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Maria

Silent Screamers
by yo go re

We told you before how Aztech Toyz dissolved after releasing only one series of Silent Screamers, but that's not the end of the story. See, Aztech was a collaboration between Art Asylum and Mike "Mez" Markowitz - and if that name sounds familiar, that's because he's the guy behind Mezco. Seriously. Aztech Toyz, Mezco Toyz... the Z should have given it away. When Aztech broke up, Mezco was born, and one of their first releases was Silent Screamers Series 2.

Fritz Lang's visionary glance into the future reveals a dark, industrial dystopia. Welcome to Metropolis, a society where the elite "Thinkers" rule above and the downtrodden "Workers" slave below. When hope rises up from the bowels of oppression the "Thinkers" create the ultimate tool of deception... meet Maria.

Metropolis, released in 1926, is definitely one of the biggest underpinnings of modern science fiction. The story of the film depends very much on which edit you see - local distributors took free rein to cut the film however they liked, to reach a specific running time (the film premiered at 153 minutes; most edits were around 90) or even change the titlecards (and thus the narrative thread of the story). But in general, you have a robot masquerading as a real person and sowing confusion among the humans, an industrialized class struggle and a mixture of science and Biblical allusions. Hell, that alone could describe Battlestar Galactica, but Metropolis beat it to market by 80 years.

Since there was no more Art Asylum connection, Series 2 was sculpted by Sandy Collora Studios - you may not recognize the name, but you know the infamous Batman fan-film Dead End? That's them.

The robot in Metropolis isn't actually named Maria. In the film she's refered to as "Maschinenmensch" (Machine-Man, showing an alarming lack of gender-specific nouns in German) [that's "man" as in "generic term for a human being," not as in "male" - her design may peg her as female, but this machine is meant to be a replacement for all of us --ed.], and is only called Maria by characters who don't know she isn't the real woman. In the novel, her inventor (the unfortunately named C.A. Rotwang) calls her "Futura ... Parody whatever you like to call it. Also: Delusion ... In short a woman." He had issues. It's also been called a gynoid, the Robotrix, False Maria and Hel, but these days "Maria" seems to be the name that's taken root in pop culture.

Whatever you want to call her, Maria has a famous design that this figure doesn't quite capture. Looking at images from the film, you can easily see how Maria's design was a direct influence on C-3PO: on this figure, not so much. The real Maria was undeniably feminine, with wide hips and meager (but still adult) breasts; this toy seems to have mistaken "big metal tits" for womanliness. Her hips are ridiculously narrow, barely any wider than her waist, but her butt and chest manage to stick out further than her feet. If she were wider side-to-side, being this big front-to-back would work, but as it is, this looks rather amatuerish, like many of the "bad girl" toys released in the late '90s.

Like Silent Screamers Series 1, this series takes liberties with the physical design of the characters, rather than trying to duplicate photo stills exactly. Thus, Maria has a lot more technological detail than Walter Schultze Mittendorff could ever have dreamed of. This is much more in the style of Hajime Sorayama. The lines of the robot are broken up by lots of complex additions and cut-out panels that never would have worked on a costume worn by a real actress. This also allows for a bit of color to spice things up: the movie was in black and white, so the robot could be pure silver and that would be fine; the toy starts with a silver base, but has black below that, a few metallic blue highlights scattered about and a fine purple wash to add depth to the shadows.

Maria stands 7½" tall, thanks to her cyborg platform shoes, but her articulation is subpar. She hasa swivel neck, balljointed shoulders, swivel wrists, V-crotch and balljointed knees. The knees are good, since they allow her to sit, but the V-crotch works just as poorly on Maria as it does on every other figure that's ever had one. She's supposed to be sitting waiting for instructions, not posing for her Penthouse spread (and we do mean "spread"). The neck matches the range of motion available in the real suit, but since one of the areas of the costume design that had actual engineering and visible components was the elbows, the lack of similar joints on the toy is particularly egregious. The hands are designed to rest on the arms of her chair, so they're perfectly flat and the arms have a permanent bend that leave her looking goofy.

The figure's only "accessory" is a large, two-piece throne/docking station. It's the one she's sitting on when she's introduced in the film, lurking in the background like just another piece of scenery. Considering that this is the first android ever committed to film, imagine what a shock that must have been to audiences - you're just sitting there watching a movie, when suddenly a thing you've never conceived of before comes to life before you. An ornate object designed like a human being stands up and walks around? It must have been like seeing the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park for the first time.

Fully assembled, the seat reaches 8" tall, thanks to the ornate crest on the top (a stylized stand-in for the pentagram that was behind the chair in the film). It rests on a T-shaped platform measuring 6½" across and 6⅜", a reference to the illuminated glass floor in the movie. There are 20 clear tubes running from the chair to the platform - you can plug them in however you like, but the instruction sheet gives you at least one layout. The tubes come from the movie, as well: particularly, from the scene where Rotwang (which actually means "rosy-cheeked," so don't freak out about it) turns his robot into a physical duplicate of the captive Maria.

In the original Metropolis novel, the Maschinenmensch is described as a delicate faceless creation with clear crystal flesh and silver bones - definitely not something the special effects of the '20s would have been able to cope with. But the design seen in the film is a groundbreaking classic, and though I would have liked the toy to stick closer to it (hips, goddammit!), this isn't bad. The sculpt is much less annoying than the articulation, that's for sure. Maria originally retailed for $11.99 (according to the KB Toys sticker on my package), but I got her off the "everything's $5" wall at a con a few yeas ago, so deals are out there if you look.

If you're a sci-fi fan, you owe it to yourself to see Metropolis - it's like watching the birth of an entire genre. We can never see a Shakespearean play performed exactly as it was originally, with Shakespeare's troupe and under his guidance, but thanks to modern technology, we're closer than ever to witnessing Fritz Lang's unadulterated vision. Thanks to the unbridled editing we mentioned above, many scenes were thought lost forever: however, in 1998, the Frederick Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, which owns the copyright to the film, began restoring the film; using different fragments from collections all over the world, and guided by original documentation from the era, they digitally repaired and cleaned the film to nearly its original condition.

This version was released in 2002, and it's worth getting the DVD just for the documentary on how the restoration was done - it's that cool. That said, there was still a fairly substantial chunk of movie missing (about half an hour), which could only be shared through production stills and text descriptions. But in 2008, a 210-minute version was discovered in Argentina, which only has one scene too damaged to repair. The F.W. Murnau Foundation is currently working on restoring all this additional footage, and eventually there will be a new release. Already, though, the 2002 version has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World collection, standing alongside the Gutenberg Bible and other staggeringly historic works. Metropolis is a benchmark heirloom of human culture, and while Maria may not be a perfect reflection of that, she's still decent in her own way.

-- 10/22/09


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