Here’s the important thing about The Sky Crawlers: among Mamoru Oshii’s movies, it sets a new record for going from zero to basset hound. Oshii puts his favorite dog in just about every film for which he holds the reins, and he makes sure that a basset hound shows up around the five-minute mark in The Sky Crawlers.
As for the rest of the movie, it’s Oshii being Oshii. There are many, many staring contests and lengthy silences endured by the cast of glum, perpetually teenage pilots in some vague alternate version of World War II’s European air war, with enough coffee and cigarette references to invite comparisons to Coleman Francis' classic The Skydivers. The pace eventually quickens and leads to some impressive CG dogfights, but it’s still an Oshii movie through and through, and anyone who wants their alterna-WWII story without frequent pauses (and sub-pauses) can safely head for the door.
But I'll stay. I like Oshii’s style, and I liked The Sky Crawlers. In fact, I like it more each time I think about it. There’s a refreshingly emotional edge to Oshii’s usual stilted tone this time around, and it ties in well to every broader theme in the story. Oshii doesn’t wimp out when it comes to the finale, either, and that’s always a plus for me. I’ll give it a proper review, with stolen screenshots and a pointless rating and everything, once I sort out my opinion.
However, I was surprised to learn that Oshii intended it as a crowd-pleaser. He reportedly vowed to quit directing if The Sky Crawlers wasn’t a success, and yet I can’t imagine anyone making a movie like this with the intent of winning over the typical movie-goer. It may lack Ghost in the Shell 2’s ridiculous quote competitions, yet it’s still slow, depressing, and a lot of other things that a lot of people won’t like. While I hope I’m wrong about that, the audience around me seemed less than enthused. Someone in the theater was snoring twenty minutes into The Sky Crawlers, and as I walked out after the ending (stay through the credits), a knot of kids in front of me spoke loudly of how the film was heavy-handed, how it had no point, and how Oshii “used to be good.” All this at the movie’s New York premiere.
I’d like to see The Sky Crawlers do well, not least of all because Oshii always looks like the unhappiest man on Earth whenever he’s on camera. I doubt he’ll really quit, and he should know better by now. Countless live-action directors learn to accept that their most honest creations will never be mainstream hits, as they have the luxury of a market that makes off-the-radar movies profitable and rewarding. Yes, non-biographical animated films have it tough in the indie sector, but it’s where Oshii’s future most likely rests, basset hounds and all.