[box cover]

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Paramount Home Video

Starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Giovanni Ribisi, Angelina Jolie, Michael Gambon, Bai Ling, the digital ghost of Laurence Olivier

Written and directed by Kerry Conran

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Review by M.E. Russell                    

"This film was never an exercise in photo-realism — that's not what we were trying to do. And if that's what people were looking for, and they feel like we failed them, well, you know, I'm sorry — but this wasn't the movie for you."

Sky Captain production designer Kevin Conran, on the DVD's extras

*          *          *

1. Retro-Future-Geek Agonistes

"The World of Tomorrow" was the official theme of the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. Built on a marshland in Flushing Meadows, the Fair was packed with huge, naïve exhibits about how the miracles of science — Television! Freeways! Robots! — were going to create a fantastic technocratic utopia by, oh, 1960 or so.

Obviously, the world had other plans.

Ultimately, you could argue the Fair's legacy was largely aesthetic: It reinforced a shiny, dome-topped, big-finned vision of the future that movies, serials, and comic books either embraced ("Buck Rogers"), spoofed ("Futurama"), or reacted against (Star Wars, Blade Runner).

In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, writer-director Kerry Conran uses his own, decidedly lesser miracles of science — high-end servers and suites of rendering software — to resurrect naïve optimism with a vengeance. Working closely with his designer brother Kevin and producer Jon Avnet, Conran created what may be the world's most elaborate love letter to 1930s adventure cinema and the irony-free heroism of Rogers, Flash Gordon and Superman. Sky Captain is a weapons-grade geek-out, a propaganda poster come to life — a tale of daring flyboys, giant automatons, plucky reporters, undersea peril, laser guns, rocket ships and prehistoric monsters, crafted with a lunatic attention to detail.

The story's as simple (and, let's face it, as simple-minded) as a 1930s serial. Ace reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is working on a piece about missing scientists just as enormous flying robots show up to wreak havoc on New York City. In the nick of time, the mercenary pilot Sky Captain (Jude Law) arrives in his customized P-40 Warhawk to battle the behemoths — and soon he and Polly are flying 'round the globe, looking for the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf, the madman responsible for both the robot attacks and a larger, more sinister project on an uncharted jungle isle. They're helped in their adventure by Sky Captain's gum-smacking inventor sidekick Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) and Capt. "Franky" Cook (Angelina Jolie), leader of an all-female squad of amphibious air commandos.

*          *          *

2. Reference-O-Rama

Corny? Absolutely. Stupid? I don't think so. (Mass audiences, unfortunately, seemed to disagree: Sky Captain's $37-million domestic gross was underdone only by its $15-million international gross — a hugely disappointing belly-flop that probably killed what would have been a very groovy line of toys and a gorgeous "Art of" coffee-table book.)

The movie embraces a sort of "retro-futurism," imagining an alternate 1930s full of mechanical marvels, zeppelins and freaks of nature. There's probably a modest-sized book in detailing all of Sky Captain's visual and thematic nods to classic science-fiction films and serials. Here are a few of the more obvious references, conscious or sub-, and I may be completely wrong about a couple of them:

  1. Max Fleischer's "Superman" cartoons — The look of Sky Captain's soft-focus, Expressionistic New York scenes can be traced to Fleischer's visually stunning series of animated shorts starring the Man of Steel, produced from 1941-42. Specific references can be found in the second short in the series, "Mechanical Monsters," in which Superman fights an army of gigantic flying robots. Gwyneth Paltrow's plucky, alliteratively named reporter/heroine, Polly Perkins, is also a blatant nod to the '40s Lois Lane — right down to her complicated relationship with a flying hero who's constantly bailing her out of trouble.

  2. King Kong — Our heroes eventually discover that the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf operates out of an uncharted island base. As Sky Captain and the all-female Manta Squadron mount an undersea assault on the isle, they pass the sunken wreckage of none other than the Venture — the ship that traveled to Skull Island in 1933's King Kong. The abundance of prehistoric beasties Sky Captain and Polly encounter (including, in one fleeting shot, the giant iguana from One Million Years B.C. and King Dinosaur) suggests that this is, in fact, the same speck of land where Fay Wray met the giant ape.

  3. Buck Rogers — Larry "Buster" Crabbe was the king of sci-fi serial cheese in the 1930s — thanks to his back-to-back appearances in the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers adventure shorts, derived from the classic newspaper comics. Certainly, Jude Law's heroic flyboy recalls Crabbe (and Errol Flynn) more than a little; we're also told that Sky Captain's trusty sidekick Dex gets many of his gadget ideas (including a nifty retro laser pistol) from Buck Rogers comic books, which we see strewn over Dex's desk. The Buck and Flash influences are also felt during Sky Captain's climax — which features a gigantic, gleaming rocket-ship with rocket fins and a space-ark mission that recalls the 1951 sci-fi disaster classic When Worlds Collide.

  4. Metropolis — Fritz Lang's 1927 silent-film masterpiece is another obvious influence on the look of Sky Captain's Gotham. Set in a "futuristic" Art Deco 2026, Lang's film uses gigantic sets, miniatures, paintings and animation to envision a world of towering skyscrapers and airships — and yet it also features such anachronisms as 1920s automobiles and fashions.

  5. Another influence on Sky Captain's anachronistic World's Fair futurism may be found in the 1930 Fox-Movietone release Just Imagine — a bizarre "sci-fi musical" (starring a pre-Tarzan Maureen O'Sullivan) set in New York in the then-far-off 1980s. The film is by all accounts horrid and unfunny, but features an Art Deco spacecraft that would later appear, slightly re-dressed, in the Flash Gordon serials.

  6. The Wizard of Oz — Aside from the obvious nod — Polly Perkins meets an ill-fated scientist at a Radio City Music Hall screening of WizardSky Captain features a man-behind-the-curtain payoff that's simply too juicy to spoil here.

  7. Les Vampires — Now, the easiest thing in the world would be to say that the mute "Mysterious Woman," who smacks Sky Captain around on a scaffolding with an electric pole, bears an uncanny resemblance to Darth Maul from The Phantom Menace. But it's possible that writer-director Kerry Conran and his production-designer brother Kevin derived her caped, black-garbed look in part from the villainess Irma Vep in the 1915-16 Les Vampires serials by French director Louis Feuillade.

  8. Marvel Comics — Angelina's Jolie eyepatch-sporting Capt. "Franky" Cook — traveling around on a gigantic airborne "helicarrier" landing pad — is a possible geek citation of the eyepatch-sporting Nick Fury, leader of the secret government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in comic books created in 1965 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. (Fun fact: David "Baywatch" Hasselhoff played Fury, with eyepatch, in a 1998 TV-movie.)

  9. And then, of course, there's the stuff that the production team cops to ripping off in the DVD's extras: charcoal cityscape renderings by architect and illustrator Hugh Ferriss, industrial designers Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy, "Adam Strange," King of the Rocket Men, Only Angels Have Wings, The Third Man, and more.

I have now, BTW, very likely discussed the film's references more than the filmmakers do on this DVD, which I'll complain about at length later.

Anyway. What really distinguishes Sky Captain is (a) its unironic, unabashed love of all this retro-serial goodness and (b) its look, which uses every special-effect trick in the book to make the film feel like a soft-focus, sepia-toned postcard from the 1930s.

Conran and company actually achieved that look in a pretty interesting way: The entire movie was shot without sets, against gigantic blank bluescreens, allowing the filmmakers to paint in the backgrounds with computers and an unprecedented level of visual control. (It allows them to seamlessly work in a cameo by a young Laurence Olivier, among other nifty tricks.)

This technique isn't quite as revolutionary as the film's press materials and this DVD would have you believe — it's really just a more elaborate version of what they did on "Land of the Lost" every week, and video-game cut scenes have been employing a low-rez variation on this technique for maybe a decade — but it's never been done on this scale or with this level of obvious love and care. And it's a testament to the filmmakers that it actually serves rather than overwhelms the story they're trying to tell.

*          *          *

3. All That Said: Where Sky Captain Kind of Blows It

Now, all of the above indisputable geek coolness makes it almost physically painful to report that Sky Captain has some problems — dramatic ones — that may make the film a bit troublesome for people who aren't in on the joke.

Shooting a film with minimal sets and props can either inspire or defeat an actor's imagination; witness the varying levels of thespian spark in your average Star Wars prequel. In Sky Captain, alas, the supporting players (particularly Jolie and the hilariously deadpan Ribisi) often seem to be having a lot more fun flying imaginary planes and blasting imaginary robots than the leads. Paltrow, with her Veronica Lake hairdo and Rosalind Russell couture, certainly looks the part, but she sounds alternately bored and coarse. As she sort of jogs away from giant rampaging robots, you wonder what a feistier actress (my vote goes to Rachel McAdams, or maybe Kate Beckinsale) could have done with this role. When that low energy dovetails with Conran's dialogue — which is sweet and earnest but hardly screwball-comedy sharp — the movie drags, taking on a cool reserve that seems frankly at odds with the lurid conceit. Any scene where Paltrow has a spat with Jude Law in an airplane cockpit falls flat; it's squabbling, not banter.

And then Angelina Jolie shows up — wearing an eyepatch, a British accent and a big-lipped smirk the size of Texas — and gleefully kicks off another, better movie within this one. Jolie does such a good job flirting with Law and making fun of Paltrow and having fun making fun that it sort of leaves you wishing Conran had made Franky Cook and the World of Actors Who Don't Seem Slightly Befuddled by their Roles. Ribisi would co-star, and Law could fly them around.

Still, the original serials weren't exactly Actors' Studio showcases, so this may be carping in the face of an obvious labor of cinematic love. Sky Captain indulges that inner kid who always wanted a single movie crammed with robots, airships and dinosaurs — with World's Fair hopefulness and panache, despite its flaws.

*          *          *

4. The DVD Breakdown

Owing I'd imagine to its flopitude, this is a single-disc set, and it's one of those heartbreaking single-disc sets where you can just feel the seams bursting — where, if the movie had been a hit, there would have been a music-only track and a second platter jam-packed with concept art and a subtitle track detailing the film's references and storyboard-to-animatic-to-final-shot comparisons and, I don't know, printable Flying Legion iron-ons or something. Still, it's a pleasantly dense set as it stands — the movie looks and sounds great, the digital F/X don't look as flat on home video as I feared they would, and there are a few treasures for the film's fans.

There are two commentary tracks. The first, by producer Jon Avnet, who describes himself as "the least nerdy person working on this movie," is a vaguely bittersweet recounting of the push-and-pull of the production. (He refers to "territoriality" at one point, though he refers to it in terms of saying how supportive his relationship with Conran was. Still, it feels telling.) The yack track starts with Avnet saying he remembers agreeing to pay for the film's development "with fondness and sometimes with tears"; he also notes that Kerry Conran "majors in self-deprecation" and takes partial credit for a number of creative, editing and casting decisions, saying stuff like

I think in terms of the screenplay, Kerry was more interested in what I would refer to as "boys with toys," and I — based on the 50 or so movies I've done — was more relationship-oriented. So in terms of the screenplay, if I had an impact or an influence, it was in trying to make the relationships as entertaining and sophisticated as possible....

... and so forth. Avnet's recounting of the backstage production process and the struggle to overcome Kerry's shyness is exhaustive, courageous and actually pretty nerve-wracking — he barely discusses the images onscreen — and in the wake of the film's mild box-office thud, you have to wonder if he'd do it all again.

The second commentary is by writer/director Kerry Conran, production designer Kevin Conran, animation director/digital effects supervisor Steve Yamamoto and visual effects supervisor Darin Hollings, and there's some sad news to report here. There's a surprising amount of dead air on this track, with very little enthusiasm or geeking out, especially given the four participants and the ambition of the project; are all effects-obsessed guys such verbal minimalists? Everyone's very likable, but the talk is also, to my intense disappointment, focused almost exclusively on the technical aspects of the film, with several scenes identified as being truncated by compromise or budget. There's no significant discussion of the references to other films, comics and illustrators — nor any real discussion of working with actors, or of the history or theoretical underpinnings of Sky Captain.

Putting it another way: This is the sort of yack track where every other comment feels like a variation on, "The [tiny prop] and [actor] are the only real things in this shot." I'm exaggerating, but my disappointment is very real, and I hope it's a good long damn while before I hear anyone else say the word "animatic."

Also, weirdly, I don't think these guys mention Jon Avnet. Not once. I could be wrong about that.

There's also a fairly beefy, fairly blunt two-part making-of documentary, "Brave New World," split into two sections:

  1. Chapter 1 (28:11) traces the film's inception — from Kerry Conran's CalArts film-school education to his four years of labor on a six-minute short version of the film's opening (which he made using an off-the-shelf Mac) to his crossing paths with Jon Avnet. Avnet emerges as a key, and maybe ever-so-slightly combative, presence in the production: He looms large in the DVD's legend, making Kerry spend two years writing and re-writing the script and doing insane amounts of preproduction before blowing the thing up to a 100-animator project with marquee stars. (The way the Conrans presented a tape of the six-minute short to Avnet — in a stylized steel box, with a one-sheet modeled on pulp paperbacks and a toy robot — should serve as a how-to for aspirant filmmakers.)

    Part 1 concludes with the actors, who are obviously a little befuddled by what they've gotten themselves into, walking around in big blue rooms, laughing at what a shy kitten Kerry Conran was on-set.

  2. Chapter 2 (23:33) follows the slightly mad post-production process — which feels a bit like the old Van Nuys warehouse days of ILM's all-hippie "Star Wars" production crew, only instead of inventing motion-control cameras, they're all chained to Apple desktops. ("To say [our effects house] was lacking amenities is a slap in the face to facilities lacking amenities," jokes Kevin Conran early on.)

    This is about as entertaining as a documentary about the challenges of cooling server towers can be — and there's a surprising tension toward the end, when outside effects houses are brought into the production and Kerry's aw-shucks persona has earned him the love, if not the fear-driven respect, of his crew. (Avnet seems to have served as the production's slightly exasperated iron fist, and these docs frankly left me speculating about any unspoken tension behind the scenes in that regard.)

My favorite extra was "The Art of World of Tomorrow," an 8:20 showcase of Kevin Conran's frankly stunning concept art for the film, intercut with Conran's well-spoken dishing on the conceptual process. This extra will have fans slavering for a bound edition of these drawings.

There's also Kerry Conran's original six-minute short (6:04), made on a Mac, which is pretty damned remarkable, contains many of the same shots, and frankly has elements that should have been retained in the final version of the film. (I'm thinking specifically of the "Chapter One: Mechanical Monsters" title card and the way the short gets right down to the robot attack on New York, but I'm thinking even more of the beautifully scratchy pre-film title card that tells us Sky Captain is approved by the British Board of Film Censors; it serves the same mood-setting function the "ShawScope" card did on Kill Bill.)

One tiny beef: Edward Shearmur's phenomenal Sky Captain score (the best adventure-film soundtrack in 2004, second only to Michael Giacchino's Incredibles score) has obviously been inserted into the short, and the soundtrack beefed up, which I suppose makes this a "Special Edition" or something. What music, if any, was used originally? A commentary track on this would have been really, really wonderful to hear.

There are also two deleted scenes"Totenkopf's Torture Room" (1:13), a more or less finished scene (sans music), set in Shangri-La, that reveals that the master villain was performing experiments on slaves he had working in his uranium mine; and "The Conveyor Belt," a 3:56 animatic-and-bluescreen version of an alternate scene where Sky Captain and Polly are knocked on their asses by the Mysterious Woman, chained up in a cage, and rescued by Dex as a giant robot loads them on a conveyor belt. It looks like it might have been silly and fun, and feels like it might have been more interesting than the Dex reunion used in the film.

There's also a 2:32 gag reel where spoof animatics produced by the effects guys after-hours are funnier than Law and Paltrow wondering if someone farted in their plane cockpit; and 8:55 of previews for other films — a couple of them for the other two dozen films Law did in 2004 as part of what you might jokingly call his "divorce-settlement spree" of film appearances.

Strangely, the DVD contains none of the notoriously misleading advertising for Sky Captain, not even the trailer, which cast the film as a straight-ahead action film.

M.E. Russell

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