Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was billed as an experiment in digital film making, shooting actors against a blue screen to be composited into computer generated images. I’m not sure if there’s anything here that George Lucas wasn’t already doing on a much larger scale for the Star Wars prequels, so as an experiment in technique, Sky Captain is probably much ado about nothing.
As an exercise in style, however, I think this movie has something going. For all the comic-based movies lately, Sky Captain is one of the first films to really capture the look and feel of a comic book, at least until Sin City. Of course, you probably can’t take Grandma to see that one. The look and feel combines dynamic comic book-inspired compositions with a bleached and hand-tinted look that suggests a Saturday afternoon serial.
The story exists mostly as an excused for a non-stop parade of a dangerous situations and narrow escapes. It exists in a parallel 1939 (We know this because The Wizard of Oz is playing at Radio City Music Hall) where giant Zeppelins dock with the top of the Empire State Building (which was originally intended but proved to be too dangerous). Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) is the commander of a private army who rushes to the rescue in his submersible P-40 fighter every time danger calls. Dex Dearborne (Giovanni Ribisi) is his sidekick and technical wiz. Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a reporter for whom the words “plucky” and “intrepid” were apparently invented. She and Joe have a history and we can tell they’re in love by how much they seem to hate each other.
There’s something about missing scientists, giant robots attacking New York City, a mysterious Dr. Totenkopf (the late Laurence Olivier), a deadly plot dating back to World War I, a trip to Shangri-La, an uncharted island and giant British flying aircraft carriers. The latter is under the command of Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie), Joe’s ex-comrade-in-arms in more ways than one.
This film is not shy about referencing other films. Sky Captain is dense with nods to what seems like every film ever made, including the original King Kong, The Empire Strikes Back, Dr. Strangelove, Marathon Man and both the 1938 radio version and 1953 film version of The War of the Worlds, just to name a few.
While no one is going to submit this movie to the Academy for awards consideration, the actors are clearly having fun delivering performances that mesh perfectly with the film’s comic-book sensibility. Angelina Jolie especially seems to be relishing the opportunity to strut around in leather boots and an eyepatch. The dialogue sounds as if the actors are reading it right off the comic book page. In other words, just perfect for this kind of movie.
Some might quibble about lifting images of Laurence Olivier to create a performance he never gave. This “necro-casting” kind of creepy, I admit, and I’ve admonished filmmaker’s for using footage of President Clinton in a similar manner for Contact. In this case, however, we’re not talking about a sitting president and I feel like it was handled respectfully enough to give the filmmakers a pass.
Again, there’s nothing hugely groundbreaking going on here, but director Kerry Conran has marshaled an impressive array of technology to deliver a surprisingly effective piece of featherweight entertainment.