Back in 1991, I reviewed a movie called The Rocketeer. It came out in the middle of the summer and was sort of a throwback to the vintage superhero tales of the 30’s and 40’s. I loved the film but it flopped at the box office, despite high expectations from the studio. The Rocketeer was thrilling and exciting and fun – and too old-fashioned for kids, who roundly ignored it. (Thankfully, it has since found an audience on video and DVD.) Now comes Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which also looks and feels like a 1930’s adventure. It too is thrilling and exciting and fun. Will audiences share my enthusiasm for it, or will it be 2004’s answer to The Rocketeer? I honestly don’t know. There’s something about this kind of retro adventure that appeals to me, though.
In the opening scenes, we learn that a number of very prominent scientists have mysteriously disappeared. At about the same time, a group of gigantic robots makes it way through New York City. Intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) believes the two events are somehow related. She manages to locate one of the scientists, who gives her a name – Totenkopf – before dying. Other clues suggest that the evil genius named Dr. Totenkopf may be responsible for all the strange goings-on. His plan, however, is not immediately clear.
Also investigating is Joe Sullivan, a.k.a. Sky Captain. He is New York’s resident superhero (apparently this is in the days before Spider-Man) who has an arsenal of gizmo-loaded airplanes. Joe and Polly are former flames whose relationship ended badly, so it’s somewhat awkward for them when their paths cross. Nevertheless, an uneasy truce is arranged, and they agree to work together to halt Totenkopf’s nefarious scheme. Their search takes them to various places across the globe. Eventually they need the help of Joe’s old friend Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie), a captain in the British military who may or may not have also been a romantic partner. Polly is immediately jealous of Franky because she still has feelings for Joe. He has them for her as well, although neither of them is quick to admit it.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow has gotten a lot of attention because of the way it was made. The actors filmed the whole thing in front of a blue screen, and everything else was added in later using computers. There were no real locations, no major props for them to interact with. This near total use of computers allows director Kerry Conran to completely create the look he wants.
Audience members are likely to be divided into two camps on this one. There will be some who strongly dislike the heavy CGI feel of Sky Captain. They will argue that this is a bad thing, that withholding sets and props from the actors leads to soulless, overly technical performances. Then there are those who will recognize that style alone isn’t enough to make a movie good, but it can add an atmosphere of fun and imagination that helps sweep you into the story. For me, that’s exactly what happens here. The look of the picture is simultaneously retro and futuristic. There was a certain joy in just staring at the screen with wonder at the images that were being projected. I loved those giant robots stomping down the city streets, and Totenkopf’s enemy planes, which have wings that flap like those on a bird. Everything visual in this film is used to create an atmosphere. Unlike a lot of CGI-heavy movies, this one uses the technique to create a world that doesn’t exist – one that you can immerse yourself in.
I felt like the imaginative look of Sky Captain added something to the story. There’s a distinct attempt here to recapture the innocent feel of an old 1930’s superhero movie. You have the hero and heroine, who use their bickering as a cloak for their romantic longing. You have a not-terribly-complicated plot that deals with basic issues of good versus evil. There’s also a healthy sprinkling of what they used to call “daring do.” Since the storytelling style is vintage, it only makes sense that the look of the film should be vintage as well.
Amazingly, the actors don’t get lost. They’re instructed to play archetypes of old movie characters, which they do well. It helps that the screenplay gives them interesting little personal dilemmas and quirks. For example, during one action scene, Polly loses her film canisters. All that’s left is the one in her camera, and there are only two shots left on it. As she goes through this amazing adventure, she has to continually decide whether or not something even more breathtaking and picture-worthy will come along later. (This leads to a clever payoff in the last scene.) This kind of detail keeps the humans from getting lost amidst the special effects.
Like I said, I have no idea if others will enjoy Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow as much as I did, or if they’ll think it feels outdated. As a movie-going society, we’re used to seeing films with lots of CGI, but it’s not always used in quite this way. There’s something refreshing about a picture which uses special effects as a genuine tool of imagination. All I can say is that I had a lot of fun allowing Sky Captain to transport me to another time and place.
( 1/2 out of four)
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is rated PG for sequences of stylized sci-fi violence and brief mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat