Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow started as a six-minute home movie by Kerry Conran. He used computer software and blue screens to recreate New York City and depict a zeppelin docking at the top of the Empire State building. The six-minute short, which Conran spent several years completing, caught the attention of producer John Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes). He commissioned Conran to flesh out a feature film, where computers would fill in everything except the actors (he even used the original short in the feature film). The dazzling, imaginative results are Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Polly (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a reporter in 1930s New York. She?s investigating the mysterious disappearance of World War scientists when the city is invaded by a fleet of robots. The city calls out for the aid of Sky Captain, a.k.a. Joe (Jude Law), a dashing flying ace that happens to also be Polly?s ex. Joe and Polly form an uneasy alliance. He wants to stop Totenkopf (archived footage of Laurence Olivier) from sending robots around the globe and rescue his kidnapped mechanic, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi). She wants to get the story of a lifetime, a madman spanning the world to abduct scientists, parts, and the required elements to start a doomsday device. Along the way, Captain Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie) lends her help with her flying amphibious brigade. Together they might stop Totenkopf on his island of mystery.

Sky Captain is a visual marvel. It isn’t necessary a landmark, as actors have performed long hours behind green screen before (just look at the Star Wars prequels). Sky Captain is the first film where everything, excluding props the actors handle, is digitally brought to life inside those wonderful computers. The results are breath-taking, like when Polly enters Radio City Music Hall or during an underwater dogfight with Franky’s amphibious squadron. Sky Captain is brimming with visual excitement. The film is such an idiosyncratic vision that there’s no way it could have been made within the studio system.

Sky Captain has definite problems. For one, the characters are little more than stock characters going through the motions. The story also takes a backseat to the visuals. The dialogue is wooden and full of clunkers like, “You won’t need high heels where we’re going.” Generally the dialogue consists of one actor yelling the name of another character (examples include: “Dex!” “Joe!” “Polly!” and “Totenkopf!”). My father remarked that watching Sky Captain was akin to watching What Dreams May Come, because you’re captivated by the painterly visuals enough to stop paying attention to the less-than-there story and characters. The characters running onscreen also appears awkward, like they’re running on treadmills we can’t see, reminiscent of early 1990s video games.

Let’s talk then about those characters then. Paltrow’s character is generally unlikable. She’ll scheme her way toward whatever gains she wishes, but not in a chirpy Lois Lane style, more like a tabloid reporter. She whines, she yells, she complains, she berates, and she doesn’t so much banter as she does argue. Sky Captain is more enigmatic as a character. He seems forever vexed. Jolie’s Captain Franky Cook gives her another opportunity for her to use her faux-British accent. Jolie’s character is the strong-willed, sexy, helpful heroine that should be the center of the film, not Paltrow’s pesky reporter.

It’s also a bit undignified to assemble Laurence Olivier as the villain. It’s very unnecessary, but at least he wasn’t dancing with a vacuum cleaner.

Now, having acknowledged the flaws of Sky Captain, I must now say this: I do not care at all. This is the first time I’ve totally sidestepped a film’s flaws because of overall enjoyment. I have never felt as giddy as I did while watching Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. When the giant robots first showed up I was hopping in my seat. When I saw the mixture of 1930s sci-fi, adventure serials, and Max Fleischer cartoons, I was transported to being a little kid again. No movie has done this so effectively for me since perhaps the first Back to the Future. I loved that we saw map lines when we traveled from country to country. I love the fact that the radio signal hailing Sky Captain is reminiscent of the RKO Pictures opening.This is a whirling, lovelorn homage that will make generations of classic movie geeks will smile from ear to ear. I don’t pretend to brush over the flaws, with which story and characters might be number one, but Sky Captain left me on such a cotton-candy high that my eyes were glazing over.

One could actually make a legitimate argument that the stock characters, stiff dialogue, and anemic story are in themselves a clever homage to the sci-fi serials of old, where the good guys were brave, the women plucky, and the bad guys always bent on world domination. I won?t make this argument, but it could lend credence more toward the general flaws of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Sky Captain is an exciting ode to influences of old. It’s periodically breath-taking in its visuals and periodically head scratching with its story, but the film might awaken childhood glee within the viewer. I won’t pretend the film isn’t flawed, and I know the primary audience that will love Sky Captain are Boomers with a love and appreciation for classic cinema. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow will be a blast for a select audience, but outside of that group the film’s flaws may be too overwhelming.

Nate’s Grade: B+

About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on September 19, 2004, in 2004 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. As with “John Carter,” I always hoped there would be a sequel to “Sky Captain,” which I thoroughly enjoy.

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