The musical score was composed by Angelo Badalamenti with costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. It was entered into the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.
Krank (Daniel Emilfork), a highly intelligent but evil being created by a vanished scientist, is unable to dream, which causes him to age prematurely. At his lair on an abandoned oil-rig (which he shares with the scientist's other creations: six childish clones, a dwarf named Martha, and a brain in a vat named Irvin), he uses a dream-extracting machine to steal dreams from children. The children are kidnapped for him from a nearby port city by a cyborg cult called the Cyclops, who in exchange he supplies with mechanical eyes and ears. Among the kidnapped is Denree (Joseph Lucien), the adopted little brother of carnival strongman One (Ron Perlman).
After the carnival manager is stabbed by a mugger, One is hired by a criminal gang of orphans (run by a pair of Siamese twins called "the Octopus") to help them steal a safe. The theft is successful, but the safe is lost in the harbor when One is distracted by seeing Denree's kidnappers. He, together with one of the orphans, a little girl called Miette, follows the Cyclops and infiltrates their headquarters, but they are captured. Meanwhile the Octopus orders circus performer Marcello (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) to return One to them. He uses his trained fleas, which secrete a poison that causes mindless aggression, to turn the Cyclops guards against each other, before rescuing One. However he leaves Miette behind, who almost drowns before an amnesiac diver living beneath the harbor retrieves her.
Miette leaves the diver's lair to find One and Marcello both drowning their sorrows in a bar. Upon seeing Miette alive the remorseful Marcello lets One leave with her. However the Octopus confronts them on the pier, and uses Marcello's stolen fleas to turn One against Miette. A spectacular chain of events triggered by one of Miette's tears leads to a ship crashing into the pier before One can throttle her. Marcello arrives and sets the fleas on the Octopus, allowing One and Miette to escape to continue searching for Denree.
Back at Krank's oil-rig, Irvin gets one of the clones to release a plea for help in the form of a bottled dream telling the story of how they were created. It reaches One, Miette, and the diver, and the latter remembers that he was the scientist who made them, and that the oil-rig was his laboratory before Krank and Martha pushed him off to take it for themselves. They all converge on the rig; the diver to destroy it and the duo to rescue Denree.
Miette is almost killed by Martha, but the diver harpoons her. She then finds Denree asleep in Krank's dream-extracting machine, and Irvin tells her that to release him she must enter the machine herself. In the dream world she meets Krank and makes a deal with him to replace Denree as the source of the dream; Krank fears a trap but plays along, believing himself to be in control. Miette then uses her imagination to control the dream and turn it into an infinite loop, destroying Krank's mind. One and Miette rescue all the children while the now-deranged diver loads the rig with dynamite and straps himself to one of its legs. He regains his senses as everyone is rowing away, and pleads with his remaining creations to come back to rescue him, but a seabird lands on the handle of the blasting machine, blowing up him and the rig.Ron Perlman as One
Judith Vittet as Miette
Daniel Emilfork as Krank
Joseph Lucien as Denree
Dominique Pinon as the diver and the clones
Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet as the Octopus
Jean-Claude Dreyfus as Marcello
Jean-Louis Trintignant (voice) as Uncle Irvin
Mireille Mossé as Martha
Rufus as Peeler
Serge Merlin as the chief of the Cyclops
Marc Caro as Brother Ange-Joseph
Ticky Holgado as an ex-acrobat
Lorella Cravotta as a woman
Mathieu Kassovitz (uncredited) as a man on the street
The film holds a 80% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 54 reviews, and a Metascore of 73 on Metacritic. As it "proceeds in full awareness that the past to which it is committed never really existed," the film constitutes as steampunk.
According to authors Jen Webb and Tony Schirato, the dual nature of capitalism constitutes a main source of tension in the film:
"On the one hand, capitalism is presented as enabling self-interest and freedom, as exemplified by the freedom to produce scientific developments (Krank), pursue religious ideas (the Cyclopses), and seek wealth (the Octopus). On the other hand, it exposes the deplorable effects of capitalism ... the exploitation of childhood (the cynical orphans), of tenderness (the Original scientist, attacked and turned out by his own beloved creations), and of innocence (the terrified children whose dreams are stolen) while suggesting that there is no place in capitalism for originality, disinterestedness, duty, self-reflective analysis, and other defining aspects of "the human."
According to author Donna Wilkerson-Barker, these elusive aspects of humanity are presented within the film for various characters to identify with. For example, the relationship between One and Denrée represents, for Miette, a family of authenticity. Prepared to sacrifice her life in order to become a part of their family, Miette helps One to save Denrée from Krank's manipulative environment. In another example, Irvin the brain plays his part in overturning the same environment in order to liberate his "family" of clones. In the end, two boats filled with these two different families row towards their futures: In one boat, a technologically produced family of Irvin and the clones; In the other, a rationally envisioned family containing Miette, One, and the abducted children. This leaves the audience to question precisely what the future will hold for these two differing visions of humanity.
A video game based on the film was released in the United States and in parts of Europe for the PC first and then the PlayStation console. Players take on the role of Miette and confront puzzles in an adventure game format. On GameRankings the PC version holds a score of 60%, while the PlayStation version holds a score of 54.50%.