The animator of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ looks to the skies. By CALEB STARRENBURG.

The Sky Crawlers, the latest feature from master Japanese animator Oshi Mamoru, is based on Mori Hiroshi’s sci-fi novel of the same name. This is an important point, as the film seems to assume you’ve already read the book. At least, I had no idea what was going on for about two-thirds of the film. And by the time the pieces started falling into place, I struggled to engage.

Mamoru’s new work is the antithesis of Top Gun’s heroism antics. And despite what many of you may be thinking, this isn’t a necessarily a good thing. The Sky Crawlers is set in an imaginatively crafted World War 2-era future-noir Europe, in which large corporations wage war on each other to remind the general populace how meaningful their lives are. To limit collateral damage the battles are fought by genetically engineered teenage pilots. The Kildren, as these eternal teenagers are called, are all rather androgynous and emotionless, which doesn’t make them particularly interesting characters. They also don’t seem to enjoy the endless aerial skirmishes, which makes you wonder why they don’t just stop?

There’s a narrative in there somewhere about a pilot called Jinroh who died under mysterious circumstances and a fighter ace called ‘The Teacher’ who might not be a Kildren. This is all eked out at a laborious pace, making it difficult to connect with the plot at the best of times.

The film’s musings about contemporary youth, identity and the corporatisation of war have been done better elsewhere (including Mamoru’s previous work) and don’t always justify the moody existentialism. That’s not to say that The Sky Crawlers isn’t without its merits. The film looks and sounds technically brilliant. In particular, the dogfight sequences (which are few and far between) blend hand animation and CGI to spectacular effect. I’d go so far as to say the aerial skirmishes are some of the most exhilarating animated sequences to come out of Japan (or anywhere for that matter). Ultimately, they only serve to remind you how detached the rest of the feature is.

While The Sky Crawlers is a film that too often confuses stillness with coldness, if you’ve got the patience for it then the aerial set pieces are an awe-inspiring reward.