REVIEW: Sky Fighters (2011)

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The “elite” pilots of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Air Division 903 have had their reputation tarnished when one of their J-10 fighters is damaged by a birdstrike. Thus begins the heroic and patriotic efforts by its members to restore honour and become China’s premier fighter unit – their Top Gun…Come on I had to say it.

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That is roughly the plot of this movie. I say “roughly” because frankly the plot is as thin as a paper airplane. It has almost no importance in how this film plays out and feels like just a series of scenes put together for the sake of making something of a movie about fighter pilots. It is entirely about eye candy in the action, planes and the stars (see it’s not just Hollywood churning out such films). The purpose of this film is to entertain young Chinese men in to thinking they will be chased by women and live the high octane lifestyle of a Hollywood fighter pilot, complete with sunglasses, if they enlist in the PLAAF. That’s right it’s simply a glorified recruitment video. Again the same could be said about Top Gun itself and it is well known that when it came out in 1986 the US Navy experienced a record number of applications. If the producers were only interested in hooking patriotic Chinese young men in to military service then it has to be said its probably succeeded.

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But what about the rest of it? I am a huge aviation enthusiast. If you want further proof then I am shamelessly taking this opportunity to promote my defence website – Defence of the Realm – because if its good enough for the Chinese government to use this film to promote their armed forces then its good enough for me to do the same for my site proving again this movie is all about hooking people. As an aviation and military enthusiast I have to say there is something here to take an interest in. There are lots of footage of the J-10 fighter that China has produced in recent years and the aircraft does look sleek and modern. Some have said that as well as to recruit new members into the armed forces this film was also intended to promote the J-10. There are also lots of footage of other Chinese military equipment and bases but what does this do for the film? Well…It meant I spent most of my time looking over the actor’s shoulders trying to see it all which was far more interesting than what was supposed to be happening.

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There is an unfortunate failing in this movie though regarding the aircraft. Whereas Top Gun and, to a less successful degree, Iron Eagle relied on the images of F-14 Tomcats and F-16 Falcons whizzing around the skies to make up for the plotholes, Sky Fighters limits its footage of the actual fighters to just when they are on the ground. All the flight sequences are CGI and bad CGI at that. I don’t mean to sound mean but the CGI dogfights look like they have come from the Ace Combat series of the Playstation One era. They are terrible. Worse still the footage of the actual aircraft on the ground is speeded up to make it look more dramatic but ends up looking like a Benny Hill sketch.

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What I will give this movie is that the actors involved do actually make an effort in a lot of the scenes and it’s clear they feel they are doing something good for China. You can see the patriotism in their eyes and sometimes I did wonder if the actors wished they were doing this for real rather than making these kinds of movies. One scene will always stay with me though when looking for evidence of the propaganda aspect of this movie and that’s the university question scene where a Western student asks about how the J-10 compares to the F-16 Falcon. She is told in no uncertain terms the J-10 is superior to her home country’s fighter. Sorry for going all plane-brain but the truth is that while the J-10 looks good on camera its performance in reality is still some way behind many Western designs.

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Its obvious that the film makers tried to match the look of Top Gun with the traditional patriotism of Chinese military service. The result is a movie that is almost a parody of the 1980s classic. It is nothing more than blatant propaganda to the point of being a comedy to the Western observer. But let’s take a step back a minute. The vast majority of military films, be they American, British or Chinese, are in themselves propaganda promoting the glorious history of their respective armed forces. We in the West may mock this film but almost certainly the same has happened with our movies in the East. I can understand why some 19 year old in China would see this then walk in to his recruitment office but really it is a poor film in every respect. In short this is the type of film I like to call “MST3K fodder.”

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