clips from the sci-fi extravaganza Metropolis, but they were interested in telling a story that could be understood with both visuals and music. It's a virtually lost art form, but once in a great while, somebody tries to recreate it. This is the essence of Interstella 5555, a collaboration between Leiji Matsumoto and the French "house" musical duo called Daft Punk. It's a strange 65-minute journey of sight and sound, and whether you'll love it or hate it is ultimately a matter of taste. Burdened by an awful beginning, the show eventually throws off its shackles and becomes a fun trip I enjoyed in spite of myself.

The plot is alien abduction in reverse. A blue-skinned band that's rockin' their homeworld is suddenly snared by weird guys with big red eyes. They're taken to a new world, Earth, where they are literally whitewashed and forced by a bloated villain to make millions of dollars for him as his new "discovery," The Crescendolls. But an adventurous ship captain who's taken with the beautiful blond bass player makes the brave journey to Terra in order to rescue the lost musicians, and we see just how far someone will go to sell enough copies to get a gold record. Violence, dancing, and interplanetary harmony ensue.

For those of us who are Leiji Matsumoto fans, this is a kick to watch. Sometimes, his designs still feel mired in the late '70s and early '80s, but with the retro musical stylings of Daft Punk, they look just right. Matsumoto isn't exactly the most creative character designer ever -- if you've seen just one of his shows, you've seen the core of his style -- but these folks are still fun to watch. And what's great for us old codgers is that it's '70s animation on a 21st century budget. Rarely has Matsumoto's work looked this good.

The music itself is, well, different. I'm not particularly experienced at talking about house music. Rock, metal, Christian, praise and worship, alternative...these things I know and know pretty well. But French dance music is simply not my scene. What we have here is really an eclectic mix of styles that rely heavily on funk grooves, big backbeats, and a playful memory of the past thirty years of music. When it works, Daft Punk creates a sonic atmosphere that had me tapping my feet almost against my will. For the most part, it creates a sense of giddy enthusiasm. It isn't the kind of music I would choose to have blaring from my speakers, but it's admittedly catchy.

So why did it not immediately impress me? After doing some research on the Web, I found out that Interstella 5555 started out as a series of music videos released individually, each one based around a different track of Daft Punk's "Discovery" album. Unfortunately, in the first six minutes, this really shows. The first track, "One More Time," is arguably the most repetitive and monotonous one in the show. It actually works for about three minutes, but by the time it's over, I was begging for mercy. And after watching nearly six minutes of nothing but a band playing and people dancing and a boring song repeating, I was just about ready to give up. I wasn't sure what I'd gotten into, but I didn't like it. It was like my dreams of Cipher, the worst anime music video ever, all over again. Thankfully, the second song is my favorite in the program, which helped my mood. The show does get better, and after about twenty minutes, it really congeals well. But it took me nearly a third of the movie's running time to get over my utter lack of enthusiasm about the beginning animation and that damnably repeated song.

Although I was frustrated at first, the show was good enough to catch my interest again, and both the visuals and the music captivated me. There are still some significant faults; for one, a show like this needs to keep moving, and a couple of surreal dream sequences sent it off track. (It's strange, but without dialogue, a show's plot really has to move to stay interesting.) There's also the issue of sound effects, which would have been appreciated. Although perhaps 10% of the events on-screen do have sound effects, the rest do not, and there were times when they would have been dramatically appropriate to create more of an audience connection. Finally, I had some disappointment to find that the depiction of our intrepid musicians has them playing music absolutely nothing like what was coming out of my speakers. Simply, a bass, an electric guitar, a keyboard, and a real drum kit played together do not sound like dance music. So the fact is, we never hear the band we're watching. This may be only a point for anal musicians like myself, but I gotta say it.

So how can I still give this show a good rating? It's because it's still a mess of fun. For all its errors, for all the things it gets wrong, its exuberance and energy are contagious. If you skip past the first bit and forget the first six minutes ever happened, you have a decent movie. It shows that a story need not have dialogue to be entertaining. You can't help but cheer on the heroes and boo the villains. The more engaged you are with the movie, the more you'll like it. If you appreciate Leiji Matsumoto, then you've never seen his characters come to life more beautifully than they do here, and the animation gets even better and better as it goes. Frankly, it's also a rave in a box. Find yourself some great speakers, set up a couple of projectors, rent a hall, and you've got an hour of throbbing dance that's even better to watch than it is to listen to. And if you have young children, they'll love it. My two and a half year old was quite happy to be throwing himself around the day bed in my home office to the beat of Daft Punk as I was working on this very review.

After seeing tons of raves (no pun intended) around the Internet for Interstella 5555, I was a little disappointed with its faults. Hopefully, my review will serve as a bit of a corrective. It's not as impressive overall as its much older musical cousin Robot Carnival. That said, it's a good piece of filmmaking and a joyful piece of frivolity set to music. If you know and like Daft Punk or Leiji Matsumoto, then this is something you'll have to see. If you don't, it's a strong rental.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I have to admit that the catchy music keeps bringing me back to Interstella 5555 nearly a week after I wrote this review. I find myself playing the disc without even watching the show and enjoying it (skipping the first song after about a minute, of course). I'm not going to change my original rating, but this one is the rare title with linger effect. Take it as you will.

Interstella 5555 -- nothing objectionable (save for brief distant shots of the band in their undies, perhaps) -- B+