Mori Hiroshi's novel The Sky Crawlers reaches the screen as the latest animated film from director Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell). Oshii remains an acquired taste with this film about characters experiencing a terrible lack of fulfillment in their lives. Most audiences will relate, if only for the seemingly longer two-hour run time of The Sky Crawlers.
Yes, Hiroshi's story remains more interesting on paper than it does as a movie, although only a movie can stage dogfights in CGI 3D. The aerial battles also break the monotony for apparently teenage fighter pilots the Kildren, who live in a "hazy, dreamlike state" of existence of dubious reality. At the story's outset, the boyish Yuichi Kannami (Ryo Kase) arrives at an air base to replace an absent pilot. No one will talk about how the pilot, named Jinroh, died, adding to Kannami's sense of unease (it probably doesn't help that he's been reading Camus). Off-hours are interminably boring in the company of likewise deadened souls, but the pilots come alive when they take to the air in their highly maneuverable radial-engine planes (it's said the flyboys—and, later, flygirl—leave their hearts in the sky).
Oshii designs it all like a live-action movie and paints everything in soft light, the gorgeous animation pleasingly blending computer-generated and hand-drawn methods. Though there's a touch of The Right Stuff to the air base and the diner down the road, Oshii mostly sets his film in an imaginary Europe (Ireland and Poland) of airless old-world interiors, beautiful landscapes, and invitingly cloudy blue skies. Though the pilots are skilled, The Sky Crawlers is the anti-Top Gun: baggy flightsuits emphasize the Kildren's youthful dress-up game against an undefined enemy, and androgynous or indistinguishable character designs limit the possibilities of characters turning cocky or oversexed. Sex is a sort of desperate escape for eternally troubled characters—particularly the possibly homicidal base commander Kusanagi (Rinko Kikuchi)—but the joyless coupling has a dark tenor: two characters make love while mutually gripping a pistol one might well use against the other.
The film lives and dies by its moody existentialism ("To be or not to be. Those are the only states a human exists in"), which sadly doesn't dig in as deeply as it should to justify an intellectual or emotional investment. Pointedly addressing Japanese youth, screenwriter Chihiro Ito touches on the cynical postmodernist Peter Pan syndrome of the younger generations—Konnami concedes immaturity, but counters, "Do people who might die tomorrow have any need to grow up?" He also ponders what might be described as the human necessity for war. Kusanagi describes war as a pacifier for the masses: "Its sense of reality is essential to humans. Having wars going on out there somewhere sustains the illusion of peace in our society." (War is also implicitly American in character here, as the characters shift from Japanese to action-movie English when they fly the unfriendly skies).
Those are intriguing and provocative ideas, but they're like the proverbial groundhog popping out of a hole, only to disappear beneath the surface. Oshii's film is deliberately slow going, a gambit which adds to the film's elegaic elegance but fatally fails to scintillate. The technically proficient The Sky Crawlers is nice to look at and listen to (Skywalker Sound's Randy Thom and Tom Myers contribute the impressive soundscape), but by relying on zombified blank-slate characters, Oshii makes a point at the expense of engagement, much less entertainment. (If you take this flight, though, don't bail out before the film-ending post-credits sequence.)
Sony sends The Sky Crawlers home on Blu-ray with a peerless A/V transfer. The 1.78:1 image is crisply rendered from its new and spotless source material: no subtleties of detail are obscured. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix is equally impressive in rendering the top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art work of Skywalker Sound, whether it's agressive airplane and artillery effects or quietly supportive foley work and ambience.
The Blu-ray and DVD share a couple of worthwhile bonus features to delight Oshi fans with their behind-the-scenes footage. First, "Animation Research for The Sky Crawlers" (30:52, HD) follows Oshii and his crew of animators as they conduct a scouting trip in Poland; we also get comparisons of the Polish settings and the storyboards and concept art that emerged from them.
"The Sound Design and Animation of The Sky Crawlers" (32:16, HD) takes us to Skywalker Ranch along with Oshii and company; this featurette includes cast and crew interviews, including more material with Oshii.
Last up is a Blu-ray exclusive fans won't want to miss: "Sky's the Limit: An Interview with Director Mamoru Oshii" (15:18, HD). Oshii discusses the social themes he intended to convey, his visual approach, and other choices in adappting Hiroshi's novel.
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