The great irony of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is that this spectacular technological achievement was achieved primarily using a device that has been available for many decades. No, blue screen in and of itself is no breakthrough; in fact, its presence has sometimes been cause for derision, with snarky film buffs shouting “blue screen” whenever a particularly obvious cut-and-paste job slips in. With computers doing unheard-of wonders, blue screen is no longer limited to changing backgrounds and settings; entire worlds come to life. The world created in Kerry Conran’s film is by far the most impressive that I have seen, and there isn’t a frame that I wouldn’t pay good money to hang on my wall. Early promotional material made the visuals here look murky and unappealing — I’m not sure if it was the shot selection or the unfinished nature of the footage that gave me that impression. It was not remotely accurate.
These might just have been elaborate matte painting backdrops, except that they move, take on dimension, creep into the foreground and interact with the characters. It is unlike anything I have ever seen. Conran fashioned this world after the adventure serials of the 1930’s, and indeed, Sky Captain looks like a very retro conception of a fantasy universe brought to life by someone with state of the art technology at his disposal. And when, in the latter half of the film, the color palette begins to drastically expand, the look of the film moves away from German Expressionism and toward a live-action Miyazaki cartoon.
None of this would have meant much if it weren’t for the story, which is epic, and scary, and fantastic. Mysterious robots who attack and disappear, kidnapped scientists, a mercenary army of do-gooders, a villain named Dr. Totenkopf, and an intrepid journalist determined to get the scoop and the photo — it’s nice and simple but breathtakingly vast, not just jokey homage but legitimate pop science-fiction all its own. The plot swept me away as quickly as the imagery did, though it helps for it to begin upon the about-to-dock Hindenburg III.
The cast, which includes Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow as bickering but ostensibly romantic leads and Giovanni Ribisi and Angelina Jolie in supporting roles, essentially worked blind — the only elements of the film that are “real” are those that the actors interact with directly (i.e. touch). This means that when Law is whacking away at robots with a stick, or when Paltrow is desperately trying to dodge the metal feet of even bigger ones, they’re flailing around on an empty soundstage, with at most dots as reference points. The result is slightly exaggerated performances that I think are perfect for the tone of the film, and even more so when the performers are thrust in front of a reincarnated Sir Laurence Olivier.
Kerry Conran’s brother Kevin is the conceptual artist and production designer behind Sky Captain, and the two of them have imagination to spare. Their robots aren’t just robots but towering beasts or lithe, gangly-armed creatures; there’s a hovering aircraft carrier, a stunning vision of Shangri-La, and some late-film surprises I won’t reveal. They didn’t use their computers to once again give life to old formula, instead showing us new things both technologically and creatively.
There is an undeniably pulpy feel to the proceedings that will prevent many from taking the film seriously (even the director admits that he sometimes had trouble keeping a straight face). But while the mood allows for many bits of appealingly cheesy bits of humor and amusing references to other films, there was, at least for me, a creepy dimension to the plot. Moreover, the story’s mystery elements have an actual payoff, a revelation and a conclusion that’s neat and satisfying, at least on the grandiosely silly plane of the rest of the film.
But if Sky Captain is remembered, it will be for the pictures, for the amazing artistry of the world that Conran has created here. That the images rest on a solid narrative foundation makes this very, very close to a great film.