Contains some implied spoilers.
Iron Sky is one of those films that arrives with a huge amount of good will toward it, with everyone pulling for the plucky little David to stand up to the Hollywood Goliath and come out triumphant.
The film has been made made by a mainly Finnish group who are as much fellow fans and film geeks as they are film makers. They’ve laboured over this for six years, patching together production deals across the globe and adding crowd-sourced micro-contributions from enthusiasts around the world, and finally the film is a reality and delivered to both cinemas and to DVD outlets simultaneously.
Let’s start with the good points: the film looks fantastic. It’s not just that the CGI FX are stunningly well done (and they really are, as good as many a Hollywood blockbuster and on a fraction of the budget that would barely cover the catering department in Tinseltown) it’s that the thought and intelligence that went into the design of the production is quite awesomely brilliant too. Just watching the oversize, outdated but overwhelmingly impressive mechanisms of the Nazi flagship Götterdämmerung grind into motion is mesmerising. It’s footage like this that helped attract the production deals and the micro-funding over the years, and quite deservedly too.
It’s not just the CGI that looks good, either: even the real-world production looks as impressively shot as the effects and green screen sequences. For the most part you wouldn’t be able to tell what a restricted budget it has, although there’s an odd slip when it comes to the set/location for the White House Oval Office which is conspicuously over-large and emphatically rectangular and not remotely convincing as its real-life counterpart. Still, minor detail.
And then unfortunately at some point we have to talk about the script.
Narratively speaking it’s a bit of a train wreck. And when I say “a bit”, I’m massively understating. Nothing much follows on from one scene to the next; the rich possibilities of a moon-bound Nazi society are barely touched upon; the culture clash with the modern world hardly gets a mention. Even the much-anticipated Space Nazi invasion is rather thrown-away in just a few CGI sequences, and the Nazi ultimate super-weapon a damp squib rather than a satisfying climax. Although you’d hardly expect much logic in a Space Nazi B-movie, I’m still puzzling over how a mission to get a few smartphones (necessary hi-tech for the Nazi invasion of earth) becomes a three-month sojourn in New York working for the US President’s re-election campaign.
Tonally as well the film disintegrates alarmingly fast. It’s not a matter of the film being unsure whether it’s a drama or a comedy – it’s always a comedy first and last – it’s that the filmmakers can’t seem to decide what type of comedy it is at any given point. It lurches from high camp to low crudity, from moments that seem cut out of a sub-standard Carry On film or episode of Allo Allo to others that are actually quite lovely touches of political and social satire. One minute the Nazi antagonists are gurning psychotically for the camera and the next they’re expected to convincingly deliver some quite delicate touches of cutting wit.
I’m not saying that this is a top-notch cast, but it’s a pretty decent one for a B-Movie – Udo Kier for example is born for this type of thing, and it’s inexplicable how his character is wasted so badly and ends up dispatched in an entirely unfunny and overlong horror comedy scene – but no actor no matter how good can make the dozen or so handbrake turns per scene on their characterisation as this broken script-by-committee requires them to do. Basically it’s a script that betrays too long being fiddled and fussed over by too many chefs each championing their little darlings but with no one able to deliver a overall yes or no, or to meld the thing into a coherent final whole.
With such a scattershot approach to the comedy, obviously there are some laughs to be had – and some pretty good ones too. The portrayal of the US president is a delight, and a beautifully shot and choreographed scene near the end in the UN debating chamber is right out of the Stanley Kubrick Strangelove “You can’t fight in here, this is the war room!” league. The revelation that every country in the world has broken a key treaty is nicely counterpointed by the US president’s outrage in not willing to concede that it was the US that broke it first, and by the in-joke that the only ambassador to admit that they had actually abided by the rules is a meek little hand-raising Finnish diplomat. There’s some wonderful Wagnerian themes and motifs used that had me smiling, a delightful screwball “Break in case of emergency” moment that made me laugh out loud, and a quite lovely touch with heroine Renate extolling about her favourite film, a 12-minute Hitler-admiring “short” silent film by Charlie Chaplin.
But for every moment that works, there’s at least two that fall flat; and many that are actually positively uncomfortable. The character of James Washington is an embarrassing racial caricature even before he’s ‘Aryanised’ and left to play the remainder of the film like outtakes from a particularly bad Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence/Wayans Brothers outing (the execrable White Chicks particularly comes to mind). It seems odd to be complaining about political incorrectness in a film predicated on reviving every cliché about Nazis you’ve ever heard, but the whole Washington plot thread really made me squirm and overwhelmed any attempts at humour.
There are other points where the political satire is misjudged, and tips over into just being a nasty jab without any redeeming sense of fun. There’s a peculiar moment where the film comes to a dead stop for the characters to look aghast at the idea of bombing defenceless and innocent women and children … and then the CGI good times roll anyway. And the use of a rendition of “Land of the Free” over a war crimes montage is simply designed to offend and outrage any American viewers (not that this film will have many of those in practice, I suspect.)
Combine this with a low-key but oddly deeply down-beat final moment played out under the credits and you’ve added seriously dark black humour wildly at odds with the slapstick farce, the high camp, the low crudity or even the biting satire. Maybe this is all simply true to the nature and character of Finnish humour – and that the concept just doesn’t translate that well, that this is just a chasm between cultures making itself felt?
Try as I might to like this, and giving it every benefit of the doubt I can find within myself to offer, I still couldn’t like this film as much as I needed to. It has its moments and positives to be sure, but also too many flaws that should have been easily correctable for it to be considered even as a ‘glorious’ failure. Far better overall is director Timo Vuorensola’s first outing Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning which is also a mess and even more crippled by the lack of any budget whatsoever (many scenes are visibly shot in a medley of hotel rooms over the course of several years) but nonetheless ends up united and unified to a degree by a shared vision and love of the Star Trek and Babylon 5 shows that it is spoofing, in just the way that this follow-up outing needs and conspicuously lacks for all its grander ambitions.
If you’re after a big, messy, crass, dumb B-movie, then Iron Sky is perfectly fine. But the film could – and should – have been so much more, and it hurts that it misses its marks quite as badly as it ends up doing.