Sony // 2008 // 121 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // May 26th, 2009
Every day could be your last.
From acclaimed animation director, Mamoru Oshii (Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2) comes The Sky Crawlers, a dramatic tale of innocence lost amidst spectacular aerial warfare. Sony's disc comes almost six months after a critically acclaimed limited run, but does the film earn its wings? Or does it crash and burn?
Based on the novel of the same name by Mori Hiroshi, The Sky Crawlers tells the tale of eternally adolescent fighter pilots, raised from birth to wage airborne warfare for rival corporations. These "Kildren" are genetically created, they have no past, they have no future, and are for all intents immortal, only capable of dying when killed in combat. We are immediately introduced to Yuichi, an ace transferred to a remote country airfield as a replacement pilot. Constantly questioning his circumstances, Yuichi's journey reveals an even darker side to the life of these young pilots.
As is typical of Mamoru Oshii, he eschews anime tradition and makes the film a more quiet and introspective journey. Minutes of silence stretch on, putting us into a character's headspace using only a character's emotional features and body language, and more often than not, dialog comes in brief spurts rather than floods of exposition. Yuichi's questions seem to pile up for a while before any answers are forthcoming, and the base's other characters do little to help the viewer understand what's going on. There a certain degree of investment required on the viewer's behalf, and while this may frustrate some, it's one of the reasons I always enjoy Oshii's work. It's a different approach, to be sure, one that has often earned Oshii the "pretentious" label. Truth be told, he simply puts a lot of thought into his pictures, and they are never presented with an air of superiority or self-importance. Oshii definitely has his artistic flair and a message to spread, but his work is generally more understated than overstated. I think people often mistake his intentions. The Sky Crawlers feels anything but artsy or pretentious to me, it is a somber, thoughtful piece, but it seldom feels radical or experimental. It's not all talking heads or landscapes.
When the action does appear, each and every scene is a breathtaking experience. The so-called villain of the piece, an adult pilot boogeyman known as "The Teacher," shows up a few times, recognized for the black jaguar on the nose of his plane, and we are usually assured an incredible visual treat. These really are some of the best dogfights put to film. While the thunderous air battles aren't truly the focus of the piece, they do show up frequently enough to keep one satisfied. It really is an amazing work, in terms of tone and feel, I would put it closer to Hiroyuki Okiura's Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade -- Written and closely overseen by Oshii -- than Oshii's own Ghost in the Shell.
In this modern world of high definition Blu-Ray and 1080p transfers, a great DVD really stands out all that much more to me, and this disc is amazing. Sony's DVD treatment of the film is nothing shy of perfect. The transfer is flawless, with nary a hint of grain or compression issues, particularly in the soft lit environs favored by the director, which can usually be trouble. The gorgeous animation is well served with colors that are beautifully rendered and blend with one another perfectly, from the piercing rich blue of the skies to the orange flares of machine gun fire. The audio goes even further, with an amazing sound mix that roars to life with gusto during the dogfight scenes, explosions and machine gun fire thundering with aplomb, and is beautifully subtle and enveloping during the downtime. Effects pan around the room in realistic fashion; I hear footsteps behind me, doors close to my left side, and distant sounds whisper with clarity. Kenji Kawai's beautiful music is also well served by the fantastic work in the audio department, and while the film stays pretty minimalist in that regard, when the score does come in, the warm, haunting melodies fill the soundstage.
As good as the disc is for picture and sound, the extras on The Sky Crawlers are far from a blessing. We're given two documentaries that consist of little more than the Japanese crew roaming around foreign cities with a slew of digital cameras. It is neither educational nor particularly engaging. Beyond that, we get trailers, lots and lots of trailers.
The Sky Crawlers isn't going to earn Mamoru Oshii any new fans. As usual, he lacks the accessibility of Hayao Myazaki or the sheer spectacle of Katsushiro Otomo, but he makes up for it with thought provoking and heartfelt material. This is a gem of a film crafted by a true master of the form, and it will definitely appeal to those who thrive on this sort of endeavor.
While definitely not for those with short attention spans, The Sky Crawlers is ultimately a beautiful film. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Steve Power; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG