The Birthday Series: Iron Sky (2012)
Following in the footsteps of some online comrades that have explored the same foolish experiment, I’ve decided to do a Birthday Series column where I review a movie released on or around my birthday starting with the current year and working backward to my actual birthdate. That’s 33 films in all and seeing as how my big day falls on April 3rd, it’s not a guarantee I’ll always have something interesting to choose from. Still, we get started here with a film that got a limited U.S. release this past April and looks right up my alley. Iron Sky looks like a slice of b-movie goodness, but how it is really? Is this a great start or a hiccup on the journey? Let’s find out…
Director Timo Vuorensola brings the Nazis back from the dark side of the moon, where they have been hiding since 1945. In fact, according to Vuorensola’s sci-fi comedy Iron Sky, the Nazis have been biding their time and nursing their wounds in Schwarze Sonne, a swastika-esque moon fortress. Here they sit waiting for the day when Fuhrer Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier) will initiate an invasion of Earth and send their retro spaceships heading for the small blue planet.
All the Aryan empire needs is a superior piece of Earthling tech advanced enough to pilot their ships. So, Kier sends down Klaus Adler (Götz Otto), his fearsome commander, and Renate Richter (Julia Dietze), Nazi school teacher and ‘Earth specialist,’ to recover the coveted technology. In an amusing bit, their prize turns out to be no more than a modern cell phone. Along for the ride is loud-mouthed, African American model-turned-astronaut James Washington (Christopher Kirby) who jump-starts the Nazi’s plan when he is captured and brought to Schwarze Sonne. Fighting against the invasion on the Earth-bound side is a Sarah Palin clone as the U.S. president (Stephanie Paul) and her aide Vivian Wagner (Peta Sergeant). The third act is split between nonsense like Washington running through the city in white face and a SS uniform and a surprisingly engaging space battle in which a rag-tag force of American ships led by the U.S.S. George Bush face-off against the Nazi armada.
It’s worth saying up-front; good on Vuroensola for resisting the urge to make Iron Sky a stuffy homage or a series of geek references strung together. For better or worse, Sky is an honest to goodness movie with its own story and characters that doesn’t require familiarity with old b-movies or a deep sense of history. Unfortunately the even-handedness backfires, leaving the film an uneasy split between Amazing Wonder Tales and MAD magazine. It’s one of the more visually dazzling independent films I’ve laid eyes on recently, but the dumb comedy portions don’t work quite as well, lacking the intense and hyperactive voice that infects the visual structure.
What you end up with is a movie that looks great and is consistently interesting on a cosmetic level; one could easily spend an hour or so watching the fetching Dietze jumping on and off of gorgeously crafted steam-punk zeppelins set against a graphic novel backdrop. In regards to a story we care about with characters that would stand out, Iron Sky is sorely lacking and the sharp wit that it needs to survive is altogether absent. This makes it, at the end of the day, a frustrating disappointment. I went in hoping for a good schlock entertainment, but the experience is much closer to a sleep-deprived session of switching through late-night cable stations and mistaking each channel flip for a scene cut.
The problems are easy to spot because they are so closely tied to what goes right. The special effects and art direction make the film worth seeing even though the narrative is severely undercooked. Of course, Vuroensola built the film from the images up, using them to get the internet investors that made it possible in the first place. The story came second, and feels less interesting and sincere. Once Washington steps over that first hill hiding the swastika-shaped compound and beholds old motorcycles and rusty volkswagons tooling across the craggy lunar highways, Vuorensola’s savvy visual verve takes over and doesn’t let the movie go. The iconography and style of the infamous Third Reich are put to good use, and the filmmakers tease 70 years of pop culture fascination with the Nazis. In fact, as a piece of moving pop art, Iron Sky is actually something of a small triumph in the way it evokes the spirit of golden age science fiction in all its restless wonder and naiveté.
Were Iron Sky a silent picture, many more of us might be raving about it. Unfortunately we get plenty of inane dialogue spouted by wooden performers. Dietze is a lot of fun, and Kier and Otto are reliably strong, but the rest of the cast and their amateurish sketch comedy style acting bring the film and its theatrics down a few pegs. Iron Sky has chosen pulpy material, but it doesn’t have the spark or energy necessary to make it come alive. It also isn’t very funny, which is a crime when your film’s most identifiable genre is comedy. There’s not a confident satirist behind the jokes, and Iron Sky plays like an amateur hour comedian, trying out every trick it has but lacking the wisdom to know what works and what doesn’t. In the smartest sequences, Richter shows her class of students choice pieces of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, presenting them as actual news-reel footage proving Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy after-all. Less funny is the potential romance boiling between Washington and Richter, or the attempts of Richter’s father to make the black man more presentable via a ‘whitening’ procedure.
Iron Sky’s content and approach are at odds with one another. Sky isn’t schlock or a b-movie, although it draws its theme from that tradition. It comes instead from independent roots and Vuorensola and his team were not racing around with limited time, a shoestring budget and a title, dreaming up a film as they went. This one feels too calculated; it never has time for improvisation or hair-brained audacity. Real schlock leaps to life out of necessity and a lack of resources, directors following a flash or spark here and there, letting that guide them. Vuorensola has made a movie where there aren’t any surprises and he has strived hard to put everything he wanted to up on screen. So, what Iron Sky really looks like is a Hollywood blockbuster minus strong talent and equivalent visual effects. It’s like a demo reel for its creators instead of existing for itself. No doubt, it will do the trick on that front, but in five years people won’t be touting the virtues of Iron Sky, they will only vaguely recall ‘that moon Nazi thing’.
All in all, Iron Sky is harmless and enjoyable enough as a timewaster. I suggest those who enjoy striking visuals seek it out, but purveyors of schlock are destined to be disappointed.
It’s a decent enough start to the Birthday series though.
I’m giving it 2.5 out of 5 stars for good imagery but a lack of desperately needed silly energy keeps it from rating any higher.
I’ll be back soon with the 2011 pick, The Thorn in My Heart, from wacky Frenchman Michel Gondry.