Report Card: Metropolis

Sci: C+ (2 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

Metropolis scores high on its mundane interfaces. The video phone, though a patchwork of paradigms, was quite prescient for its day. But with the goofiness of the steam piping, flood switch, and the magical thinking required for the Machine Man, we have to ding the movie interfaces pretty hard for science and engineering.

Fi: A (4 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The interfaces help paint a picture of a society deeply oppressed through machines. Given that Metropolis was the first “serious” sci-fi movie and used interfaces to such great storytelling effect, it scores our highest mark.

Interfaces: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Josephat and poor worker #11811 have a very hard time accomplishing their goals: Their machines provide information and controls but do very little to make it easy. If these were the only two users, Metropolis would score quite low.

But from Joh’s perspective, if you believe that he’s the “real” user of these systems, it’s all working quite well. Work is getting done, oppression is getting done, and if you believe the fan theory of the last post, they catalyze the collapse of the Metropolis as desired. Even when Joh meets Rotwang’s Machine Man and realizes it is the key to realizing his plan, the interfaces couldn’t be better.

Final Grade B+ (9 of 12), MUST-SEE

Metropolis’ paradigms and mundane interfaces are of their time, and while a beautiful example of dystopian Art Deco imagination, may not be applicable to modern interface design. But they are fantastic examples of how forward-looking sci-fi can be in its interfaces, while still using them to help tell epic tales. The notions that inform the Machine-Man still qualify as “sufficiently advanced” to appear magic, and set an anthropomorphic example that the real world has yet to match.

Related lessons from the book:

  • Joh’s desk interface would have benefited from Grouped Controls (page 55)
  • The video phone is discussed at length in the Communication chapter (page 198)
  • Machine Maria is a robot, the nature of which is discussed in Anthropomorphism (page 177)
  • She is also used for seduction purposes, as discussed in the Sex chapter (page 291)
    Her fully conversational control interface is considered in the Sonic Interfaces chapter (page 109)
  • Joh’s call might have been quicker if he’d been able express a desire to speak to Grot (See The goal is to contact a person, not use an interface, page 207)
  • Grot might have answered more quickly with a visual signal in the user’s path (page 210)