"The Sky Crawlers" are a group of young fighter pilots know as Kildren, whom we join in the middle of a dogfight. As one of the pilots returns from battle and checks in with the female who commands the base, he says, "The glare off the sun was unbearable." Her response: "Been reading Camus?"
That's a nice way to phrase things, because this group of pilots could pass for the chain-smoking existentialists who hung out in bars and coffee houses and saw the world as a great big ball of Nothingness. These young pilots are jaded and oddly full-body numb to everything around them, but that's nothing compared to the rest of the world. Peace has prevailed for so many years on the planet that war-starved audiences are willing to pay to see battles. And so they do.
The Kildren, employees of Rostock Corporation, go up against Lautern, an outfit that has the equivalent of the old Red Baron, a pilot known as Teacher. But the weirdest aspect of "The Sky Crawlers" isn't that these mercenaries are also performers on the order of pro athletes in a never-ending rivalry, like the Bears and Packers. Rather, it's that Teacher is the only adult.
The newest Rostock pilot is Yuichi (Ryo Kase), whose lack of memory regarding his last post or previous service should be more unsettling than it is. He's no rookie, that's for sure, because he quickly proves to be the Kildren ace. His buddy in the air is about the only pilot among them to show emotion, a fellow named Naofumi (Shosuke Tanihara).
As with any war movie, there's the promise of possible romance. Here, it's between top-pilot Yuichi and Suito Kusanagi (Rinko Kikuchi), the stern base commander, though nothing serious comes of it. It's tough to love when you're reading Camus, and maybe just as tough when the "children" never age. So you have perpetual children fighting a perpetual war. That has to say something, right? And there are moments when "The Sky Crawlers" feels very much like an anime anti-war movie--though not during the battles themselves. Director Mamoru Oshi approaches the fight scenes with such zealousness that any anti-war themes that percolate on the ground are quickly drained. In the air, when those planes start their acrobatic moves and pilots blast away at each other, it's all business . . . and that's where the romance comes in. In such scenes, warfare seems almost glorified.
Based on the final chapter of a series of novels by Mori Hiroshi, "The Sky Crawlers" offers some highly accomplished CGI animated flight-and-fight sequences and an interesting visual style. For one thing, the airplanes are 3-D while the figures are 2-D. In addition, the backgrounds, buildings, corridors, and inanimate objects are rendered realistically, while the humans (and a basset hound) are rendered in anime style. Everyone in the film has long spiked hair that hangs straight down and moves only slightly in the wind (as when the group goes for a ride in a convertible and their hair sways back and forth like seaweed). The time period is also indistinct, since the planes the Rostock and Lautern pilots fly are propeller planes, but nothing else seems period. I don't think that it matters, though, because this film isn't driven by narrative or logic as much as it is by mood and animation. I don't know enough about Oshii to offer more than critical speculation, but it seems to me that "The Sky Crawlers" is as much a critique of youth culture today as it is warfare. If the children/Kildren are jaded and unfeeling, maybe it's the Blackberries and cell phones and text messages and iPods as much as it is the constant drone of the propellers, day in and day out. But there's a hint of Big Brother in this yarn as well. Anytime you have two corporations sending young pilots to war and profiting over it, you've got the potential for corporate abuse, and there are plenty of sequences to suggest that all is not what it seems.
There's some real sophistication at work here, but for all the battle scenes "The Sky Crawlers" does, in fact, seem to crawl in far too many sequences--unless you're wowed by the animation, which also can start to lose its charm in a 121-minute film. It's all very competent but just a little dull. Now I sound jaded. See what watching a film with existentialist undertones can do to you? Can I bum a cigarette?
For as stylish as the visual design is of this film, the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer can seem uneven at times. A few scenes look a little soft, with more atmospheric background grain than the rest of the film, but overall it has a nice depth and it's chock full of objects and sets that have perceptibly different textures in almost every scene. It's this conscious attempt at textural juxtaposition that adds to an already strong visual style. Colors are a little on the metallic side, but black levels are strong. There are a few playback squiggles and banding at several points, but nothing that intrudes too much on the experience.
The featured soundtrack is Dolby TrueHD 5.1 in the original Japanese or dubbed English and Portuguese, with a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 as an option and subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. I personally could have used a little more rumble in the bass in the fighter sequences, and in general the action scenes could have been more dynamic. Dialogue sometimes got lost amid the effects, but all of these things are slight and not enough to have a negative impact on the viewing experience.
Aside from BD-Live, with the usual promo and Web community "features," the only Blu-ray exclusive is a 15-minute interview with the director, who talks about the film in the context of his oeuvre. I enjoyed this because there's some real substance here, with Oshii talking about some difficult choices he had to make and explains how the aircraft scenes were constructed. But it felt too short, a teaser.
Aside from trailers, the only other extras are a couple of half-hour features on "Animation Research for The Sky Crawlers" and "The Sound Design and Animation of The Sky Crawlers." Both incorporate behind the scenes footage. The former reveals that the artists based a lot of what they drew on European locations, but there's a lot of nonsense here. In the end, it's not all that different from "National Lampoon's European Vacation," with the Japanese crew acting the part of tourists without giving us enough nuts and bolts on the actual animation. In the second feature, we get a tour of Skywalker Ranch and see behind-the-scenes voice sessions, but like the first one, it seems padded with nonsense--things that don't illuminate the process.
Anime fans will probably embrace this film, but for the general movie-going audience, the wonderful artwork and animation can start to pale when the storyline gets so bogged down in existential angst and action that we assume is symbolic, but which ultimately needs a translator.