When Paramount Pictures released the retro science-fiction adventure film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, September of 2004, it had been much anticipated since June when it was first intended to hit theatres. Was the delay, due to director, Kerry Conran’s additional tweaking of this virtually total CGI movie, worth it? You bet your MAC IIci it was!
Sky Captain was a debut not only for its director. It was also the first motion picture done entirely with no sets, locations or props. The actors were real but everything from 1930-style city scapes to exploding zeppelins and flying robots were digitally rendered. “A lot of filmmakers would find it limiting, but I find it strangely liberating,” said Conran in an interview with Frank Rose in Wired Magazine. Actor, Gwyneth Paltrow, however had another take on working in the computerized blue-screen void: “You get a little nuts in that blue,” said Paltrow. “I started to feel like, if I ever see this color again, I’m going to kill myself.”
Conran had set out a decade ago to make a black and white movie set in the 1930s about a mad scientist and his robot army. When no studio offered the novice the $100 million to re-create the era, Conran turned to computer generated imagery to provide him his richly imagined world. This ironically gave Conran the liberty to create his imagined world just in the way he wanted, which included a clever mixture of obvious animation with sharp realism; multi-textured imagery, creations of realistic fantasy and the use of “brushing”, superimposed images, imaginative angles and muting in mostly sepia-toned settings. Packing every frame with a terraced layering of visual details rivalled only by Ridley Scott's visual masterpieces (e.g., Bladerunner, Alien) Conran’s film is worth watching several times just to study the details within the rich expanse of its sweeping tapestries.
“Drawing from a well of pulp fiction, film noir and comic book imagery ― not to mention influences from the Wizard of Oz and Metropolis” (Allison Benedikt, Chicago Tribune), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a stylish and elegant film with a genuine mood and look of a 1930s motion picture. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Polly Perkins, a gutsy reporter who discovers that the world’s scientists are disappearing. After witnessing a giant robot invasion, in which Sky Captain, the mercenary hero-for-hire (Joe Sullivan, played by Jude Law), is called in to help fight, Polly seeks him out to help her solve the mystery. Undaunted by his sour reception, Polly strikes a bargain with Joe and they form a shaky alliance based on mutual distrust and peppered with good wordplay.
Polly’s obsession over getting her front-page story ― and the ultimate photograph ― plays counterpoint with her vulnerable attraction to Joe. He is a much maligned mercenary with a just heart and a weak stomach beneath his tough bravado. We learn very soon into the story that the strong-willed nosy reporter shares a history with the legendary swashbuckling Sky Captain, and that they’d parted some time ago on rather ill, if not dubious, terms. Sky Captain’s cool bluster and nasty insults barely mask his weakness for the lady, making us wonder what happened between these two earlier to make their coffee bitter-sweet.
Polly and Joe’s search for a mysterious scientist, who formed a secret organization outside Berlin called Unit Eleven and thought to be behind the machine armies, leads them across the globe to exotic locales from the stormy Himalaya mountains of Nepal to Dr. Totenkopf’s tropical island in the middle of the Pacific.
Conran rendered his 1930’s mood with relentless consistency in everything from his authentic sets in sepia-tones to casting the most appropriate actors. The actors who played the principal characters looked like they’d come from that time period. Conran went so far as to resserect an actor from that era, the late Sir Laurence Olivier, to play Dr. Totenkopf (German for ‘deadhead’). He achieved this by using CGI-manipulated archive footage of Olivier.
Conran keeps the actual plot fairly simple, which lets him ensnare the movie-watcher into his mesmorizing alternate universe. For instance, watching a zeppelin dock atop a New York sky scraper at night transported me to a place that might have existed but never did. It was like entering another dimension. When the flying robots first appeared in the New York evening sky, looking like one of my old alien-attack nightmares, I felt a kind of déjà vu with all the old 1950s SF movies. I kept feeling like I’d slipped through some crack between time into an alternate universe where all the inventions that didn’t take here actually worked. It was as though I was trapped in a dream where history had rewritten itself. This strangely enticing mixture of familiar with the unfamiliar is a common device of retro-fiction, sometimes called “recursive fiction” that has become quite popular. Examples include, among many, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next series. The recent film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is another example.
I also didn’t mind Conran’s replete use of old SF clichés like a scientist’s Frankensteinesque laboratory, ray guns, metal-rivetted robots, or even a tongue-in-cheek reference to a come-on gesture made famous in the Matrix. The reason I didn’t mind was that he wasn’t just borrowing these, he integrated them into his retro fantasy and turned them on their sides. It also didn’t matter that some of the concepts didn’t make sense in the physics of our world. An example is the British Royal Navy’s mobile air strip. When Sky Captain’s shark-tooth painted plane runs out of gas over the middle of the ocean, he lands it on an incredible airborne landing strip run by Frankie (Angelina Jolie) of the Royal Navy, a no-nonsense girl of erect stature, sporting a patch over one eye, and who turns out to be Polly’s former rival for Joe’s affections.
From its first spectacular zeppelin scene to its last, Sky Captain races with non-stop action, punctuated only by frequent comic relief. The adrenalin surging airborn chase through the streets of New York city combined high tension with taught humor through characters’ witty banter ― something North American movie goers have come to expect in action movies. Paltrow’s and Law’s sometimes clever and amusing bickering lies much in the vein of legendary actors of that era such as Hepburn and Tracy or Bogart and Bacall and of a more current ‘scoundrel’ and his lady, Han Solo and Leia Organa in Star Wars.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow entertains in ways classic motion picture was intended since its inception. Conran delivers a full meal of action-adventure, spiced with a strong salsa of character repartee. The ending is spectacular, moving and humerous at the same time. A feat not easily achievable in films today.
Sky Captain has drawn incredibly mixed reviews, from: it “never exceeds the level of a clever exercise” (Carla Hall, San Francicso Chronicle) and has “no emotional centre” (Sarah Chauncey, Reel.com) to it is “a dazzling and groundbreaking film … the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year.” (Jeffrey Brunner, des Moines Register). This dichotomy of opinion is understandable because no film can be all things to all people. However, I strongly disagree with critics who pan Sky Captain as shallow and boring. I believe that this action-adventure delivers exactly what it was designed to deliver: a visually impressive and entertaining story.
Summing up both ends of the critical spectrum, Stephen Holden (The New York Times) says it best: “When Sky Captain remembers that storytelling and characters matter more than design and special effects, it charms as well as impresses.”
Well, it’s been out on DVD for a while, so go pick it up and tell me differently.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.