Today’s extra-credit essay question: describe a movie to someone who’s never seen it in such a way that you do not undermine the experience of watching it, an experience which is designed to make the viewer discover what the movie is really about. This is tough. We’re not talking about revealing the kicker at the end, like the Zardoz Reveal or the Soylent Green Solution; we’re talking about the steps in the middle, where you follow a story from a perfectly reasonable opening and slowly realize that what you have just been told is completely different from what is really going on. The only equivalent I can think of is the novel The Remains Of The Day, and the reason the novel works (and the film doesn't) is because the eminently reliable narrator is totally blind to one specific thing which, when it gets revealed, hits the reader with just as much force as it does the character. Revealing that moment to anyone who has not read the book is like saying “They all did it” before handing someone a copy of Murder On The Orient Express. But like I say, it’s not about revealing the solution –- it’s about depriving the passenger in the car from realizing that he’s not in a Jaguar in the Back Bay during morning rush hour, he’s in a Jeep in Baghdad during a mortar attack. And yes, I’m talking around the point because (a) the more I describe The Sky Crawlers, the less you’ll experience what I did when watching it cold; and (b) you always use as many words as possible in an extra-credit essay answer, it’s the law.
Basics first. Sky Crawlers is a sometimes jarring mix of computer-generated animation and traditional line drawing, which appears to be about a bunch of children who fly modified propeller-driven fighters in battle for a corporation called Rostock, which is (perpetually?) at war with another corporation called Lautern. There are mysteries right from the beginning: why are they speaking English when they fight? Why do their helmets have English call names? Why are they all like 12? The first two you have to figure out for yourself, but the third question actually has an answer: they’re 12 because they’re Kildren. And what are Kildren? The first time you hear the word it’s 20 minutes into the movie, and you don’t find out what it means till 90 minutes in, but since it doesn’t spoil what’s really going on, it doesn’t hurt to know that Kildren are an artificially bred race of children who will do two things: never grow old, and fight in the Rostock/Lautern War till they’re shot down.
So on one level it’s a gorgeously animated sci-fi version of Dawn Patrol, with its own Red Baron in the form of The Teacher, Lautern’s deadly ace flyer who also happens to be the only adult in the air. But don’t expect dogfights and bombing sorties every five minutes; this is one war movie that is more Antonioni than it is Aldrich, with a lot of close-ups and silences, and a deliberate focus on down time rather than flying time. And yes, there were three times as many scenes on the ground as there were in the air in Dawn Patrol, but in Sky Crawlers there’s a detachment and an unhurried pacing that reminded me stylistically of L’Avventura and L’Eclisse.
There’s also a mystery, a mystery which is the central plot, the thing around which the propellers of incident and action spin. It's a simple question, really. The main character, Yuichi Konnami, asks it almost immediately: what happened to the kid I’m replacing? I’m flying his plane, so he couldn’t have been shot down. So what happened to him? His questions are either evaded or ignored, but he keeps at it, and one of the great things about the film is that, just about the same time Konnami figures out what's going on, you do as well.
Not to give anything away, but because of its focus on the past, there's a point where the film turns into a Pinter play, where it’s not about what’s happening now because what's happening now is incomprehensible unless you know what happened before, or what’s going on underneath the surface. In Pinter, the present is a moment in time stretched out between a dark past and a futile future. Same thing in Sky Crawlers. As one of the characters says, “Why bother growing old when you know you’re going to die?” Which means one thing when you see this movie the first time, and something totally different when you watch it again.
"I'll hold you to it."
And I do recommend watching it again, because it wasn’t until I saw The Sky Crawlers for the second time that I realized how subtle it is. Greetings that were straightforward were revealed to be ambiguous. Close-ups and reaction shots that were confusing became totally motivated. Remarks and turns of phrase that were random or casual open up like trap doors: “Oh – THAT’S why they said it that way.” And the concept itself – ageless kids fighting against each other as corporate employees – became a comment on the whole computer game experience. Because who else plays a first-person shooter fighter-pilot game but kids who can’t grow up?
It's one of the most haunting movies I've seen in a long time, something that's stayed with me a long time after I've watched and re-watched it. It's beautiful to look at. (Did I mention the gorgeous animation?) And if you do check it out, don't forget to watch through the credits for a bump at the end that will have you telling yourself "How cynical" and "How wonderful" at the same time.