Sunday, May 07, 2017


Conceived as the ultimate homage to classic black & white adventure movies and multi-chapter serials, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow began as one man's labor of love. Kerry Conran worked on his dream project for years and after producing 6 minutes of footage as a demonstration of that he wanted to accomplish started hunting for financing. That he was able to bring such an unusual concept to fruition is a testament to Conran's fortitude as well as his skills. That he pushed this odd idea through with the then radical technique of filming everything against green screens and creating all the sets and special effects after the actors were finished makes his accomplishment simply amazing. Jam-packed with eye-popping sights and dozens of sly in-jokes for old movie fanatics, this is a film made by fans for fans. You've never seen anything quite like this movie both in look and content — at least in the last 70 years or so. 

The time is the late 1930s. The place: New York City. Newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is investigating the disappearance of several leading scientists around the world when the city is attacked by giant flying robots. Joe Sullivan, a.k.a. Sky Captain (Jude Law), fights off this weird invasion but is unprepared for a later assault on his private airfield by more flying machines. During this attack Joe's best friend and genius gadget man Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) is kidnapped but leaves behind a clue to where he thinks the robots are getting their radio messages. Polly has discovered the man behind these attacks is named Totenkopf and also has found two mysterious vials that the madman needs as part of his plans. Despite acrimonious feelings between Polly and Joe they set out together to save Dex and stop the mysterious man masterminding things. After finding a deserted scientific base in the Himalayas they enlist the aid of eye-patch wearing Commander Frankie Cook (Angelina Jolie), of Britain's Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, in their search. With her flying aircraft carrier (could this be more Nick Fury?) they battle their way into Totenkopf's secret island complex and discover his plan to destroy the world! How can he be stopped?

Strangely, I did not come by my love of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow quickly. This movie is geared precisely for some one like me- I love old adventure films, watch and collect the classic serials of the '30s and '40s, read old hero pulp novels constantly and love retro science fiction tales of all kinds. But oddly, when I saw this film theatrically I was pleased but not overjoyed. After the initial excitement of the opening attack on New York and the first few hops around the world I began to feel a distance between me and the story — I just wasn't involved. I felt that the movie lost momentum in the last half becoming less interesting and tiring, so I came away liking Sky Captain but a little disappointed. But then I re-watched it at home and I suddenly got it — almost by accident. Because of my hectic schedule I was unable to go through the movie in one session so I divided it up over a two-day period. This led me to realize that the second half of the film was not only much better than I remembered but also easily the best part. By chopping it into five roughly 20 minutes segments I had, without knowing it, turned it into what Conran had envisioned making — a big budget 1940s style serial! 

The flaw in the film (for me) wasn't that it flagged in the home stretch but that it maintains its energy and excitement for too long to take in one sitting. Structured as a classic chapter play it has too many cliffhanger moments for a single viewing. Any fan will tell you to never watch an entire serial at one time — it'll deaden your mind, numb your butt and cause synaptic overload! Conran and his team have done a great job of capturing both the serial's good points (action, thrills, stunts) and bad ones (thin characters, stilted dialog, logic-defying stories) but by having to make it into a long form film they've almost overshot the mark. From looking at the original 6 minute short Conran made it clear he saw this as a serial and the piece even ends with the promise of "7 Exciting Chapters". There's ample evidence that they would've liked to make the story as a multi-part film; I'm convinced that they should craft an alternate version someday for home video. I can already imagine the chapter titles (Watery Crash! Island Assault!Rocket of Death!) and those great sound of doom voice-overs. (Will Dex be killed by the Metallic Monsters? ... Can Polly and Sky Captain escape certain destruction? ... Why is Sky Captain diving toward the ocean?)

But even as I confess that I really love this movie I'm not blind to its faults. Even within the strictures of the classic serials the dialog could use more zip and though he does a fine job I'm not sure Jude Law was the perfect choice for the lead. Also first time director Conran's inexperience shows at times with some flat scenes and missed details that really bug me. Of course, in a movie that sports a combination airplane-submarine maybe I'm being too picky for my own good. This is a movie I'll be putting in the Blu-Ray player repeatedly for years to come and I'm glad there are others out there that love these kinds of old fashioned thrills as much (if not more) than I do.

1 comment:

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

Love this movie. You are right, nothing quite like it and I like all the influences from those 50 Superman cartoons from the 40s. I was watching trailer and my date turned to me and said "This is what it's like in your mind all the time, isn't it?" That was the best thing anyone said about me.