The creeping lassitude evident in cult toonster Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence” reaches its apex in “The Sky Crawlers,” which lands on the screen with a soft thud and stays there for two hours. Retro-futuristic tale, about a bunch of teen pilots whose sole reason to exist is to engage in endless aerial dogfights against a perpetual enemy, is a labored parable about war as entertainment that takes 90 minutes to get to the point. With no poetic or mystical content to make up for its lack of action and drama, this is one for Oshii completists only.
Pic quickly sank at the Japanese B.O. in August, clobbered by the latest “Pokemon” outing and Hayao Miyazaki’s bracingly inventive “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” (also in competition at Venice). Where Miyazaki manages to sustain his originality even when making a kiddie toon like “Ponyo,” Oshii is increasingly looking like a maverick whose best days were a decade or more ago.
Story, adapted by Chihiro Ito from a multipart novel by Hiroshi Mori, seems almost perversely anti-dramatic. Apart from the several dogfights, swoopingly rendered in cinematic style, the film has more pregnant pauses (generally to light a cigarette) than a Pinter play. Combined with a washed-out color palette and shortage of character conflict, “Sky Crawlers” indeed crawls.
Deliberately vague setting is somewhere in Europe, sometime in the future, though the peaceful airfield at which replacement pilot Yuichi Kannami (voiced by Ryo Kase) initially lands looks more like one in rural England during WWII. Yuichi and the three other pilots at the base are “kildren,” young people who never seem to age and live only for the next mission.
The kildren are employed by super-corporation Rostock, which appears to own half the world and keeps the population entertained with aerial battles vs. enemy corporation Lautern. Yuichi tries to find out from base commander Kusanagi (Rinko Kikuchi) what happened to his predecessor, but she won’t talk and has secrets of her own to hide.
All this generates very low dramatic heat, and the number of scenes in which characters just stand around in desultory conversation is jaw-droppingly high. Script finally spits out its message — that the public needs to be shown war and death onscreen to appreciate the sense of peace — half an hour before the end.
Animation seems deliberately retro, with simple cel-drawn figures sharply imaged against soft, painterly backgrounds. Kenji Kawai’s music is uninspired in both the land scenes and the dogfights.