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Iron Sky (2012)

(Master) Race to the Moon

Iron Sky is a legitimately terrific movie, a surprise and a delight in every way. On paper, the premise reads like an Asylum picture. But anyone going into this thing expecting cheesy, cheap, celluloid junk food are in for a shocking three-course meal of brains, heart, and special effects that put most mainstream sci-fi blockbusters to shame.

Set during the 2016 election, the film stars Stephanie Paul as the President of the United States. Though never mentioned by name, she's an obvious stand-in for Sarah Palin--down to the folksy, patriotic rhetoric and hot-librarian fashion sense. In an attempt to win a second term, she's teamed with PR guru Vivian Wagner (Peta Sergeant) and the Secretary of Defence (Michael Cullen) to put a black man on the moon. They succeed, but as male-model-turned-semi-pro-astronaut James Washington (Christopher Kirby) discovers on his arrival, the remnants of the Nazi empire have staked their claim on the dark side of the moon; they've spent decades cultivating a precious energy source called Helium Three, which will fuel their imminent conquest of the blue planet.

Washington is captured and brought before the new Fuhrer, Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier), who is distraught by the prospect of a black spaceman. He orders his second-in-command, Klaus Adler (Gotz Otto) to have the resident mad scientist (Tilo Pruckner) run tests on him. During a botched escape, Adler's would-be girlfriend, Renate (Julia Dietze), encounters Washington and is taken by his earnestness and charm. She begins to question the lessons she's been teaching her legion of blonde-haired school children about the Reich--lessons that mostly consist of playing five favorable minutes of The Great Dictator during class.

I won't spoil the series of bizarre events that bring Adler, Renate, Washington, and a small contingent of storm troopers to Earth. Suffice it to say, director Timo Vuorensola and co-writer Michael Kalesniko cleverly turn the middle portion of their film into Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home--substituting Aryan supremacists for humpback whales. I love that Iron Sky breathes; even at only ninety-three minutes, the story's scope feels expansive. We know we're working towards the invasion, but the screenplay makes several cute detours, such as Adler's using his skills as a master propagandist to help the President with her re-election strategy, and Washington's quest to show Renate how her naivete is being manipulated by the people whom she believes love her.

Comparisons toStanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove aren't unwarranted. Both that movie and 2001: A Space Odyssey are clear influences here, but the filmmakers take the responsibility of such ballsy homages very seriously; they inject their silly moon-Nazi adventure with enough wit, social commentary, and thrilling spectacle for Iron Sky to stand on its own. This is a movie of big ideas hidden behind ridiculous ones.

Sorry if all this lofty praise makes Iron Sky sound pretentiously boring. It's anything but. When I wasn't laughing out loud (the ingenious reveal of the President's moon poster is a real howler), I was either caught up in the lives of characters who should have been paper thin, or reeling from special effects that look like they cost ten times the movie's entire budget (about $12 million).

Vuorensola, his production design team, and effects crew have created a beautiful space-opera playground. From the swastika-shaped moon base to the foot soldiers' classically inspired space suits and the asteroid-towing armada of zeppelin-inspired star craft, there's not a detail in Iron Sky that doesn't feel original or that isn't convincingly realized. This movie deserves an "Art of" book as much as Avatar did--perhaps even more so.

The climactic battle involving all the nations of the Earth rising up against Adler's fleet is at once rousing and hilarious, though it could have been trimmed by a few minutes. Fortunately, the movie's final moments more than make up for the tedium. Iron Sky ends on a distinctly Strangelove-esque note that had the theatre laughing one minute and quietly bumming out the next. In a way, Vuorensola's last shot suggests that the only happy ending to a story about mankind is to simply end mankind.*

It's a shame Iron Sky will make its North American mass-market debut by slinking onto blu-ray in a few weeks, rather than receiving a proper theatrical distribution. It's a huge hit overseas, and I was fortunate enough to catch the "Midwest Premiere" the other night at Chicago's Portage Theatre. Maybe it was a failure of distribution or a failure of imagination on the part of the distributor; whatever the case, this is exactly the kind of funny, challenging, and original entertainment that audiences need.

Note: I rolled my eyes when I learned that one of Iron Sky's main characters was a Sarah Palin stand-in. I was never a fan of the former Vice Presidential candidate, but four years after that election, taking jabs at her carry the same satirical potency as Monica Lewinsky jokes.

Fortunately, the President character is a classic comedy dimwit who would have been just as effective in any outfit. If you want to skip the layers and dig right into the heart of the onion, you could even consider her re-election campaign as the ultimate rebuke of the Democratic Party: considering the career trajectory that put her in the White House means accepting that John McCain likely served only one term. Palin handily succeeded him in 2012, and is only now starting to see that her platform needs the hard sell in order for the Republicans to pull a three-peat.

What does that say about the effectiveness of Progressives in Iron Sky's universe? And does it carry any weight in ours? I don't really care, but it's fun to play "find the corners" with this mental jigsaw puzzle.

*It's unfortunate and strange that a prequel and sequel were announced a few months ago, so I guess the filmmakers' solution wasn't exactly "final".

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