Mamoru Oshii’s latest animated feature opens with a self-consciously cool dogfighting sequence. This aggressive series of gory explosions and ostentatious slow-motion belies the contemplative, even soporific, film that is to follow, however. Set in a hazy alternate universe where genetically modified mercenaries fight battles on the behalf of competing corporations, The Sky Crawlers brings enough mind-numbing baggage to the table to challenge even the most ardent of anime fans.
As soon as Oshii cuts from the planes to the pilots that fly them, the marked contrast between his animation style for his characters and their machines is made clear. The action sequences strive for realism, in their level of detail and camerawork. The scenes featuring the dramatic contortions of his animated cast, however, are stylized and simplified. They lack much definition, both graphically and emotionally, and quickly turn the movie into a slog to sit through.
The majority of The Sky Crawlers is a drawn-out nosedive into pretension. In the script’s last quarter, however, it unleashes a few revelatory (if clumsy) dialogue sequences that almost pull it out of that sharp decline. The characters’ emotional worldview becomes clear, and suddenly many of Oshii’s stylistic choices (such as the affectless character designs, the glacial pacing, and the dominant feelings of angst and detachment) make perfect intellectual sense. These last-minute existential musings may not make The Sky Crawlers a film that ultimately felt worthwhile, but they do at least transform it into something comprehensible. It may be boring, but it’s boring for a reason.