DVD Review Of
Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/20/06
Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow is perhaps the first film whose computer special effects wizardry was trotted out as a reason to see it that I can honestly say is a good film, a very good film. Are there films that bowl one over more impressively? Yes. But this film is virtually all special effects, and was filmed on a blue screen soundstage. The texture of the film, the lighting, and the iconographic imagery, as well as stylistic techniques, all evoke the feel of 1930s-1950s era science fiction films, especially the serial films of that period.
First time director Kerry Conran does a marvelous job of recreating the feel of when the world was still large and dark and fearsome, in this late 2004 film, even more so than Peter Jackson did in last year’s late sci fi entry King Kong. Where that film was a remake of a classic sci fi film from that era, this film is an homage, and it succeeds all the more for it. Perhaps the only thing that could have made it more rollicking was the use of chapter breaks, which the DVD commentaries say was tried, but ultimately cut out of the final cut of the film, which is only 95 minutes long, and moves briskly. The plot is threadbare, but that’s perfect for this action oriented sci fi serial homage. The pre-World war Two world is being decimated by giant flying robots who steal all manner of industrial equipment. New York is laid waste, and reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) has a lead as to who may be behind it all.
The authorities call out for Sky Captain Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), a mercenary flying ace who leads a band of rogue militia men who seemingly act as world cops. He stops the attack on New York, but his own stronghold is decimated, and his scientific genius pal Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi) is kidnapped, and put to work with other enslaved scientists. So, Sky Captain and Polly end up globetrotting to Tibet, then the Pacific, in search of him and a mysterious German Doctor Totenkopf (the licensed image of a young Sir Laurence Olivier), who years earlier had decided to abandon earth and build a space ark to carry the best of the world into outer space. Along the way, several mishaps occur, and Joe hooks up with an old pal, a one-eyed über-babe named Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie) who heads a flying landing strip for the Royal Air Force.
They find the mad doctor’s island- so much like other jungle islands of the era, loaded with prehistoric beasties, and Dex fills them in on things. They finally confront Totenkopf, only to find that he’s been dead for years and his island and grand plan are being run on auto-pilot. The problem is once the doctor’s rocket ark hits the hundred mile barrier above earth, it’s programmed to incinerate the planet. That does not happen, and the last moment of the film ends almost perfectly in tune with the whole spirit of the homage to the past.
So many great and not so great films are referenced that they are hard to tally- from camp classics like Lost Continent and The Abominable Snowman to great Buster Crabbe serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers to more modern classics like The Rocketeer and Dark City and old classics like Forbidden Planet, Things To Come, and Metropolis, among many, especially in the Art Deco design of buildings and space vehicles, and the sepia-tinged look of the world. The Ray Harryhausen classic films are also nodded to more than once. Other pop references include Polly Perkins’ nod to Polly Purebred of the Underdog cartoon series of the 1960s, the Astounding Science Fiction-type magazines of the 1940s, and even the 1941 Max Fleischer cartoon short Mechanical Monsters, whose own robots are the direct source for this film’s.
Yet, as referential as it is, the film establishes its own identity, with repartee between Polly and Joe hinting at a romantic past that went kaput, and their banter about her only having two photograph shots left, add quite a bit to characterization, in an offhanded way. Paltrow evokes the sort of heroine a Faith Domergue played in many such films. There are also many small touches that enhance scenes and characters, such as when Polly and Joe land on the Totenkopf’s island, she notices that the reflection of his plane’s serial number h110d spells Polly, in the reflected water, or the excellent use of scenes from The Wizard Of Oz in Radio City Music Hall, as Polly questions a scared scientist. Almost every scene has such details that subliminally enhance the overall work. Compared to Steven Spielberg’s lame Indiana Jones serial homage film series from twenty years ago, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow shows how to do it right, using special effects as an integral part of the tale, not just for a wow factor. It will be interesting to see, if after a decade making this film, Conran is only a one hit wonder, or a true young stud of cinema. He’s already shown he has a better visual style than Spielberg, and certainly a better understanding for character and plot, for he knows that such beautiful fluff plays best when played straight.
The DVD features have two commentary tracks by producer Jon Avnet and Conran and his special effects people, that are surprisingly heavy on interesting information on the film’s production, and thankfully light on the artistic fellatio. The two documentaries, Brave New World and The Art Of The World Of Tomorrow are quite good. A real treat is the original six minute version of the film that Conran did by himself on his home computer. Rumor is that Conran is going to be taking on Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic John Carter novels next, with A Princess Of Mars his first assignment. If he can come close to the success he had here, that could be the next blockbuster sci fi film franchise, and launch Conran into the Spielberg/Lucas/Jackson orbit as an extravaganza filmmaker. Let’s just hope that, unlike the older trio, he never forgets that a good film needs a good tale. He didn’t this time.
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