Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) – Retrospective Sci-Fi Film Review

A hybrid of high-tech filmmaking and hackneyed storytelling

This is one of the most bizarre movies ever made. That description might make the film sound interesting, but the bizarre quality lies not so much in the film itself as in the thinking that went into it: What made anyone believe this was a movie worth making or that there would be an audience for it?
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW uses modern computer-generated imagery to create a pastiche of old-fashioned film-making. There’s no crime in that, but the film intentionally wants to look not only old-fashioned but also deliberately out of date. Set in 1939, the film’s special effects deliberately evoke the look of the science-fiction class THINGS TO COME (scripted by H.G. Wells, no less), and the “futuristic” gizmos resemble something out of an old movie serial.
In short, the whole thing looks like a spoof, something that would be amusing for a few minutes on an old episode of SCTV, but the question here is whether any of this is enough to hang a feature film on? (In fact, the film’s origin lies in a six minute short by writer-director Kerry Conran.)
The answer, unfortunately, is no. The film has a wonderful look, with color photography that’s been carefully drained to make it look almost monochromatic, except for the skin tones. This creates images that resemble old black-and-white photographs that have been tinted, and one could easily imagine this working for a film like Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong (which is an actual remake of an old film, set in the original film’s time period), but SKY CAPTAIN uses its look and effects (achieved mostly by having actors perform in front of process screens rather than in actual sets) as an excuse for indulging in hokum of the most hackneyed sort.
This is a film in which characters always state the obvious about five seconds after the audience has figured it out. It’s a film in which the whole world seems to be under attack, yet the entire defense is nothing but one guy in an airplane (good for a laugh maybe, but we’re supposed to buy into the excitement of the adventure). This is a film in which in which the leading man and leading lady trade verbal barbs (and punches) that are supposed to tell us they really love each other, but the effect is flat and stilted, like an acting class doing an exercise. Best of all, this is a film in which we’re supposed to be impressed when our intrepid female reporter rips the slit in her skirt so that she can run faster—but, alas, she moves at the exact same speed as before! And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Angelina Jolie shows up in an eye patch (that’s supposed to make her look dashing) and starts speaking in that same awful English accent she used in the Lara Croft movies.
Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow move through the scenes without generating any excitement. The unflappable quality that is supposed to endear them to us instead makes them seem almost like spectators in their own movie. But it’s hardly their fault when the script is interested in little besides aping old Republic serial-style storytelling, with a contrived plot simply an excuse to link together the big action scenes. Only Giovanni Ribisi really comes off well, because his sidekick role allows him to play most of his scenes for comic relief, keeping him free of square-jawed, can-do stiffness that’s supposed to make the leads seem heroic.
This might be tolerable if the action were any good, but the CGI work has that familiar unbelievable look about it. It’s so obvious that it almost becomes stylized enough to justify itself, except for one big problem: action requires momentum, and momentum cannot be realized effectively without a sense of inertia—the force necessary to put a body in motion or make a moving body stop. The magic of computer effects makes anything possible, but it can also make nothing seem amazing—not when the impossible zips right past our eyes without giving us a chance to appreciate how awesome and amazing it is. As is often the case with contemporary effects films, many of the highlights could have been far more effective if they had just been put together in a way that would let us see the incredible action, instead of covering it up with too many blurry shots that race by without revealing anything.
To be fair, there are a few good lines here or there that get a laugh or two, and every once in a while the film manages to come to life. The opening of the Hindenburg docking at the top of the Empire State Building is impressive, and the early attack (featuring giant robots marching down the streets of New York) has an over-the-top kind of quality that big-budget movies should deliver. But these highlights (most of which you’ve seen in the trailer) flit by and disappear, to be quickly followed by other, less interesting scenes. Despite what you may have been led to believe by the previews, this isn’t a War-of-the-Worlds-type adventure with civilization crushed beneath an unrelenting attack. The early attacks are just to get the plot rolling; the film then turns into a pursuit, eventually leading to a Lost World-type final reel.
The one-darn-thing-after-another storytelling could be amusing if it were presented with a light touch and a little wit, but for the most part we get a heavy-handed tone that’s supposed to echo old time movies—or more accurately, bad old-time movies. This film wants to be Star Wars and/or Indiana Jones for the 21st century, but those films were much smarter in the way they used old movie clichés, presenting them not only with modern technology but also with a post-modern self-awareness that invited the audience to laugh even while it indulged itself in the charms of simple old-fashioned entertainment. That’s the kind of magic SKY CAPTAIN sorely lacks, the sensibility that would make its offbeat visuals make sense. Instead, we have a weird high-tech hybrid: the finest technology money can buy, put in the service of a creaky story that is almost deliberately dumb.
Watching the result play out on the big screen, one cannot help but remember director Joe Dante’s 1992 film Matinee, in which much of the action takes place in a theatre playing a 1950s style sci-fi flick. Throughout Matinee we see several amusing glimpses of the film, called Mant (“half-man, half-ant—all terror!”), with all the beloved monster movie clichés spoofed to good effect. We see just enough to enjoy the film-within-a-film without its wearing out its welcome; Dante was smart enough not to make Mant into a feature. If only SKY CAPTAIN writer-director Kerry Conran had been as clever, he would have taken his original short subject and used it as a film-within-a-film, instead of expanding it to feature length.
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW(2004). Written & Directed by Kerry Conran. Cast: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie.

Copyright 2004 Steve Biodrowski

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