Classic sci-fi goes back to future

What do critics consider the greatest science-fiction movie ever made?

A recent survey of the Online Film Critics Society gave "2001: A Space Odyssey" the highest slot – fine with me, since it topped my ballot – followed by the overrated "Blade Runner," the first two "Star Wars" installments, and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," fresh from a 20th-anniversary reissue that audiences paid little attention to.

Coming in sixth was a more surprising choice: "Metropolis," a silent movie from 1927 that hasn't been seen in its entirety since shortly after its original release, when it was severely cut by its German and American distributors. They feared its 153-minute running time was hurting it at the box office.

With its flamboyant blend of futuristic action, sexy spectacle, and weird political overtones, the picture has always been popular, even in its mutilated form. Various versions have been released over the years, including a 1984 edition with a rock-music score by pop impresario Giorgio Morodor.

It's unlikely that Fritz Lang's original version will ever be pieced together again – many bits are probably lost forever – but sci-fi fans can rejoice at the latest attempt to come as close as possible. A team of experts has ferreted out every inch of footage to be found, digitally cleaned and retouched it, and replaced it on 35-mm film with loving care.

The final touch was to rerecord Gott- fried Huppertz's original score so audiences can experience the movie much as filmgoers at Berlin's sumptuous Ufa Palast did 75 years ago. Running about two hours, this is by far the longest edition to be seen since the picture's première run.

"Metropolis" still packs a visual wallop with its vivid portrait of a would-be utopia that breeds hatred and violence among oppressed workers, self-centered leaders, and a bizarre scientist whose newest invention – a seductive robot – sets catastrophe in motion.

Lang was one of cinema's greatest stylists, and today's directors could learn invaluable lessons from his economical editing, masterly framing, and trail-blazing special effects.

"Metropolis" has a place in world history as well as in the annals of fantasy. Adolf Hitler was said to have loved it, and Lang eventually fled Germany for Hollywood when the Third Reich wanted him to run its movie industry.

Few movies of any era offer so much varied food for thought, cinematically and politically. Its new restoration is a major motion-picture event.

• Not rated; contains violence and sexual suggestiveness.

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