August 03, 2007

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

During the 30s and the 40s, movie serials were a very popular way of storytelling in movies because its episodic nature suited perfectly the development of low-budget action-adventure films. Under this format, a vast array of genres was exploited (westerns, crime fiction, and science fiction) in stories where a hero would fight a villain across the chapters, with a cliffhanger between every episode. Science fiction was specially popular, with titles like "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers" becoming instant classics of the genre due to their action packed story lines and the inventive use of special effects. Almost 70 years after their release, sci-fi movie serials are still part of our popular culture and a proof of their legacy is Kerry Conran's ode to 30s' science fiction, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow".

Set in a fantastic alternate version of 1939 New York, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" chronicles the story of Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a young news-reporter doing a research about the mysterious disappearances of renowned scientists. In her investigation, she meets Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter), a former colleague of the missing scientists who informs her that a man named Dr. Totenkopf is behind the kidnappings. Just before Jennings can explain her more, an army of robots arrive to the city and begin to attack the city prompting the police to call for Joseph Sullivan (Jude Law), the Sky Captain and his Flying Legion. While the Flying Legion manages to stop the attack, it won't be the last, so the Captain decides to investigate about his enemy before the next attack; problem is, the only one with information is his ex-lover Polly, and they broke up three years earlier.

As written above, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" was written by director Kerry Conran as a homage to the 30s and the sci-fi serials and comic books he enjoyed as a kid, and as such, it borrows a lot from those action-adventure movies of old in terms of mood and thematics. It's quite obvious that Conran knows and respects his sources, as the script captures the serial's style in an extremely faithful way, even to the point of homaging screwball comedy in the relationship between the two main characters. True, the plot is pretty simple as it's basically a typical 30s tale of adventures where a hero and his girlfriend team up to save the world from a megalomaniac super-villain. However, Conran adds a bit of irony and tongue-in-cheek humor that help to modernize the film in the same way that Steven Spielberg did with his "Indiana Jones" series of films.

While the story may be typical, it's in the direction and in the visual department where "Sky Captain" truly shines, as Conran does his best to create his futuristic vision of 1939 in all its glory. Shot entirely against blue screen, the majority of the sets and the background were all computer generated, allowing the designers an enormous amount of freedom in the designing of the visual style of the movie. Mixing the Art Deco style from the 30s with the visions of the future that 30s sci-fi offered at the time, director Conran and cinematographer Eric Adkins truly capture the feeling of a pulp novel with many visual homages to 30s movie serials and a wonderful photography that makes the movie feel like an authentic movie from that time period. The special effects done in the movie are simply awesome, and take full advantage of the digital film-making employed by the crew.

The cast is for the most part good, with Jude Law delivering an excellent performance as Joe Sullivan. Dashing and pretty natural, Law seems to understand the tongue-in-cheek approach that director Conran took for the film and has fun with it, creating a memorable character on the lines of pulp heroes like Doc Savage or Ace Drummond. Gwyneth Paltrow is definitely less fortunate in her delivery, but overall her performance has received a lot of unjustified bashing. True, she is definitely on a more serious tone than the rest of the characters, making her character look a bit too dull at times, but there are moments when her comedic delivery works just perfectly. Giovanni Ribisi has a supporting role that as usual is transformed into a memorable character by his great performance, and Omid Djalili appears in a small comedic role that also adds a lot to the film.

Despite being extremely faithful to the style and atmosphere of 30s serials, this faithfulness proves to be a double-edged sword for Conran, as this approach certainly limits the audience who would truly understand and like his movie. Don't get me wrong, this is by no means a difficult to "get" high brow movie, what I mean is that it certainly helps to be aware of the movie serials' style in order to catch the many tongue-in-cheek homages of the film. The main problem of the film is that taken out of context, it looks corny, simplistic and anachronistic, as it ends up suffering from the same problems that filled movie serials (clichéd situations and two-dimensional characters). On a different matter, one would have hoped a bit more of characterization for the supporting roles, specially Angelina Jolie and Ling Bai's characters, who are quite important for the story but hardly receive any development at all.

Visually stunning, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is a proof that digital film-making can be used in intelligent and creative ways to construct impressive worlds that would be impossible to recreate with normal set design. While certainly not a film I would recommend to anyone, it is certainly an excellent movie for die hard fans of sci-fi, specially those who enjoy the thrilling adventures of the likes of Buck Rogers and Ace Drummond. A flawed gem, this inspired work of sci-fi proves that there is still life in the genre, and that all its needed is a bit of imagination.


Buy "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" (2004)

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