How obscure can a film be, when I can’t find a thing about it on Wikipedia or TV Tropes?
Aero-Troopers falls short in more ways at once than I’ve ever seen a computer-generated movie fail. The character models and their animations, nearly a decade after the release of Toy Story, look so wooden as to insult the uncanny valley, as can be seen in the DVD cover above (thanks, Amazon). The characters themselves are uninteresting, the plot goes from being trite yet acceptable to completely nonsensical, and the dialogue manages to combine laziness, self-indulgence, and massive amounts of cheese all at once. Even the marketing slogans on the movie’s box feel wordy–“The survival of their airborne world lies in the hands of this one small boy?” Really?
Sometimes a bad film serves as a reminder of why other films succeed, and Aero-Troopers is a reminder of why good presentation can’t be taken for granted.
You’ve heard this one before.
The movie opens with a full paragraph of text taking up a good chunk of the screen, but all you need to know is that the hero is an orphaned, adventure-seeking boy of otherwise unknown origins. His name is Joshua, and he narrates the whole film–albeit as an adult, which immediately kills any suspense about the outcome of the plot.
When the movie finally gives us visuals, we’re shown the inside of an airship, which boasts a competent, vaguely steampunk aesthetic direction. Other elements of the art design manage to look fake even in their own story’s context, and there’s really nothing in this entire film that couldn’t be made to look better if this were a live-action or, with respect to Studio Ghibli, hand-animated production. Inside a gigantic floating tree village, whose music sounds way too much like it’s from a Zelda video game, Joshua narrowly escapes with his life in one of the film’s stronger scenes.
Fireballs destroy the village, and while the actual flame looks rather poor, the opening in itself is well done. The pacing is solid, and even if the art direction isn’t endearing, the movie does demonstrate an ability to maintain relevance and tension, if not necessarily a desire. The star of this scene is Nemeclous, an enormous, metallic, fire-spewing flying shark that’s easily the best thing about this whole production, and you won’t again see much of it until this mercifully short movie nears its end. As can be expected, Joshua’s awakened desire for revenge drives the rest of the movie.
This should have been a much shorter film.
The boy is rescued from a fiery predicament by an Aero-trooper, one of several guardians of the skies, and is given a new home aboard a large ship. Joshua’s crying for his homeland is so melodramatic that it looks silly (cf. James Cameron’s Avatar, during the pivotal scene), and the dialogue and narration overlap so much with one another that I truly begin to wonder if this movie thinks I or even a child can be so dense as to not understand what is going on.
Joshua gains a roommate and sidekick, Micah, a sarcastic and spunky cliche who is nonetheless something of a burst of personality in this otherwise rather dull movie. Micah and Joshua share an age and a backstory, and it’s not long before they’re playing around like fools on the ship’s guns, seemingly without any sort of supervision, and naturally it is here that Nemeclous’s little aircraft minions show up to be blown away. The action feels downright boring, and the camera itself doesn’t do a thing to add to the excitement or sense of danger.
One of the setting’s most “creative” ideas is an otherwise odd religious system based partly on the wind, which is introduced during a funeral segment for (as yet unestablished and therefore unfamiliar) dead characters from the previous battle. The deceased are wrapped up in body bags and allowed to float away on wings; this is a fairly nice detail, but it’s ruined by Joshua making a comparison to angels. Do those even exist in this story? This is brought up again and again, but it never feels any more relevant. Oh, and Micah gets his hand bloodied. His injury has no lasting consequences whatsoever.
The simple concept of night gets a ton of exposition instead of being allowed to speak for itself, and even though this honestly isn’t where I’d want to debut a movie’s sole dark-skinned character, that’s precisely what happens here. This character gives the boys each their own sets of bows and arrows, which get very little use. There is one really nice shot of a nebula and a sort of transparent sky-river, and both of these so much better than nearly anything else in the film that I begin to question the originality of these ideas.
How many ways can a story disrespect its audience?
Joshua wants to be an Aero-trooper, something we hear over and over again. We are told that such troopers spend more time dealing with background work than typical action (seemingly untrue), we are told about the setting’s various types of clouds and air currents, with special emphasis on the dangers of slipstreams (true, but not demonstrated until much later), and this movie continually piles on reminders of why even a competent premise can be brought down by bad writing and production values.
On the bright side, along with the material wings he uses to hover and fly around, Joshua gets a gun! If you think the idea of children wielding swords in the Narnia stories seems like a liability in the making, Aero-Troopers goes one step further and lets its characters carry realistic-looking weapons. The reason? Pirates have stolen the Aero-troopers’ supplies, we are told, and the “heroes” want to steal them back. While the so-called pirates’ firearms sometimes look like harmonicas turned vertically, Joshua’s gun looks and behaves like an old-fashioned revolver, sending the movie into a Matrix-esque gun-flip sequence that seems rather questionable for a children’s film, as does the sight of young teenagers shooting other people and being shot at (it’s okay; they’re dummy bullets!). Did I mention the pile of blood on the floor? I can’t even remember why it’s there.
This pirate subplot, which starts off as pointless filler and eventually feels even more like a Castle in the Sky ripoff, results in a brutal melee fight that sends some people overboard to their seeming deaths. What happens next completely destroys the actual reason for pirating the pirate ship, but we and this movie have no time to dwell on such things as logic. Back home, a young female mechanic’s introduction telegraphs a good chunk of the story to come. Joshua’s reaction to her is blatantly obvious, and everyone around him (including Nora, the girl herself) seems almost more quick to notice than he is. To wit, his first introduction to her is literally to walk right up and start reciting poetry without knowing anything about her. The story sets up a sort of conflicting-interest subplot, in which Aero-pilots like Nora are said to get along poorly with Aero-troopers, as well as yet another subplot where an elderly mechanic wants to build a rocket. The movie has way too many ideas and way too little consistency.
I hope you didn’t forget about Nemeclous.
After more scenes of nonsensical dialogue and of people not wearing hearing protection when standing immediately next to an operating airplane (which in this setting doesn’t always behave realistically anyway), we finally get another reference to the actual point of this movie, in the form of character-related back story that we don’t actually get to witness. Joshua’s relationship with Nora keeps stumbling around in the dark, to the point where one may wonder if he’s interested in her since she’s the only girl in the story. There is one legitimately good romance joke, and it manages to be more interesting than anything else about its subjects’ entire narrative, especially when compared to Nora’s baffling conclusion that Joshua’s injection of poetry into nearly everything he says is somehow inspiring.
Following increasingly pointless action amid some truly nice ship designs, we are given additional plot cliches and “twists” until finally Nemeclous returns in a screen-filling triumph and begins incapacitating heroic characters left and right. The action still doesn’t manage to consistently excite, but at least it feels important. (It occurs to me, after the movie’s one interesting character death, that there are basically no other tree villages in this entire sky, and thus most of the movie feels really empty.)
The movie’s big plot twist is one of the worst I’ve ever seen in a story, and to call this decision a cop-out is to only begin to express my frustrations with it. Suffice it to say, a previously established character’s fairly reasonable intentions have gone horribly wrong, and his actions from there raise a big question of whether he took five minutes to consider the potential consequences. His decisions themselves also seem incredibly conspicuous, such that one would think other people would easily be able to notice and prevent his ultimate plan from becoming fulfilled.
Nemeclous’ final battle scene is actually really intense, and the slipstreams from earlier are shown in their full, destructive power. The characters still don’t stay quiet for very long, the lightning effects look like they were created in Microsoft Paint, and one character supposedly trained for war has no idea of what a torpedo is. Even still, despite the story’s thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion in terms of logic, it does look fairly decent, as this near-complete waste of a movie comes to a close.
Conclusion: Yes, for real. The conclusion.
I’ve said all I want to about this movie. I don’t think it looks even as good for its day as Tron did, or that it’s well written, or that its physics always make sense, or that its characters are interesting. That being stated, if nothing else, it keeps my movie-watching experiences varied enough so that I don’t take actual quality for granted. This is the start of “Computer-Generated Week” on Projected Realities, and for people in the writing or graphical production businesses, a movie that demonstrates so thoroughly what not to do can serve as its own sort of grim education. If you enjoyed this film, I’m happy for you, but frankly I think there are way too many good reasons why I can find so little information about it.
This article was originally written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.