Sky Fighters (2011)
Hi peeps, Nate here. Remember Top Gun? Of course you do because you're a Red-blooded American Patriot who loves him some Tom Cruise and roaring turbofan engines. That movie, like Jaws and Alien and The Road Warrior, has spawned a zillion knockoffs and pasty pale imitations from all over the world. Sky Fighters is China's version, following Top Gun's wikipedia plot outline almost to the letter but infusing it with infinitely terrible special effects, wooden acting, blatant domestic propaganda, and a complete lack of the style and cultural energy that made Top Gun so amazing. And there is no Kenny Loggins present here, Sterling Archer would not approve.
The plot of Sky Fighters is all over the place but the basic storyline is about the relationship between two men, both fighter pilots in China's elite Air Force unit and rivals in every way. The Commander is a bit older, a bit grayer, and a lot more experienced, and he adheres to the strict, rigid, Government approved training syllabus for his unit. He's boring, he's fairly unattractive, a bit pudgy, and since he's happily married he doesn't even chase the girls. There's really nothing distinctive or unique about this old guy, he's just a shill for the Party System and a throwback to the days of Mao.
He loves his PowerPoint presentations, too.
His rival is the Deputy Commander, who is much younger and handsomer, a brash and arrogant rebel with mirrored shades and a disregard for authority who is all about flashy, risky aerobatics and showing off in the air. Yes, he's Tom Cruise's Maverick, right down to his love of unzipped flightsuits and faded buzzcuts. He's also the stereotypical loose cannon who is going to get someone killed eventually. Over the entire movie these two men butt heads over and over, with Maverick constantly pushing back against the old guy's inflexible policies and tight controls on flying routines and “acceptable maneuvers”. The old guy stands firm, even though he's aware that Maverick is the unstoppable future, personifying the restless youth of China that's a constant source of irritation to the Ruling Party. They squabble on the ground, in the office, on the tarmac, and they bicker and challenge each other in the air on several occasions. Simple training flights become pissing contests with both men doing dangerous stunts to keep their macho up, Maverick most of all.
Now, if this were an American/Western movie, like Top Gun, the film's hero would be Maverick with his motorcycles and his rock and roll music and his disrespectful attitude. But it's actually the old guy who is this film's hero, because he steadfastly holds to the Communist Party doctrines and teachings, refusing to bend the rules and his personal beliefs to appease the cocky Maverick. This film was made with the financial backing of the Government (it's China, duh) so you can forgive them for hammering in the message that independent thinking and questioning authority will lead to bad things for everyone involved. Even so, the domestic market for such a rahrah Go Communism movie in 2011 must have seen some dwindling returns, Chinese society has changed so much in the last 20 years that you have to wonder if anyone under 35 would even pay to see such a movie.
Staring each other down.
Anyway, a few notes on the production. First off there's absolutely nothing in the way of character background material for our two main guys (or for anyone actually). We only see them in uniform, on the base, or in their jets. They're never off-duty, never at home, never wearing t-shirts and jeans, they're just always the exact same cardboard cutouts in imitation sunglasses. Tom Cruise's Maverick hit the bars and played beach volleyball, he had an actual bed to sleep in and a closet for his clothes, you felt that he was a real live person with a life outside the operations shack or the cockpit. That sort of humanizing element is sorely missing in our movie.
This Maverick needs a hobby.
Secondly, the “acting” is terrible. I've seen other Chinese movies and while there are indeed some z-list actors working in their industry, they also have their fair share of very talented people who do outstanding work. Not a single one of those quality actors were hired for Sky Fighters. It doesn't help (or maybe it does?) that in all the many, many flying scenes the actors wear full oxygen face masks, not exactly conducive for expressive emoting. And when they're not in face masks they are constantly wearing these huge 1980's style aviator sunglasses, further removing any sort of expression through their eyes.
Is he sad or sleepy?
As bad as the humans are, the optical effects are ten times worse. Top Gun was fantastic in part because the US Navy allowed them to film their jets in the air, flying combat maneuvers with afterburners glowing and testosterone exploding. On Sky Fighters, though, the Chinese military would only let the production team film the jets on the ground so any air-to-air scenes had to be done with CGI. That would have been OK if the VFX company who did the work wasn't staffed with blinddrunk homeless guys working on Commodore 64s. The planes look exactly like Clip Art, the backgrounds are featureless and bland, the sound effects are monochannel, even the attempts at JJ Abrams lens flares are amateurish. And whoever modeled the flight dynamics had clearly never seen an airplane before in his life because real planes don't bounce and flounce around in the sky like these do. Seriously, if any airplane that ever existed attempted some of the insane aerobatic moves we see in the movie, the wings would rip right off them in seconds.
Yeah, I don't know what's happening either.
It was about half way through when it occurred to me that this entire movie might be a slick marketing campaign for the Chinese locally produced J-10 fighter jet that is so prominently featured in all the action scenes. I've certainly seen this sort collaboration between state aviation industry and movie companies before (here and here), so that's possible, but the film doesn't really do much to tout the positive attributes of the J-10 in the way you'd expect if it were deliberately trying to score some export sales. There's even a scene in the second act where Maverick's J-10 gets bested by the Commander flying a Su-27, a plane that's in same class as the J-10 and aimed at same customer base. It's like if you make a commercial for a Ford Mustang where you show your car losing in race to a Camaro and highlighting your shitty quality control, just not going to sell at lot of Mustangs that way.
Flagman not included.
So in conclusion, don't try and remake Top Gun. Just don't.
PS, for all the Neocon bluster and John McCain hyperventilating about how the Chinese military is an unstoppable warmongering wave of Commies bent on crushing our fair nation's heartland under its jackboots, it's interesting to note that the Chinese Air Force hasn't fired a shot in anger since 1967. Just sayin'...
Written in September 2014 by Nathan Decker.
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