Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie, Michael Gambon, Giovanni Ribisi, Ling Bai and Sir Laurence Olivier
Directed by Kerry Conran
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is an homage to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear. It is filled with giant robots, ray guns, island fortresses, space ships and just about every other staple of the genre imaginable. What makes Sky Captain unique is the manner in which it is all brought to life.
Apart from the actors, almost nothing in Sky Captain actually exists. If an actor isn’t touching it, chances are it is an entirely digital construct. Every frame of this movie has been altered in some way during post-production, whether it be a simple softening of the focus or the insertion of a wildly stylized set. The end result is a feast for the eyes; so much so that I spent the first ten or fifteen minutes getting used to the visual style.
Thankfully, the story is pretty straightforward. This really is an homage, so there’s not really a whole lot of depth to the plot. The viewer can afford to get lost in the visuals for a while without fear of losing track of the story.
Which is not to say that Sky Captain doesn’t spin an entertaining yarn; it certainly does that. Though it suffers from some less than stellar dialogue, the combination of breathtaking visuals, ripped from a pulp magazine story and all around decent performances by the cast was enough to keep me engaged throughout the entire film.
At this point, there are so many things I liked about Sky Captain that it becomes difficult to sort them out and determine where exactly they should be plugged into the review. First, there are the characters. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Polly Perkins and Jude Law’s Sky Captain (AKA Joe Sullivan) are each a spot-on tip of the hat to the stereotypical nosy reporter and dashing hero that the aforementioned serials helped create. Ditto for Giovanni Ribisi as Dex, the genius mechanic. The only role I haven’t really been able to pin down a stereotype for is Angelina Jolie as Captain Cook, but she wears an eye patch and, well, that’s enough.
Then there is the enigmatic Ling Bai, who portrays the nameless but thoroughly deadly adversary with whom Sky Captain and company must constantly contend. She’s part Darth Maul, part ninja, part Marcel Marceau and all woman. Sort of. She doesn’t utter a single syllable throughout the entire movie, but her presence is guaranteed to make things interesting.
Finally (as far as characters are concerned) we have Sir Laurence Olivier as Dr. Totenkopf, whose diabolical scheme the heroes must thwart. Olivier died in 1989, so his appearance in Sky Captain is certainly noteworthy. Conran tips his creative hat to The Wizard of Oz in bringing Olivier back to the screen.
Next, the style of the film. It may have been enough to borrow story elements and characters from those classic serials, but Kerry Conran went a step further. Every scene, every cut and every fade utilizes some mechanic that hearkens back to 1940. Whether it be a newspaper montage, a radio tower broadcasting concentric circular signals, three hands pointing skyward to herald the arrival of Sky Captain or lines of longitude and latitude superimposed over the Earth to show the journey of a flying airplane, it is all another, superbly executed nod to the black and white adventures that drew people back into the theaters week after week.
There’s very little that I didn’t like about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I thought that Michael Gambon, portraying Polly Perkins’ gruff-yet-caring editor, could have used some more screen time. There was also a line (in Tibetan) about Gwyneth Paltrow’s nipples that seemed rather out of place. Finally, there was a horribly disfigured man whose makeup/mask was a little too over the top for my liking. In a movie where nearly everything is over the top, that’s saying a lot. The difference is how well everything else blends in, and how this particular effect did not.
Some will probably say that Sky Captain is an example of using visual effects to compensate for a lackluster story. I don’t think that’s the case at all. While the story certainly isn’t fantastic, it’s definitely passable. The visual effects simply allow Kerry Conran to present the story in a manner the audience has never experienced before. It’s bluescreen film-making done right, and with spectacular results.