Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

For director Kerry Conran, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a lifelong dream come true. It’s a sentimental trip into a bygone era of heroic filmmaking, a throwback to a sci-fi world of pistons, motors, and gears. If you’re nostalgic for that stuff, if you share Kerry’s dream for 1930’s filmmaking revisited, then you’re going to lose your mind for Sky Captain, all two or three of you. The rest of us will be over here in reality, modestly enjoying it and wishing that it had been made as a real, big budget picture instead of a cheap and easily constructed animated film with actors spliced in between all the occasionally convincing CGI sets.

The story is something akin to an old action-adventure serial like Flash Gordon with shades of Indiana Jones mixed in. Sky Captain opens with GIANT FREAKIN ROBOTS attacking circa 1939 New York, with intrepid, Lois Lane cloned reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) right in the thick of things. New York calls in their hero for hire, Sky Captain (Jude Law), a flying ace with a team of hot shots and planes stocked with interesting gadgets. Think of them as an early version of the Batplane. Soon Perkins and the Captain are embroiled in a plot to kidnap missing scientists and destroy the world, the sort of thing that could come out of just about any old pulp comic or might be comfortable on a shelf next to Attack of the Fifty Foot Man.

Unlike those old black and white sci-fi movies or the old Fleischer Superman cartoons this harkens back to, Sky Captain isn’t likely fodder for the now defunct team at “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. The dialogue is at first a bit listless, but picks up speed in the later act as Law and Paltrow develop an old-time feel chemistry together. Paltrow especially shines, and as it turns out this is the first thing I’ve seen her in recently where she didn’t look uncomfortable. Angelina Jolie also shows up with a particularly energetic extended cameo, in fact it’s her appearance that really at last starts the movie clicking. The action is fun and lighthearted, so if it sometimes seems a bit silly that’s forgivable. Conran’s story is sharp and well written, even if his camera is often static and listless, too in love with his CGI world to shoot it from anything other than the absolute optimum display angle.

Filmed like a fat lady’s glamour shot, the movie is intentionally out of focus for most of its running time. It drove me nuts. I’m sure that’s being touted as some sort of bold stylistic choice, but it’s a stylistic choice that I absolutely hate. Finding new ways to obscure the audience’s view is never a good thing. If it really is a stylistic choice, it is coincidentally one that helps cover up the flaws of excessive computer generated imagery, which to me sounds more likely to be the real reason I’m stuck squinting at the screen through a generous haze of digitally rendered petroleum jelly. The problem with this type of filmmaking remains quite simply that CGI is still not ready to completely replace real set design, thus guys like Conran are left looking for ways to compensate for computerized inadequacies. I realize that using CGI will enable all kinds of independent and low budget filmmakers to create huge, effects heavy super-movies right on par with the biggest budget action pictures of Hollywood, but I don’t think that’s a good thing. Give me a cardboard tree or an on location shoot any day. If that can only be done by a big budget studio then so be it. Leave the sweeping grandiose filmmaking to the guys with enough money to make it realistically grandiose.

Sky Captain tries to be grandiose on a not so grand budget, and does so by making everything in the movie that isn’t a living, breathing actor a detailed CGI render. In other words what you’re watching here is an animated film with actors sewn into it. Sort of like Pete’s Dragon in reverse. That’s nothing new; George Lucas has been creating plasticky looking movies that way for years now. What is actually innovative about Sky Captain is that Conran and his crew animated their entire movie FIRST and then went back and filmed their actors to fit the CGI they’d already created. Whether that makes the blending of live actors and all CGI set building work better I leave to your determination. If there was a difference, I probably missed it somewhere in the film’s omnipresent soft-lens haze.

Though I found Conran’s fuzzy style choices annoying, some of the visuals in Sky Captain are actually quite stunning, in a videogame cut scene sort of way. The GIANT FREAKIN ROBOTS touted all over in the trailers and appearing right at the beginning of the film are fun, though they all look suspiciously like cell shaded fakeries rather than menacing figures towering above city streets. Still, GIANT FREAKIN ROBOTS, even slightly fake looking GIANT FREAKIN ROBOTS is good. Very good. My favorite visual moments though came underwater as Sky Captain and Polly join Frankie in a submerged assault on what is clearly King Kong’s Skull Island, in this case home to the secret base of the film’s technologically advanced villain. The movie is filled with wonderful little nods to classic flicks, including in this scene a geektastic shot of the sunken Venture, complete with battered cage from which King Kong escaped.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a fun, family friendly action film that a few years from now will fit comfortably into a Sunday afternoon double feature with the likes of Swiss Family Robinson. If you can get past the constant blurring, you’ll have a good time watching it, even if the movie loses a lot of the wow factor it could have had were Conran to have found a different way to express his personalized retro-style. If you’re a total movie nerd who obsesses over Flash Gordon or the aforementioned Fleischer, well you’re going to blindly freak out, love it, and convince yourself Sky Captain is some sort of major achievement. You’ll probably even send me email claiming that the glamour shot look is a brilliant innovation. Sky Captain isn’t any of those things, but it is a solid and original adventure flick. Even foggy originality is somewhat refreshing.