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Movie Review: Sky Blue

December 30th, 2004

When I was a kid growing up in England, the highlight of my week was watching Doctor Who at teatime on Saturdays. (For the uninitiated, Doctor Who was a eccentric humanoid alien who traveled through time and space, battling evil in its many forms.) Many Doctor Who stories involved the impending invasion of Earth by some group of aliens or other, and frankly the alien invasion force invariably scared the bejesus out of me - even though when it finally appeared, it most likely consisted of a couple of blokes in rubber masks.

Recently I caught some old episodes of Doctor Who on PBS and solved the mystery of why rubber mask-wearing extras caused me to jump behind the sofa so reliably. Obviously being seven years old was one reason, but a deeper cause was the brilliance of the writing on the show. Doctor Who writers used every trick in the book to build suspense and a good story within the crippling BBC budgets of the time. The fact that the aliens were comically unthreatening in person didn't matter if you already cared about the characters under threat, and if the invasion had a certain plausibility to it, the tension only increased.

This is the challenge, really, for any fantastical science fiction or fantasy creation: to be lifted above the level of a Saturday morning cartoon, the story needs to grab you by the throat and not let you go until the final reel. If the story works, having beautiful visuals or spectacular special effects enhances the drama. Without the story, the visuals are merely a diversion.

This, in a nutshell, is the challenge facing Sky Blue, which is released in the US on Friday, December 31, at the Nu Art movie theater in Los Angeles, and expands nationally in January.

A Korean production, seven years in the making, Sky Blue is set in a post-apocalyptic distopia: a planetwide catastrophe caused by environmental mis-management has left the world devastated and the sun shielded from view. In this harsh climate, a small group of "Elites" have managed to build a magnificent, organic city called Ecoban. Ecoban survives and grows thanks to the work of "Diggers", who are forced to mine the surrounding wasteland for carbonite.

Trouble is brewing. A group of rebel Diggers, led by Shua (voiced by Marc Worden) is attacking Ecoban, and plotting to destroy it. Jay (Catherine Cavadini), Shua's childhood sweetheart, is a female trooper from Ecoban who has given up Shua for dead after he was banished from the city several years earlier. When Jay and Shua are reunited, Jay must choose between loyalty to the city, and her love for Shua.

This plot line provides plenty of opportunities for impressive-sound buzz-words, if you're in to that sort of thing. Neural Cores must be infiltrated, escapes made through a large whirling thing called a Respiron, and eventually a "final energy release" is required before order can be returned to the world.

The hokey dialogue is forgiven, however, because the movie is a visually sumptuous work of science fiction animation, and technically very impressive. It combines 3D CGI backgrounds with 2D character animations and live action miniatures to create a world that is often interesting, and sometimes breathtaking. Ecoban is an amazing industrial/organic construction that is at the heart of the movie. A rusted and disused wind farm in the Wasteland provides another impressive backdrop. The aforementioned Neural Core looks like something Hayao Miyazaki would be proud of. And the motorbikes that get the characters from A to B are magnificent.

The film-makers - a huge team directed by Moon Sang Kim - clearly went to incredible lengths to seamlessly integrate the regular animation and miniatures into the CGI effects, and mostly the combination works well. Occasionally, however, the movie suffers from the same problems confronted by films that place real actors in CGI environments - no matter how beautifully each part is done, the pieces sometimes just don't seem right together. A hand-drawn character swooping around in a CGI motorbike looks jarringly two-dimensional.

This actually turns out to be a metaphor for the biggest problem with the movie: somehow the pieces of the story don't quite add up to a coherent whole - often for no discernable reason. The Diggers, for example, are never shown digging carbonite, and no attempt is made to explain the workings of Ecoban itself. It looks great, no doubt, but without a real idea how the whole thing is meant to work, the plot often seems to drift, rather than be driven. I suspect this will be an even bigger problem for audiences than for reviewers armed with a plot summary as they walk in.

The weakness of the exposition is highlighted by the climactic scene, which looks terrific, has some apparently very interesting stuff going on, resolves one of the major sub-plots, but left me wondering what the heck was happening. Are those blocks of carbonite flying about? Is gravity turned off somehow, or are they in free-fall? Excuse me asking, but what exactly is Shua meant to be doing?

Now, I'm willing to buy an argument that American audiences are spoon-fed this stuff too much. Pictures of Death Stars with arrows pointing to the hole where the bomb needs to go can be, let's face it, a little patronizing. But the problem with Sky Blue is that since I hadn't bought into the idea of Ecoban as a living, breathing city, I wasn't really invested in the climax of the movie. Just a little more depth would have gone a long way.

So, ultimately, Sky Blue fails the jumping-behind-the-sofa test. It's a visual treat, to be sure. But it never quite managed to draw me in enough to make me care about the characters, root for the good guys, and I think even the seven-year-old me would still be sitting on the couch wondering what they were doing with all the carbonite.


Sky Blue is not rated, but contains some graphic violence not suitable for children. Especially children inclined to jump behind the sofa.

Sky Blue opens on December 31 at the Nu Art Theater in Los Angeles. Before general release on February 18, it is playing the following one-week engagements:

VenueCityPlaydate
Nu Art Theater Los Angeles, CA December 31, 2004
Kendall Square Boston, MA January 14, 2005
Shattuck Berkeley, CA January 21, 2005
Lumiere San Francisco, CA January 21, 2005
Camera Theater San Jose, CA January 21, 2005

The first 8 minutes of the movie can be seen at iFilm.

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