Science fiction, fantasy, and horror titles run hot and cold when it comes to home video releases each Tuesday, and this week is definitely cold – at least in terms of numbers. However, as the old cliche goes, if Donald Trump walks into a bar the average net work of everyone in the bar goes up several million dollars. The Donald Trump of DVD and Blu-ray releases this week is THE SKY CRAWLERS, the latest anime extravaganza from Mamoru Oshii (GHOST IN THE SHELL). That title alone is enough to make us breathless with anticipation for a trip to the video story: After a frestival screening of the film late last year, our own Dan Person wrote that SKY CRAWLERS is Oshii’s “best work since the original GHOST IN THE SHELL, and proof positive of anime’s unique ability to excite and enlighten.” THE SKY CRAWLERS flies into stores on DVD and Blu-ray, both of which feature the original Japanese dialogue with optional subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. The widescreen aspect ratio is 1.77. Extras consist of three documentaries, presented in high-def: one about location scouting used to help manufacture the physical environment ultimately achieved in animation; one about the sound design; and one featuring an interview with Mamoru Oshii. Additionally, the Blu-ray disc includes a BD Live feature.
The rest of the week’s sci-fi, fantasy, and horror home video releases consist of a handful of oldies and a few direct-to-video titles…
Cashing in on next week’s release of the big-budget theatrical version of LAND OF THE LOST, starring Will Ferrell, Hollywood pumps out the original TV show on DVD in LANDOF THE LOST: THE COMPLETE SERIES and LAND OF THE LOST: COMPLETE SERIES (LIMITED EDITION GIFT SET). The later packs the discs inside a recreation of the old “Land of the Lost” lunch box that no friend of mine was ever un-cool enough to own.
Other oldies are back on the shelves thanks to Blu-ray upgrades: CHILDREN OF MEN and FIELD OF DREAMS.
If you’re desperate to see something new, there are some DTV flicks out there, but only the documentary HARLANELLISON: DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH– a look at the iconoclastic speculative fiction author – promises much intellectual heft. THE DEVIL’S TOMB – an action-adventure horror film starring Cuba Gooding Jr. – makes us wonder why Hollywood can’t find a decent role for the Oscar-winning actor to play in a big-budget theatrical film. THE LOST TREASURE OF THE GRAND CANYON answers the question “Whatver happened to Shannen Doherty?” And MEGASHARK VERSUS GIANT OCTOPUS sounds just ridiculous enough to entice our interest. (We just pray to God that the eventual face off was achieved with bad CGI rather than by putting two real animals together in a tank.)
Y’know, it’s not like I get blurbed every day.
Check out my original review of the film.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve loaded a bigger version of the video below, so you can get a better sense of the widescreen image.
Did Terrence Malick suddenly acquire a taste for animation? You’d think so from the lush, elegiac feel of THE SKY CRAWLERS. Set in an indeterminate future-past (HD TV and flatscreen computers? Yup. Prop planes and classic cars as well? You betcha), the film tells the story of Yuichi (voiced by Ryo Kase), a young fighter pilot who contends with the perils of aerial combat (including one formidable enemy called “The Teacher”) while trying to sort out the meaning of life on the ground. That the air-bound battles are portrayed in stunning, near-palpable CG and then contrasted with quiet, delicate scenes in which the pilot ponders his existence and tentatively courts Suito (Rinko Kikuchi), the air base’s female commander, suggests the fine hand of a director who can distill beauty from strikingly disparate situations.
It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this is clearly the work of Mamoru Oshii, anime’s master of sublime mystery. Yuichi isn’t just young, he’s ageless, one of a group of immortal “kildren” locked in a permanent childhood that can only be escaped through violent death. In fact, the bulk of the air corps, including Suito, shares Yuichi’s condition, and thereby hangs the film’s central conundrum. The war — a battle whose goals are not readily apparent — is corporate-sponsored, and treated almost as a sporting event by the general public (in one astringent sequence, Yuichi gives a group of effusive tourists a tour of the air base, posing for photos as if he was the hometown champion). The base itself seems oddly isolated — as the battles continue and the character interactions take on a strangely recursive nature (SKY CRAWLERS’ narrative approach turns out not to be as distant from GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE as one might first suppose), questions begin to arise about whether the combatants exist to justify the war, or vice versa.
In an introduction recorded specifically for the film’s Lincoln Center debut, Oshii emphasized that his vision of unending childhood extended far beyond the film’s war-bound setting. I presume he’s leaving us to suss out whether the film’s ultimate goal is to address the conversation that’s currently going on in Japan about a pop culture that seems willfully determined to invoke emotional regression (helloooooo, Takashi Murakami!), or if the aim is towards something larger. (That the pilots speak English in combat, as do most civilians, seems to suggest associations with Japan immediately post WWII — a topic Oshii has addressed before.)
While I know there are people out there who will be disinclined to indulge the director his customary, read-between-the-lines approach to delivering subtext (one critic previously called INNOCENCE “motionless,” an accusation that, to the best of my memory, hasn’t been leveled at a film since the first STAR TREK feature), others who are willing to engage Oshii on his own terms — which of course includes the contention that Basset hounds are the Greatest Things on Earth — will be in for an experience both dynamic and startlingly intimate. The aerial sequences demonstrate how the director’s long-time animation team, Production I.G, continues to push its dominance in digital animation: Despite the fantastical nature of the aircraft — ranging from football-field-sized flying wing bombers all the way down to one-pilot attack planes with rear-mounted, nested propellers (I imagine Oshii calling Hayao Miyazaki at two in the morning to cackle wickedly into the receiver before hanging up) — the dogfights have an immediacy and believability that the producers of FLYBOYS could only dream of. That action is neatly contrasted by drama that grows in intensity as the characters begin to fully comprehend their situation: Towards the end of the film, Oshii stages more and more confrontations so that the participants address the camera directly, allowing us to glimpse past the warrior’s stoicism into fears and vulnerabilities that are almost painful to behold.
The effect is closer to Kurosawa than GUNDAM — pop adventure, yes, but smart, and unafraid of inviting the audience’s active engagement. THE SKY CRAWLERS finds Oshii bringing all his strengths as humanistic storyteller and anime visionary to the fore. It’s his best work since the original GHOST IN THE SHELL, and proof positive of anime’s unique ability to excite and enlighten. The Sky Crawlers (Sony Pictures Classics, 2008; 121 mins.) Directed by Mamoru Oshii. Voice Cast: Ryo Kase, Rinko Kikuchi, Shosuke Tanihara.
You know Mamoru Oshii loves to go where other anime directors fear to tread (ahem… GHOST IN THE SHELL; BEAUTIFUL DREAMER). His latest, THE SKY CRAWLERS, debuts at Lincoln Center tonight, complete with a video intro by The Man himself.
Review will follow here, but if you’re in the city, it should be worth braving the cold & wet.