Color Bland

South Korea's first anime feature is beautiful, but not much more

Sky Blue


There is nothing about Sky Blue that hasn't been done before, yet it all looks like nothing you've ever seen. It's a wondrous sight, this hybrid of computer-generated animation, conventional two-dimensional cell animation and filmed sequences. But it's ponderous to contemplate once you get over the thrill of witnessing its spectacle. The movie exists almost as if to prove you can admire something while finding it utterly dispiriting; the thing will knock your socks off, just in time for you to climb into bed. The drawing card of this particular production is that it was made with South Korean cash, some $10 million of it, and co-directed by Park Sunmin, who produced The Others with, among others, Tom Cruise and Harvey Weinstein. If this were a Japanese import, the reaction would be ho-hum-been-there-done-that; the Korean angle keeps it fresh, since this is that nation's first real entry into the anime market. All of this information, incidentally, will thrill people who attend science-fiction conventions, usually in some kind of costume; everyone else has already turned the page anyway.

The film, also known as Wonderful Days, features a plot that's pure sci-fi boilerplate -- part Star Trek (especially the episode "The Cloud Minders" -- you know it, right?), part Star Wars, part Metropolis (both Fritz Lang's 1927 classic and Rintaro's 2001 Japanime version of Osamu Tezuka's Japanese comic book), with everything from The Matrix to Ghost in the Shell thrown in for good measure. In the year 2142 -- one of those random numbers picked out of thin air by screenwriters who set their movies in a post-apocalyptic future -- a generic "catastrophe" has apparently wiped out all of the earth's cities save for one, Ecoban, which runs on pollution and is populated by glamorously attired tyrants. Ecoban belches into the atmosphere a gray blanket of muck that keeps the sky a perpetual shade of yech. The narrator, a female cop with close-cropped red hair named Jay (voiced in the U.S. theatrical release by Catherine Cavadini), says toward the beginning that she can't remember a time when it wasn't raining, suggesting the distant future will resemble Seattle.

Ecoban's denizens, who look like Speed Racer extras, are panicked because their town's running low on fuel, which is stored in a giant room full of glowing cubes that's apparently easy to breach, as evidenced by saboteurs' break-ins during the movie's beginning and end. Seems the Marrians, slum-dwelling workers who do all the dirty work in Ecoban, are tired of being treated like disposable fodder who "aren't worth the food they eat" and are planning a revolt, which, if successful, will destroy Ecoban and turn the sky blue. The Ecobanians (or whatever they're called; the movie's not clear on that) plan on crushing the plebeians' insurgency by burning the oil fields. If this were an American movie, you might expect a whole series of reviews insisting the film is actually an allegorical critique of the Bush administration's environmental policies or even the war in Iraq. But since it's not, you're better off thinking about the end of Total Recall, when the Martian red sky gives way to a Los Angeles sunset.

There is, of course, the requisite romantic subplot -- a triangle, actually, that culminates in a scene familiar to anyone who's seen House of Flying Daggers. Jay, you see, is a good cop sustaining a corrupt system who gets a morality wake-up call when she catches Shua (Marc Worden) breaking into Ecoban's energy source. Turns out Shua is Jay's long-ago love who, when they were kids, took Jay outside Ecoban and showed her a brief glimpse of sunlight before the clouds devoured the sky. Jay thought Shua died long ago, after a tussle with another kid named Cade, who's all grown up and now the head cop (and Jay's would-be lover).

If this whole thing sounds numbingly familiar, it is and then some; you'll see four movies with the same plot on any given night surfing DirecTV's so-called "premium channels." But it's difficult to dismiss Sky Blue outright because of its visuals, which wow and dazzle so long as there's nobody onscreen to ruin the moment by uttering a line of stilted, banal dialogue. Consider it the cinematic equivalent of a Pink Floyd laser-light show, something you experience rather than actually think about -- and if you can sneak a little sumpin-sumpin in the theater to increase your enjoyment, so much the better. Particularly nifty is the sequence toward the end in which Shua flies his Red Baron-like glider into Ecoban, chased by cops in their TIE Fighters...pardon, wrong movie. The entire sequence is lifted from the ends of both Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, but for all its derivativeness, it's still kind of thrilling -- not so much because of what's happening onscreen, but because of how it was made off screen. If this technology were used for good rather than insipid, the results might be impressive indeed. As it is, it just is, which isn't good enough.

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