Sky Crawlers (of 1) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Release Date: Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Arriving on the front lines to fight an endless battle, Yuichi starts to learn that there’s more going on that he ever thought possible.

What They Say
A group of eternally young fighter pilots known as Kildren experience the sudden loss of innocence as they battle the enemy in astonishing dogfights above the clouds. With his only childhood memory consisting of intense flight training, the fearless teenage pilot Yuichi's dogfights coexist with his struggle to find his missing past. When his beautiful, young female commander Suito is reluctant to discuss the fate of the pilot that Yuichi is replacing or the strangely perfect condition of that pilot's former aircraft Yuichi's curiosity becomes heightened.

The Review!
Audio:
Sony has been one of my favorites when it comes to their audio work and Sky Crawlers makes out quite well here. They include a couple of Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks here with the English and Japanese languages done in that manner and they’re very solid throughout. The 5.1 mix really shines right at the start with the aerial dogfight and in subsequent ones as well. Sky Crawlers isn’t all about the action though and there are a fair amount of very quiet scenes and these are equally impressive in different ways. Simply listening to the footfalls on the wooden floors or the small tinkling sounds of items moving about and you realize just how well designed the audio on the film is. Animated films really have to work harder in this since nothing is “naturally” produced through the action and this mix really captures some wonderful things.

Video;
Originally released in the summer of 2008, the transfer for this theatrical feature is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p and is encoded using AVC. In terms of style, there are things I don’t care for how this was animated and designed, but when it comes to how well its been captured in this transfer, I have no complaints. The color design is fairly muted throughout but it has some very intense moments. The lush backgrounds really feel natural in many places as the planes fly over the countryside, or the clouds and blue skies look realistic without popping too much. There’s a lot of detail to be found in the mechanical design and it feels like it’s so much more visible here because of the added resolution. The feature is very smooth during its playback and everything here is very solid and pleasing on the eye.

Packaging:
The cover design for Sky Crawlers is kind of busy and text heavy but it’s one that does draw you in a little bit. The central focus is on the main characters of Yuichi and Suito as they stand by each other with mostly just headshots of them. The blue skies behind them provide some coolness which balances the hotter moments of the plane action that’s swooping from behind to in front of them. There’s a lot of text to the front cover with the tagline, the various nominations and wins along the top and the obvious quote that pushes Oshii’s name and his Ghost in the Shell angle as well. The back cover uses the same color layout and has it feeling a bit more somber with a few more planes flying around and the sunset cloud look. A few shots from the show highlight the character designs and there’s a decent summary of what to expect, though it’s slightly spoilerish I think. The technical grid is really nice as it lists everything clearly but the production redits and the mishmash of other areas of the production along the bottom is too busy and hard to read with the thin blue over the black background.

Menus:
The menu design for Sky Crawlers is rather straightforward as it presents a series of good action clips as its center piece but also some nice character pieces as well. All of it is framed as if within a cockpit view where you have the menu navigation along the bottom, which also doubles as the pop-up menu during playback. Sony has good clean menus, though sometimes moving up and down in submenus can be awkward, but they’re all nicely functional and easy to navigate. They also routinely include the mute button for the navigation sound effects which is a bonus in my book for some releases (but not this one as it’s unobtrusive).

Extras:
Sky Crawlers has some good extras to it that will please the fan who wants to know more about the production. The first is a thirty minute piece about the research that went into the feature that shows the crew heading out to take in various locations, get up close to the aircraft and the uniforms of actual servicemen. There was also the amusing bowling sequence and how that got so closely storyboarded to reality. The next extra is the thirty two minute piece about the sound design of the film which is really fascinating to watch as it takes the main production crew down to San Francisco to talk and work with the folks from Skywalker Sound. It then shifts things back to Japan where you see how it’s all tying together and the factors that went into the various decisions of how to approach the soundtrack for the film. The last extra is a fifteen minute video interview with Oshii himself as he talks about the film, its meaning and how he approached it. It does have a fair bit of animation mixed into it as well which pads the time out a bit. It’s interesting to go and watch interviews of Oshii from years ago to these much more recent ones. He’s always been laid back in his own way, but here he seems even more… I’d almost say melancholy perhaps. It’s easy to see his mood and demeanor being a part of how the film feels.

Content:
(please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
There was a time long ago when the name Mamoru Oshii would have me giddy with anticipation to see what I would be watching. His work in the early eighties on Urusei Yatsura made me a fan, particularly when he really went and did something different with the Beautiful Dreamer movie. Over the years he warmed me up to Patlabor and wrote the screenplay for Jin-Roh which continues to be a favorite film of mine, so much so that I even have a great signed theatrical poster of it from him. But his works and style since the Ghost in the Shell features have left me feeling like he’s trying to be too much in a particular direction, one that I don’t care for all that much. Neither of those films, hugely popular and controversial that they are, really appealed to me. Sky Crawlers is a film that in the end I think fits in the middle of how I feel about Oshii’s works in the past decade.

Sky Crawlers is an interesting property just from its background in that the novel it’s based on is the first one that was published but also the last one meant to be read in a way because it’s the end of things. It’s also one that was considered to be the hardest to adapt into another medium because of the kind of story it is, particularly where it’s very introspective and subtle. With its very laid back nature, it does seem a perfect fit for Oshii to delve into because it waxes philosophic often, but not in that ever so grand nature that we saw in his Ghost in the Shell: Innocence feature. Here, the characters express a lot through little and some of it comes from their expressions and mannerisms more than anything else.

The central idea around Sky Crawlers is the arrival of young Yuichi to the airbase where he’s the latest pilot to come on board. As is tradition with new pilots, they meet the ones they’re replacing but his isn’t there, which only highlights that his predecessor has passed on. There’s an awkwardness to the people on the base in how they interact with him that he can’t quite place, but he does get along well enough with some that he’s able to get a feel for the area and settle in fairly well. When he’s starting to taking planes up in the air, the bonds form a bit better as he does well and is certainly a capable fighter pilot in this strange seemingly endless war that gets kicked about through some of the background commentary throughout.

It’s through his interactions with others that Yuichi starts to realize that there’s something more serious going on here as he learns about the Kildren. Fighter pilots who are ageless and can only be killed in combat, something that was designed in the past and still haunting and fighting today. The fighter pilots don’t know who may be a Kildren and that causes some anxiety among them as they wonder if they’re never going to age, whether they’ve been fighting this fight before without realizing it, and what their real purpose in life is if they are one. If you’re never going to die except in combat, should you stay in combat or move on to live an eternal life and do good, or do you fulfill what your life mission may have been by staying in these kinds of situations? In classic Oshii style, it’s a very slow paced series of revelations that work towards these goals with the philosophical side mixed in appropriately throughout.

While the story is slow and intentionally paced, the animation is really something that I’m torn on. There’s so many things that I like about it that I’m surprised that the one thing I didn’t like really made it difficult to get into overall. The character designs are done by Tetsuya Nishio and something about them simply didn’t click with me. There’s a certain flatness to them, combined with the color palette for them, that made them feel like they weren’t really connected with what was going on. Some of this comes from the overly lush and detailed photorealistic backgrounds that we have at times. The “on top of the scene” look becomes far more prominent in features like this. But it wasn’t just that part that bothered me but the look of the characters themselves, especially the dull and deadened look in their eyes. It fits within the story admittedly, but it kept me from really feeling like I could get connected with these characters as they were almost somewhat otherworldly.

In Summary:
At the end of the feature, I admit that I liked the way that everything came together. Unfortunately, it’s a movie where I enjoyed the destination more than I enjoyed the journey. With the awkwardness of the character designs, the very slow but intentional pacing and the way it ever so slowly teased out information, Sky Crawlers is a film that was just too long. Of course, the length plays into the way it’s trying to build its atmosphere which in turn builds the suspense of what the reality is, but after the first hour of the film I found myself not really caring either way. I can appreciate the film in its structure and what it wanted to do, but I never connected with it and the layered look kept me at a distance. There’s a lot to admire with the technical side and the presentation, but the story itself was weak and uninteresting.

Features
Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, Portuguese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 English Subtitles, Featurettes, Interview with Mamoru Oshii

Review Equipment

Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.



Mania Grade: C
Audio Rating: A-
Video Rating: A
Packaging Rating: B
Menus Rating: B
Extras Rating: A-
Age Rating: 13 and Up
Region: A - N. America, S. America, East Asia
Released By: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
MSRP: 39.95
Running time: 121
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 1080p
Disc Encoding: H.264/AVC
Series: Sky Crawlers