Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

review by John W. Herbert

Filmmaker Kerry Conran’s first film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, takes you back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, an alternate 1940 where famous scientists are being kidnapped while giant robot marauders are tearing apart New York and other world cities. Could these occurrences be linked? Following the story is star reporter Polly Perkins, played by Gwynneth Paltrow.
She finds herself caught when an army of giant robots tear apart New York. Thankfully, Polly and the city are saved by the timely arrival of Sky Captain (Jude Law), adventurer and leader of an "air squadron" for hire. Soon Polly and Sky Captain, who used to be lovers, are on the trail of a mysterious scientists named Totenkopf, who is sending out armies of robots and flying machines around the world to gather resources to further his diabolical aims.
They later team up with Frankie Cook (Angleina Jolie) who briefly was the "other woman" that broke up Joe and Polly, who comes to their aid in a way that brings new meaning to the term "flying fortress."
From New York to Tibet to a mysterious uncharted island, Sky Captain is a joyously fun ride. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sky Captain harkens back to the 1940s action serials and adventures. But while Raiders was clearly a modern film recapturing that spirit, Sky Captain goes a step further to also capture the 30s and 40s in look, feel, tone texture and design. It is shot to look like a 1930s film, complete with heavy film grain and soft focus. In fact in the first 10 minutes of the film, Conran sets the mood by hitting every 1930s movie visual cliché he can think of. And while ultimately Sky Captain pales in comparison to Raiders (as almost any film would), Sky Captain does hold its own with "future nostalgic" design, great adventure set pieces, and witty banter.
Technically, this film is the ultimate expression of the George Lucas-style of filmmaking. – film your actors in front of a green screen and fill in the rest later. While Lucas’s excursions into this digital realm have had mixed results as entertainment, there’s little question that his films succeed as eye candy and that Sky Captain represents the next leap in this regard. The actors were filmed entirely in front of a green screen – no sets were ever built, and all the sets and backgrounds were created digitally. And while occasionally the actors do seem removed from their surroundings, for the most part the effect is seamless. And awesome.
Some things don’t add up – the bad guy has mastered anti-gravity but needs to steal electric generators. And it’s an odd alternate timeline. The WWII that we know does not seem to be underway, yet WW I clearly happened is referred as WW I, implying that WW II happened somewhere at sometime. And there is no mention of Hitler, yet it is German scientists that are being kidnapped, all during the apparent time of Hitler’s rise to power.
But King Kong was found in this timeline (the Venture is seen, along with ape cage), but the Titanic disaster clearly didn’t occur – we see the ship intact and in one piece, admittedly under water, but clearly not in the Atlantic. Perhaps this is our divergence point.
And what kind of world would we have if the Titanic hadn’t foundered on her maiden voyage? It might very well be the world of Sky Captain — technology and hubris run amuck. Indeed, the Titanic was a technological marvel. Some at the time suggested it represented the final triumph of man over nature. Is it too much to suggest that technological advancement could have continued unabated until the point that we see in the movie? Could the next step after "unsinkable" ships have been airplanes that swim and airports that fly? Could an unbridled technological advancement have been made and ushered in a golden age? But all the while underneath was the Achilles’ heel of human ego and hubris waiting for the fall? It is technology gone amuck, the machines and artifices of a long-dead scientist, that is the ultimate villain of Sky Captain after all. But I digress.
The DVD of Sky Captain contains a good assortment of features, including informative documentaries and Conran’s original Sky Captain demo reel.
Sky Captain is a whole ton of fun and well worth the investment of two hours of your life.

(originally published in Under the Ozone Hole #17)

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