Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, June 2, 2016

NO ENCORES: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

1. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Director: Kerry Conran

“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” should’ve been a huge hit. Director Kerry Conran was living the Hollywood dream. “Sky Captain” began life as a black and white short film Conran created mostly by himself, with some help from his brother. It was shot on blue screens in his living room, most of the effects being created on his computer. After getting the short to producer Jon Avnet, Conran immediately got a greenlit for the feature version. Big stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, and Angelina Jolie were attracted to the project. Critics hailed the movie as the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for a new generation. Instead, the movie got stuck with a lousy September release date and only grossed 37 million against a 70 million dollar budget. While the film has attracted a minor cult following, “Sky Captain” has mostly disappeared into pop culture obscurity, along with its director.

Journalist Polly Perkins receives an unsettling tip. A German scientist hands her a top secret blueprints for a giant robot. Literally minutes later, New York City is attacked by an army of similar machines. Luckily, World War I fighting ace Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan and his tricked-out airplane is around to save the day. After Joe’s techno-geek friend Dex is kidnapped by the same robots, Joe and Polly head off on an adventure together. They uncover the plot of the evil Dr. Totenkopf, a mad scientist who vanished years ago. Now, Totenkopf’s plans have resurfaced, pushing the world to the brink of disaster.

“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is set in 1939 but it’s not the 1939 of our world. The date can be pinpointed by “Wizard of Oz” being in movie theaters and subtle references to the Nazis rising to power in Germany. However, the film’s opening minutes also clarify how different the film’s world is to our own. A Zeppelin, the Hindenburg III, safely delivers passengers to New York. The technology for giant robots, rocket ships, high tech laser guns, and transforming airplanes are readily available. There is no sign of a Great Depression in America. Instead, the city is always golden, always shining. “Sky Captain” inhabits the world of 1930s Art Deco posters and pulp magazine covers. It’s an idealized world, filled with advanced technology, daring heroes, and clean city streets.

“Sky Captain” was initially going to be shot in black and white, corresponding to the time period. The idea of presenting the film as a lost adventure serial from the thirties was even toyed with. In difference to box office demands, the film was shot in color. But only sort of. “Sky Captain’s” visual presentation is highlighted with silvers, greys, bold blacks, and occasional streaks of gold. A sepia tone was added to the entire production. The film works as hard as possible to look like a black and white movie without actually being black and white. There are other small visual cues that links the film with the golden age serials it replicates. Cigarette burns, grain, scratches, and line were added to the movie. All of this can be attributed to the movie being shot primarily on blue screens, with few physical sets. This allowed Conran to create any world he wanted. Sometimes, this lends an overly weightless, unreal atmosphere to the movie. When handled well though, “Sky Captain” is a visual spectacle for the eyes.

“Sky Captain” was released during the brief period when Hollywood was determined to make Jude Law into a major box office star. 2004 also saw the release of “Alfie,” “Closer,” and “The Aviator.” Eventually, the people in charge would realize that there’s something slightly off-putting about Law’s overbearing charm, making him a fine choice for supporting roles but an awkward fit for traditional leading man parts. This is true in “Sky Captain” as well. While he has the look and delivery of a golden age matinee idol, even this film recognizes that there’s something slightly sleazy about him. For Sky Captain is also a womanizer, who previously screwed around on Polly with another girl. When punching out robots or piloting his bad ass plane, Law does fine.

Law – both his character and the performer – got top-billing but Gwyneth Paltrow is the de-facto protagonist of “World of Tomorrow.” She’s introduced first and motivates most of the plot. Paltrow is entertaining in the role. She adds a smoky quality to her voice, appearing a bit like a film noir femme fatale. However, Paltrow quickly shifts tone, filling the role of the plucky lady adventurer. Polly is not an especially complex character. Her main defining quality is her unwillingness to waste film in her camera, a reoccurring gag the movie returns to a few times too many. But Paltrow is having a lot of fun and the audience picks up on that. It’s not a great performance but it’s right on the film’s wavelength.

Upon release, “Sky Captain” mostly attracted attention for three things: It’s then revolutionary blue screen technology, Jude Law’s personal life, and Lawrence Olivier being cast from beyond the grave. Olivier “plays” Dr. Totenkopf. Which means the movie uses pre-existing footage, photos, and recordings of Olivier, digitally inserting them into the new film. It’s not much more then a gimmick, considering how obvious the manipulation of the pre-existing footage is. The shots of Olivier’s face frequently obscure his mouth, making it clear that he’s not actually speaking. The actual villain of the film is Totenkopf’s implacable robot girl servant. She’s played by Bai Ling, another performer Hollywood would build up and quickly drop. Ling doesn’t have much to work with, considering the character never speaks, but her body language is properly imposing.

The biggest star in “World of Tomorrow,” both back in 2004 and today, is Angelina Jolie. However, Jolie only has a supporting role, not a leading one. This is a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by audiences. Despite her brief screen time, Jolie makes an impression, bringing a lot of grit and sensuality to her small role. The second most notable supporting part is Giovanni Ribisi as Dex, the Sky Captain’s whiz-kid sidekick. Ribisi has the right gee-whiz attitude for the part, making Dex a brainy guy who can still think on his feet during an attack. Michael Gambon also shows up in a small part as Polly’s editor, providing his distinctive voice and not much else to the role.

When I saw “Sky Captain” in the theater, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the film, let down by too much hype. However, one aspect impressed me and still does. I’m talking about the bad ass giant robots. Several types of art deco-style giant machines are deployed throughout “The World of Tomorrow.” Giant models, obviously inspired by the Flescher “Superman” cartoons, march on New York City in the earliest action scene. Robots with spindly legs, cycloptic eyes, and tentacle arms later attack Dex’s workshop. These particular machines wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a pulp magazine. Later, flying robots appear that resemble flying wings but flap like birds. One of my favorite examples are tucked into the last act. Inside Totenkopf’s secret lair are robots with stocky bodies and angry faces who float through the air with anti-gravity platforms. Anybody with a liking for the sci-fi designs of the 30s and 40s will definitely get a kick out of “Sky Captain.”

Indeed, the film is full of references, in-jokes, and shout-outs to the stories and movies that influenced it. A montage of swooping newspaper headlines shows us scenes from around the world. The shot of Tokyo features the silhouette of Godzilla. After deactivating one of the death traps created by Olivier’s character, somebody asks “Is it safe?” The finale takes us to Dr. Totenkopf’s secret island. The island is home to genetically engineered animals, all of whom look a lot like dinosaurs. On that same island, the heroes run across a giant tree laying over a gorge. These are just two of several references to “King Kong” in the film. The visual design is obviously indebted to “Metropolis” and other German Expressionistic films. The cute in-jokes stay just on the right side of obnoxious. If “Sky Captain” pushed it any further, it would’ve been overbearing.

Being so reliant on CGI special effects doesn’t make “Sky Captain” the most exciting of action movies. By shooting so much of the movie on blue screen, it becomes especially apparent that the actors – and, by extension, the characters – aren’t in much danger. Despite that, “The World of Tomorrow” does orchestrated so memorable action sequences. While the giant robots attack New York, Sky Captain steers his plane around and in-between their legs. A clever gag has one of the machines tumbling over a chord he deploys from his jet. Probably my favorite action beat involves those bird-like machines. By piloting into the skeleton of an under-construction building, Sky Captain causes several of the machines to crash. A clever reveal has Joe transforming his plane into a submarine, the flying machine smashing into the waves above. A later underwater attack sequence is less impressive, as it feels more weightless and features more characters, lowering the already compromised stakes.

The retro aesthetic makes comparisons between “Sky Captain” and the Indiana Jones films unavoidable. The area were this connection is most obvious is the musical score. Composed by Edward Shearmur, the score features big, bold themes projected by heavy brass instrumentation. It’s never overdone while providing an appropriate sense of excitement or mystery. Sadly, the film never finds the hummable, instantly recognizable John Williams-style theme it’s obviously crying out for. Still, the orchestral soundtrack is superior to Jane Monheit’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that plays over the end credits. Her flighty, breathy delivery completely destroys the song.

The disappointing box office of “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is probably the main reason why Kerry Conran never directed another feature film. He’s been involved in a few shorts since then, obviously returning to his roots as a low budget, do-it-yourself kind of guy. Considering how much he had riding on the film, it wouldn’t shock me if he took its failure personally. It’s unlikely that any film could live up to being the next “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “Sky Captain” doesn’t have a cast that memorable, characters that lovable, or action that exciting. However, at its best, it’s a visually impressive feature that accurately captures the spirit and tone of the stories that inspired it. I hope Conran makes another film someday. [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

This movie was very creative even though it borrowed a lot from other flicks. The opening scene was very good, it featured the giant robots invading NYC. It really geeked me out! In fact, anytime the robots appeared on-screen, I was locked in. Overall it was a fun watch but it was uneven and slow at times. The story was truly secondary to the look and special effects. 7/10