Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
July 27, 2005
Kerry Conran, ,
Starring: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi, Bai Ling, Michael Gambon, Laurence Olivier, Omid Djalili, Trevor Baxter, Julian Curry, Peter Law, Jon Rumney, Khan Bonfils, ,
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) is a film bound to polarize audiences and critics alike. Loving homage or blatant rip-off? It really depends on whether you love or hate this movie. Personally, I was transported away to this cinematic dreamland for the entire running time. Kerry Conran’s labour of love is an unabashed tribute to the old pulp serials of the ‘20s and ‘30s (Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, etc.). It succeeds where previous pulp serial homages of the ‘90s failed (The Shadow, The Phantom, Dick Tracy). Like those films, Sky Captain successfully captures the look and feel of these vintage serials but, most importantly, it also stays true to their spirit—something that these other movies failed to do (The Rocketeer as the lone exception).
A striking image opens the film: a gigantic zeppelin docks with the Empire State Building while the night sky is filled with lightly falling snow. The world’s top scientists have gone missing and ambitious newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow in Lois Lane mode) is covering the story for The Chronicle. She meets secretly with the last scientist who hints at a top secret project. Pretty soon she has an idea of just how important it is as huge, flying robots swarm over the city’s skies. They begin attacking the city, turning cars over like tinker toys.
Before you can activate your Commander Cody decoder ring, Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Law) and his squad of fighter planes arrive to save the day. It becomes obvious that Joe and Polly have history together. There is clearly tension between them as they form an uneasy alliance. She shares information with him in exchange for an exclusive scoop on the source of the robots: the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf (Olivier). They are aided in their adventure by Joe’s trusty sidekick, Dex (Ribisi), a whiz technician capable of inventing a deadly ray gun.
This is an absolutely gorgeous looking movie filled with eye-popping visuals and drenched in atmosphere. Everything is bathed in a warm sepia filter and captured in a soft focus lens clearly meant to evoke the glamour of classic Hollywood cinema. Sky Captain is a marvel of set design and visual effects. By creating an entire world through CGI, Conran has raised the bar on these kinds of movies. Now, filmmakers are only limited by their imagination…and their budgets.
The problem with most films of these kinds is that the actors are often overwhelmed by the striking visuals. Fortunately, Conran has assembled a strong cast. Jude Law does an excellent job as the wisecracking, square-jawed matinee hero while Gwyneth Paltrow is his ideal foil, criticizing him at every opportunity but you know that it is done out of love. Everyone is clearly enjoying breathing life into these archetypal characters. High caliber actors like Law, Paltrow and Angelina Jolie take these intentionally cliché characters and make them interesting to watch.
There is an audio commentary by producer Jon Avnet. He kicks things off by talking about the film’s origins—how he met Conran and so on. Avnet takes us through the filmmaking process in an engaging way that is also very informative. He talks quite eloquently about his role—how he allowed Conran to realize his vision but on a large budget—and mentored by him.
Also included is another commentary track with Conran, his brother and the film’s production designer Kevin Conran, animation supervisor Steve Yamamoto and visual effects supervisor Darin Hollings. With this many people, it’s hard to identify who is talking. This is a technically oriented track where the participants talk about how certain effects were achieved. Students of special effects will enjoy this informative commentary.
“Brave New World: Chapter 1 and 2” are two making of featurettes that provide a fascinating look at how this production came together. Kevin Conran points out that, for the most part, it was an independently financed movie. It wasn’t until near the end that Paramount stepped in with a lot of money. This featurette examines how Conran made his six-minute short film on his Macintosh computer with a few friends and used it to eventually make a big budget film. These docs are refreshingly free of an excess of clips from the movie and a slick, over-produced look that resembles a commercial in favour of a more substantial look at how this film was made.
“The Art of the World of Tomorrow” is hosted by Kevin Conran who describes the movie as “a comic book come to life.” Among other things, he talks about the art and architecture that inspired their vision of New York City. It is interesting to see the sources that they drew upon for their distinctive cinematic world.
“The Original Six Minute Short” allows you to look at what Conran made, pretty much on his own over several years, that would go on to impress people like Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow—enough that they would sign on to do the movie without even looking at a script. It is remarkably close, albeit in rougher form, to the finished product.
There are two deleted scenes, including a good scene where Dex rescues Joe and Polly from a cage, complete with unfinished effects.
Finally, there is a two-and-a-half minute “Gag Reel” of blown lines and general goofing around on the set.
Sky Captain has all the markings of a debut by a first-time filmmaker. There is a go-for-broke, let’s-cram-everything-in-this-one attitude that a first-timer has a tendency to adopt because they don’t know if there are going to get another chance. Sadly, Sky Captain failed at the box office thus insuring the unlikely prospects of a sequel. It’s too bad because it presents a richly textured and detailed world with fun and exciting characters.