Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is about 70% style and 30% substance. It has a plot and characters, but those are almost beside the point. They are devices that function as hooks upon which first-time director Kerry Conran can hang his amazing visuals. Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of style-over-substance movies, but this one is so gorgeous that it's possible to become literally lost in the richness of the images. In many ways, that's not a bad thing, because the story isn't exactly airtight.

The film transpires in a stylized version of the 1930s - an alternate reality where all the world's on a silver screen and the Great Depression never existed. In keeping with the nostalgic tone of the movie, Conran presents things in a gauzy brown-and-white with a thin sheen of color. It's like watching an old, non-restored copy of The Wizard of Oz, or looking at an aged color photograph. Vibrant hues are not part of Conran's agenda. He's going for something that will take us back 70 years, to a time before television, when Saturday afternoon serials were one of the cinema's staples. In fact, Sky Captain is designed and scripted like one.

The characters are familiar types. Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Jude Law) is a tough-yet-sensitive adventurer who comes to the rescue in his private plane whenever he is needed. Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is an intrepid reporter for The Chronicle, as well as a former flame of Joe's. Like Lois Lane, when she latches onto a story, she doesn't let go. Joe's sidekick is Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi), who's handier than MacGyver. Then there's Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie), the captain of British airship who lends a hand to Joe when he most needs it (like Polly, she's a former lover). The villains are a mysterious Asian woman (Bai Ling) who could give Jackie Chan a fight he'd never forget, and the dangerous Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier), a megalomaniac who lives in seclusion.

The action starts when an army of giant robots invades Manhattan and starts stomping all over the place. (These look like they were lifted right out of '30s and '40s science fiction stories.) Enter Sky Captain, called in to save the day. It turns out that the invasion of the robots is connected with the disappearance of six prominent scientists - a story that Polly is researching. All of the clues point to Dr. Totenkopf, but his location is unknown, and probably requires a trip to Napal and into the mystical land of Shangri-La. When Dex is captured, Joe decides to go after him, and plucky Polly won't be left behind. Saving the world becomes an almost secondary consideration to saving their friend.

Sky Captain strongly reminds me of two movies, albeit for different reasons. Those are Dark City and The Rocketeer. This film has the same sense of innocent, lighthearted fun as the latter. And it has the same level of elegant visual style as the former. Sky Captain is a very different kind of science fiction movie from that to which we have become accustomed. Originally scheduled for a summer release, the picture was pushed to the fall by its distributor, Paramount Pictures, when the company decided that it stood a better chance in this slot than against all the teen-oriented blockbusters. Although Sky Captain is rated PG and is suitable for the entire family, its sophistication may appeal more to adults.

Much has been made about how a significant portion of the movie was acted in front of blue screens (so computer generated backgrounds could later be added). This approach allowed Conran's imagination to run wild while production costs remained reasonable. The result is a spectacle unlike anything to come along recently. On a first viewing, there's just enough time to absorb generalities. It takes subsequent viewings to sort out the details. Sky Captain stands up extraordinarily well on a second or third sit-through.

The blue screen technique proved to be a challenge for the actors, but it's the next step in digital filmmaking. Conran simply extends what George Lucas and Peter Jackson have refined. (It's rumored that a lot of the final Star Wars movie, Revenge of the Sith, was shot in the same way.) The seams between live action and computer animation are not visible; actors Paltrow and Law were reportedly amazed by the final product.

Another digital innovation allows the late Sir Laurence Olivier (who died in 1989) to give a performance from beyond the grave. Using images from early in his career, Conran was able to digitally manipulate Olivier into playing Dr. Totenkopf. Although this may sound a little like exploitation and grave-robbing, it's done cleverly and tastefully. One has the sense that if Olivier could watch his "performance" in this movie, he would approve. But it does open the door a little wider to having full-motion "synthespians" of deceased icons returning to the screen, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

The bottom line is that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is fun to watch, even if you don't care about the visual style or Conran's affinity for old movies and serials. There's a Raiders of the Lost Ark quality to the action and cliffhangers, and in the way that humor is used to offset tension (there's an ongoing joke about Polly having only two more shots left on her current roll of film, so she never takes a picture for fear of using them up). Law and Paltrow have great chemistry and they play their roles like a pair of '30s stars. Plus, there's a fine comeback for one of the greatest actors of the last century. The whole package, a labor of love for the director, offers a lot to every viewer who takes a chance on a movie with such a kitschy title.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (United States, 2004)

Director: Kerry Conran
Cast: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Gambon, Bai Ling, Omid Djalili, Sir Laurence Olivier
Screenplay: Kerry Conran
Cinematography: Eric Adkins
Music: Edward Shearmur
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2004-09-17
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1