Iron Sky: Berlin Film Review

Berlinale Film Festival
A promising idea for an irreverent parody gets let down by inconsistent writing and comedy that seldom goes far enough over the top.

Any Berlin screening of a cheeky exploitation parody about Nazis in space should be a riot, but Finnish director Timo Vuorensola's sci-fi comedy is uneven, its humor never quite matching the luster of its visuals.

BERLIN – There’s a funny premise behind Finnish director Timo Vuorensola’s Nazis-in-space caper Iron Sky, and a confident grasp of sci-fi B-movie lore, with leather trench-coated Third Reich descendants ably subbing for the usual alien threat. There are also far sturdier production values than are generally assembled for this kind of Euro-lark. It’s just too bad the film runs out of comic juice long before its climactic nuclear showdown.

The good-looking Finnish-German-Australian co-production was resourcefully made on a budget of 7.5 million Euros ($9.9 million U.S.), around 10% of which came from online fan funding. Vuorensola has built a Web following with his culty sci-fi parody Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning. Viral marketing also is expected to figure in the distribution of the more ambitious Iron Sky, with prequel comics, a graphic novel, videogames and apps in the pipeline.

The film aims to be a more overtly droll foray into the same territory as Starship Troopers, which also sent a fascistic armada into space. The goofy sensibility of Vuorensola and Michael Kalesniko’s screenplay, based on a story by Finnish sci-fi author Johanna Sinisalo, lies midway between the deadpan, tongue-firmly-in-cheek quality of the Paul Verhoeven adventure and the straight-up spoof of, say, Galaxy Quest. But while the plotting is mostly sound enough, the dialogue would have required several more polishes to put Iron Sky in the league of either of those movies.

It’s the year 2018, seven decades after the end of World War II. A group of Nazi scientists headed by General Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier) has been occupying an extensive military base on the dark side of the moon since the original colonists quit Earth in 1945. They are biding their time and developing the technology to launch the Götterdämmerung. The mother of all warships, it will be the key to reclaiming their home planet.

Cute blond Earth expert Renate Richter (Julia Dietze) teaches classes to Aryan kids. Her laudatory views on Hitler were formed via a heavily edited copy of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which she deems “one of the world’s greatest short films.” Next in line for the Führer position is Klaus Adler (Götz Otto), a towering example of chiseled virility whose data research indicates that he and Renate are ideally matched to make genetically perfect babies.

Back on Earth, the Sarah Palin-esque U.S. President (Stephanie Paul) has sent a black astronaut – well, actually a model – named James Washington (Christopher Kirby) to the moon because “I thought it would look good.” But her re-election bid is in trouble, putting pressure on ruthless campaign manager Vivian Wagner (Peta Sergeant).

When James is captured on the moon, his smart phone points the way to a technological breakthrough for the Nazis, whose hardware is still stuck in the ‘40s. The discovery sends Klaus on a mission to Earth to retrieve more of the devices, accompanied by Renate and James. When they tangle with Vivian, operation “Meteor Blitzkrieg” is set off. That development thrills the President, since wartime incumbents always get re-elected.

There’s lots of good stuff here, just not enough subversive wit in the writing or skilled comic delivery from the cast. The nagging thought keeps arising that this is a comedy made by people with a feeble sense of humor. Despite the ample opportunities for political incorrectness in a movie about old-school Nazis Sieg-Heiling their way into present-day America, Iron Sky is almost coy on that front. There’s nary a mention of a Jew. Even the potentially outrageous stunt of a Master Race scientist (Tilo Prückner) subjecting a black man to albino-fication treatment is about as shocking – and not nearly as funny – as the Wayans brothers going undercover in White Chicks.

Best of the cast is the delightful Dietze. She brings a sweet balance of naivety and gumption to Renate, who flips sides once she sees the uncut Chaplin movie in a New York theater. As the men she is torn between, Otto and Kirby are fine, though both their characterizations could use some teeth.

Sergeant makes profanity-spewing uber-bitch Vivian abrasive but rarely amusing, even when she’s strutting around the flight deck of a spaceship in a leather catsuit with plumage collar. (Jake Collier did the sharp costumes, borrowing from Thierry Mugler on that particular one.) As the president with a stuffed polar bear and a treadmill in the Oval Office, Paul makes you really wish Tina Fey were around. And the ever-eccentric Kier sometimes seems to be barely awake.

The hit-and-miss humor is made more frustrating by the production’s physical distinctions. Effects work down the line is solid, seamlessly mixing CGI with low-tech concept art while allowing for an occasional wink at vintage B-movie fakery. Production designer Ulrika von Vegesack does an especially impressive job on the Nazis’ imposing lunar fortress, making it a giant, rather forbidding mechanical toy. And the score by Slovenian avant-garde music collective Laibach adds character, mixing pastiche pop with symphonic elements.

The plot doesn’t quite hang together toward the end, but the real problem is that the jokes are just not there.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Special)

Cast: Julia Dietze, Götz Otto, Christopher Kirby, Udo Kier, Peta Sergeant, Stephanie Paul, Tilo Prückner, Michael Cullen

Production companies: Blind Spot Pictures, Energia Productions, 27 Films Production, New Holland Pictures

Director: Timo Vuorensola

Screenwriters: Michael Kalesniko, Timo Vuorensola, based on a story by Johanna Sinisalo, original concept by Jarmo Puskala

Producers: Tero Kaukomaa, Samuli Torssonen, Olivier Damian, Cathy Overett, Mark Overett

Executive producer: San Fu Maltha

Director of photography: Mike Orasmaa

Production designer: Ulrika von Vegesack

Music: Laibach

Costume designer: Jake Collier

Editor: Suresh Ayyar

Visual effects supervisor: Samuli Torssonen

Sales: Stealth Media Group

No rating, 92 minutes