This is a strangely cold movie with barely any empathetic or relatable characters shuffling around gorgeously rendered backdrops with an unusually lacklustre Kenji Kawai soundtrack effort.
It’s from Mamoru Oshii so it’s automatically thoughtful and has something to say, yet as a movie it fails because Oshii’s auteur sensibilities don’t fit with the backdrop of this particular tale.
The surface story borders on the mediocre, though the backdrop premise is intriguing with the message of warfare that’s been relegated to sport-like competition between warring corporations. It’s a topical and timely subtext, especially during one scene where a conflict is taking place on a screen in a local pub in replacement of the more traditional game of football.
There is so much attention to detail, as expected of Production I.G., but juxtaposed against the bland character designs it’s distracting how good it is. The characters themselves are so lifeless, their dialogue so perfunctory, the voice acting so bored, it really is a struggle to watch them lounge around an airfield chugging away at cigarettes.
Almost an hour and a half into the movie it’s revealed that director Mamoru Oshii was directing a romantic drama on the boil, though unfortunately for the viewer the heat was on low the entire time, thus making us endure the pointlessly glacial pace filled with ineffective scenes that don’t survive repeat watches.
A slow pace in of itself is not a bad thing, but something worthwhile being conveyed in every second and frame is essential, vivid characters are essential, and Sky Crawlers lacks them for most of the running time making the pace a chore to get through rather than an immersive experience that other directors, like famed live-action director Takeshi Kitano, excel at.
Back to anime though, Oshii himself has handled this difficult balance of pace and content well with his two previous major anime films, but this time it doesn’t work. With his Ghost in the Shell films, the pace served as a montage to show the unique environment to the viewer, and to also allow the viewer time to breathe and pause, time to contemplate the heavy philosophy conveyed in the film, but with Sky Crawlers there's nothing to contemplate except for superficial thoughts like 'what happened to the previous pilot?', ‘what are kildrens?’, etc. Hardly so important as to slow the brakes of the film to allow us time to chew it over.
Oshii manages to direct the story well without resorting to heavy exposition, the narrative proceeds with characters moving the story forward, but then when that point comes where the story comes to the boil, he resorts to having a character basically waffle revelations and exposition to the viewer.
It’s a shame and again relegates anime behind live action movies, most of which would choose to simply continue to let the characters drive the story forward and let the mysteries of the film become apparent more fluidly rather than in the forced anime nature of having a character basically stare at the camera and just give an unnatural speech.
It’s a competently made film with a decent story, and although Oshii’s directing method is always a divider of viewers, it’s not the issue this time round. The biggest problem is that the screenplay needed a few more redrafts before being green-lit for production, because there is no good reason for the way it’s been paced for the first hour and a half, especially considering the lack of unique and bold world design on show.
Good films should make efficient use of their running time. Great films should have something worthwhile to convey in every single frame. Sky Crawlers has many wasted frames that could have been used in other ways.
Crawling around a futurescape ala Ghost in the Shell is impressive, but crawling around the sky and a depressing airfield populated by animated mannequins for two hours is not, no matter how visceral the aerial dogfights are, how superb the sound production by Skywalker studios is, or how romantic you consider the ultimate story in the end.