Monday, August 11, 2008
If "The Sky Crawlers" is really Oshii Mamoru's stab at making something more accessible and commercial than the challengingly dense and philosophical films we've come to expect from him, then he really needs to get out more. For better and for worse, with an emphasis on the latter, it doesn't stray far from his comfort zone at all.
Europe is at war as corporations vie for territorial dominance in aerial battles, employing eternally young fighter pilots called Killdore to engage the opposition while the detached and unaffected general populace keeps score via television. A new recruit named Kannami immediately impresses his teammates with his deadly proficiency but grows increasingly distracted in seeking the truth about the fate of his predecessor, which has something to do with his aloof commander and former ace pilot Kusanagi.
Instead of delivering yet another anti-war message, Oshii unashamedly depicts the mechanical carnage with his typically meticulous attention to detail and to great aeshetic result, while the considerably less engaging characters struggle with the more personal (or perhaps self-absorbed) dilemmas of their own im/mortality and the meaning of life. It's this gap between the exhilarating technical mastery displayed in the all-too-brief battle scenes and the cold, gravely serious interaction on the ground comprising the bulk of the film's running time that lets it down the most. The photorealistic CG dogfights are visually breathtaking, but it's the equally detailed audio design by Skywalker Sound that truly puts you in the thick of the action. Screaming engines and stuttering cannons rip through the air, then the scene switches to within the cockpit and we experience the pilots' respirator-assisted breathing and the muffled explosions outside the canopy. Even after the camera returns to earth, every rustle of the uniforms and creak of the furniture is imbued with life. Some fine performances by Kase Ryo as Kannami, Tanihara Shosuke as fellow pilot Tokino and especially Kikuchi Rinko as Kusanagi help breathe some much-needed humanity into their less than vibrant animated surrogates, but unfortunately the script largely confines them (and consequently the audience) to an interminable sequence of gloomy conversations and underwhelming revelations. Then there's the gratituitous chain smoking, ostensibly used as a motif for the Killdore's disillusionment with their immortality but might just as well be to give the doll-eyed stony faces something to do as they gaze blankly into space. Somewhat fittingly, due to the protagonists being perpetual teenagers, it makes the film look all the more 'emo'.
Oshii been quoted as saying he'll quit directing if this doesn't succeed at the box office, but after opening in 7th well below the chart-topping trio of Ponyo, Pokemon and Naruto, he could have done worse.
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