A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, PG, 107 mins.

'Sky Captain' Sullivan: Jude Law / Polly Perkins: Gwyneth Paltrow / Capt. Franky Cook: Angelina Jolie / Dex Dearborn: Giovanni Ribisi / Editor Morris Paley: Michael Gambon / Mysterious Woman: Ling Bai /
Kaji: Omid Djalili

Written and directed by Kerry Conran

First time director Kerry Conran’s distinct abilities with a Macintosh home computer allowed him to make the quantum leap into feature length films. 

 Apparently, as the story goes, he created his very own software to create a six-minute CGI animated feature of gigantic robots destroying New York City.  Well, this short demo got into the hands of producer John Avnet, who was so impressed with the raw talent of Conran that he essentially backed the young fledging filmmaker into extending the short into a feature film.  The resulting product, after years of labor and hard work, is the amusingly (and nostalgically) titled SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, a referenced title that will, no doubt, make people lovingly think back to the adventure serials of the 30’s and 40’s.  

It's clear after watching SKY CAPTAIN that it really is inspired by these serials as well as the more modern INDIANA JONES pictures.  There is one remarkable difference between this film and those that influenced it -  It's 90 per cent animated by computers.  Conran basically shot all of the actors in front of a bluescreen with minimal props and later generated, with computers, everything that is around them.  This is not altogether new (George Lucas has done this with two of the last STAR WARS films, and TRON sort of did the same decades earlier) but the scope here is absolutely unprecedented.  The resulting film, oddly enough, is a real paradox.  There is no doubt that every frame breaths  life with absolute beauty and breathtaking visuals and that Conran’s enthusiasm and wild and audacious imagination is allowed to run wild.  That’s a shame, because as much of a visual breakthrough the film is, it’s a narrative letdown.  It’s a film to be taken in on a visual level, but fails to resonate dramatically in any meaningful way. 

A considerable amount of attention has been made in the press and contemporary media of Conran’s techniques.  There is something definitely to be said about the usage of computer technology to tell the adventure yarn.  Clearly, a lot of what’s on the screen could not have been captured otherwise with lesser techniques (a point that I am always willing to emphasize for the naysayers of computer technology in films; funny, they never, ever offer up alternatives).  The film is a wonderfully realized bit of nostalgic glory, a sort of hyper-stylized, Art Deco, adventure serial that sort of seems to take place in an alternate reality (okay, more or less the 1930’s). 

Conran, to his aesthetic credit, does not simply go for easy period details.  Rather, he creates a whole new interesting world out of period details to the point where you really start believing in the world he creates, no matter how outlandish or farfetched.  He also manages to create a nice warm sense of reverence for a different time by not using glorious colors, but more subdued tones.  The film is, more or less, washed in sepia tones with just a hint of colour (THE WIZARD OF OZ sort of did that, which is clearly referenced in the picture).  Watching the film is kind of like looking at those old photos of great, great grandparents - it has a sort of timeless feel.  Clearly, this style, in combination with the sort of serialized tone of the entertainment of yesterday, makes for a terrific visual odyssey. 

The characters are about as familiar as it gets, especially if you are familiar with the conventions of the adventure serial or the INDIANA JONES films.  Jude Law plays Joseph “SKY CAPTAIN” Sullivan, the strong, courageous, sardonic, square-jawed adventurer who always arrives in the knick of time in his personal plane.  Gweneth Paltro plays the Lois Lane-esque Polly Perkins, a smart, cunning, and inquisitive New York investigative reporter, not to mention an old girlfriend of the hero (the female lead always seems to be this in these types of films).  Joe, of course, has a plucky sidekick named Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi) as his own personal Q of sorts. 

The film opens with a bang, as an armada of giant robots invade New York City (a clear reference to a particular robot in the Max Fleisher’s animated Superman short MECHANICAL MONSTERS from 1941).  Sky Captain, of course, swoops in on his plane and saves the day.  It is later revealed that this robot invasion is connected with the disappearance of six imminent world scientists, a story that Polly is also looking into.  A series of clues points to Dr. Totenkopf, but as with every evil doctor,  his whereabouts are unknown.  Gee, this will probably require a long and exhaustive journey by Joe and Polly trough several counties.  Their voyage is also made all the more the complicated by the kidnapping of Joe’s friend Dex.  There is no way that our tough-as-nails hero will let anything stop him from finding his buddy.  Along the way they hook up with another old flame of Joe’s named Franky Cook (the painfully underused Angelina Jolie), a captain of British airship who lends a hand to Joe when he most needs it.  This all leads to an inevitable meeting with Dr. Totenkopf and a revelation of his dastardly plan. 

As an escapist film, SKY CAPTAIN is quite a bit of silly and innocuous fun.  This is made all the more prevalent by the ingenious use of CGI technology to create fantastical images that seem to come to life right out of the pages of old pulp fiction novels and comic books.  I especially liked the scope and strength of the opening actions scenes involving the giant robots (they also are a bit of a homage to the robots in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL with their eye lasers and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS with their destruction).  I also liked another scene later when Sky Captain meets up with his former flame Franky aboard the immeasurably huge, if not impractical and improbable, British airships.  The enemy airships that, at one point, Spy Captain engages with, are also unique, with their wings that flap in the wind like evil mechanical birds of prey.  Yet another moment of the film, where Joe and Polly land in a jungle, will have many a KING KONG fan think back to similar incidents in that 1933 classic.  Make no doubts about it, Conran’s vision is bold, interesting, whimsical, light as a feather, and maintains a sort of gee-wiz innocence and flavour that made STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES work. 

Yet, when looking at the film as a whole, it’s really about 90 per cent style and ten per cent substance.  Now, I fully realize that this is a film to be looked at and not listened to, and there’s no denying the absolute power of Conran’s film on a visceral level.  It’s unlike anything you will probably see in a theatre all year.  However, it’s a real shame that Conran does not populate the film with truly involving characters and a story that creates some sort of interest.  The plot kind of meanders around everywhere and only builds some cohesion near the final act.  I also found that it lacked exposition where it needed it, and the film’s pace seems almost too hasty (not to mention that it crashes to a dead stop right before the credits role by). 

Furthermore, I think that the strength of these types of films lie in their respective villains.  The STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES films clearly had strong ones, but SKY CAPTAIN lacks any discernable presence of an antagonist that you’d kind of have to remind yourself to root for the good guys for the often-invisible enemy.  Even more odd is the choice of casting Sir Lawrence Oliver (yes, the one that died 15 years ago) as the evil doctor, albeit in hologram form.  Conran used images and scenes from Oliver films of the past and amalgamated them to create a computer generated posthumous performance.  I found this kind of distracting, which is precluded by the very fact that Conran is using a legend like Oliver.  This technique is not really unsavory or offensive at its core, but it seems like, more or less, a costly excuse for Conran to jump out and scream. “See what I can do!”  I dunno...this seemed kind of needless. 

The characters themselves are kind of a mixed bag as well.  Jude Law as our hero is serviceable and charismatic, but sort of fails to play the character with the right blend of strength and vigor and with his tongue strongly in his cheek.  Angelina Jolie kind of realizes this a bit more than the other cast, but her funny and sassy Captain is such a marginalized and misused character that her lack of screen time is another irritant.  As one of the more charming figures, her lack of a presence is a detriment. 

Gweneth Paltro, out of the entire cast, seems the most ill fitted.  She seems a bit bored, stiff, an uninspired in her performance, and kind of fails to play the part with the necessary elements of sass, sexiness, and goofy charm and naivety that made Indiana Jones’ female leads so much more interesting.  Paltro kind of forgets to have, well, fun with the part, and does not really have all that much chemistry with Law.   She lacks the much needed silly energy for the part.  A spunky Sandra Bullock might have fared better.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW is an awfully tricky film to openly criticize.  It does succeed very strongly at transporting the viewer into breathtaking setting of grand visuals and cheeky, cliffhanger-like thrills.  Conran’s exuberance and energy that went into this film is evident throughout its 107 minutes, and as a labor of love for the rookie director, it’s a pretty amazing achievement.  The film does generate the same sort of warm smiles and giddy joy that the classic adventures of the past have given us.  It feels timeless and definitely harks back to a time when films were simpler and easily digestible.  Conran also does a seamless job, for the most part, of integrating his actors into the action, and after a few minutes, you tune off to the technique and just bare witness to it.  Yet, despite its visual beauty, SKY CAPTAIN kind of fails to inspire genuine and any meaningful interest.   Its fun, to be sure, but among all of the computer pixels, the story seems to be missing.  I truly admire Conran’s efforts here, and wholeheartedly look forward to his future work, but SPY CAPTAIN is - if you disregard its novelty and flashiness - pretty dull.

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