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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Reviewed by Jayme Lynn Blaschke, © 2004

Format: Movie
By:   Kerry Conran (writer, director)
Genre:   Retro Sci-Fi
Released:   Released Sept. 17, 2004
Review Date:   September 19, 2004
Audience Rating:   Rated PG
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

Holey moley! If nothing else, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow will, at the very least, go down in history as the brilliant debut of director Kerry Conran. Visionary is an oft-overused term, but nothing else can apply to the singular visual feast that is this film. Unlike many other so-called "event" films that merely serve as a platform for mindless, whiz-bang special effects spectacles, with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow the dazzling visuals are integral to the film. They are one and the same, in fact, because without one, the other would not exist.

Miles of copy have been written thus far on the labor of love Sky Captain is, how director/writer Kerry Conran spent years of his life creating a six-minute segment of this film on his home computer before Hollywood saw it and loosened the purse strings. How stars Jude Law, Gwenneth Paltrow and the rest performed every scene in front of blue screen, with their surroundings digitally added later. Nothing had ever been attempted like it before, and the big sepia-toned question was, "Will it work?"

It works. And how. Furthermore, there is no way Sky Captain could work in any other form. This is a movie that is literally luminous, with lush visuals firmly anchoring the story in the retro-futuristic art deco world the 1930s should have been. From the opening scenes, with the Hindenberg III cruising in to New York to dock with the airship mooring mast atop the Empire State Building, it's clear this is a world apart, a sepia-tinged dreamland steeped in a deep love for the Golden Age of Hollywood. The only film that comes close to encompassing that same atmosphere is 1991's sadly underrated The Rocketeer, and Conran has acknowledged that earlier film's influence. While the two pictures share the same general conceit — how our past should have been — they approach that idea from radically different directions. Whereas The Rocketeer strove for verisimilitude and interwove the fantastic as tightly as possible with the everyday reality of history, Sky Captain discards reality entirely and rebuilds the world from the ground up, opting instead for a science fiction fantasy world of breathtaking beauty and texture. It simply feels right.

A great many things about Sky Captain work even when they shouldn't. I suspect more than a few viewers will sit watching with silly grins on their faces the entire time, while others simply won't "get it" and will dismiss the whole enterprise as a colossal waste of time. I confess that I fall in with the silly grin crowd, for the zeppelins if for no other reason. You can never have too many zeppelins is one of my operative philosophies, and Sky Captain tends to adhere to this mandate (although it could well have benefitted from a few more dirigibles scattered about the last half of the picture).

The prickly romance between Sky Captain (Law) and ace reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow) starts off rather awkward and forced, but by the final scenes their verbal sparring is equal to any in Hollywood's storied film vaults. A running joke about Perkins having only two shots left in her camera as they come upon one spectacular scene after another sounds achingly bad in concept, but isn't overplayed and actually provides the perfect punchline to wrap things up. Giovanni Ribisi is apparently Steve Buscemi's heir apparent for portraying annoying characters, but as Sky Captain's top mechanic and scientific mind he turns in an endearing, even subtle performance. Even Angelina Jolie, an actress who inspires extreme annoyance in me — if not outright nausea — is perfectly cast as Captain Franky Cook, the skipper of a flying aircraft carrier that would make Nick Fury envious.

The action sequences are top-notch, and the script races along as it proudly shows off its influences, including Fritz Lang's Metropolis, King Kong, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the Max Fleischer Superman shorts, The Iron Giant, the George Pal flicks War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide, and a host of others. Yes, the movie is cornball, but it's unabashedly earnest cornball, and that sincerity is telling.

Sky Captain's biggest failing, unfortunately, is rooted in all those films it pays homage to. While the script hits its beats in smart fashion and never lags, the Flash Gordon-style serial cliffhanger structure sports inherent flaws. Serials work best when you don't stop too long to think things through logically. Why, for example, when the deadly flying robots are spotted descending upon Sky Captain's mercenary base, does Sky Captain only order his own souped-up P-40 Warhawk prepped for takeoff, rather than scrambling his entire squadron?

Rubber science can be forgiven easily, but some of the plot twists and turns that pile up one upon the other become progressively harder to swallow. Jaunts to Shangri-La and (presumably) Skull Island don't flow easily from the narrative. Instead, they feel like exotic set pieces inserted by the filmmakers because they could, the far-flung globe-trotting necessary because, after all, that's what Indiana Jones did. That is, perhaps, a symptom of Conran being a stronger concept man than a writer, a la George Lucas. Fortunately, none of the niggling problems of the story amount to an Achilles heel. The story may not be particularly solid, holds together in a stylish and glossy package, and the undiluted gosh-wow exuberance covers up any seams that may be showing.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow isn't a great film, but it is a groundbreaking film. It's also a beautiful, dazzling, fun, exciting and even — at times — witty film. The universe Conran has created is so singular, his vision so unique, that it has already paid dividends for the first-time director, who has been tabbed to helm the big-screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough's A Princess of Mars. After that project is complete, I sincerely Conran is able to return to his world of Sky Captain and his mused-about prequel. I, for one, would love to see how Franky lost her eye in Nanjing, how Polly sabotaged Sky Captain's plane and how Sky Captain himself managed to juggle two girlfriends for three months without the situation blowing up in his face.

As long as Conran throws plenty of zeppelins into the mix, that's guaranteed gold in my book.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke is zeppelin editor at RevolutionSF.

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