Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

dir: Kerry Conran
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Kerry Conran had a vision, God love him. This is a man who had a genuine ambition. Ambition is not unknown in Hollywood, to be sure. But this isn’t a case of a guy whose ambition is only to make a film, or to get wealthy, or to fuck high class prostitutes. He had a bunch of ideas for making a very particular film, and he’s been striving for over ten years to get it done. Finally, in the form of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, he’s achieved his goal. There may have been pitfalls and compromises along the way, but in the end he brought his unique vision to the screen, goddamnit. And for that he deserves to be commended.

It’s not a particularly unique or original vision; in a way he’s doing little more than what George Lucas did decades ago when he used his memories of Saturday matinee serials and Amazing Stories-type books and comics to come up with the Indiana Jones and the Star Wars stuff, to the ecstasy of nerds the world over. And sure, more recently many of the same visual and thematic influences turned up, incredibly enough in the recent Pixar treasure The Incredibles.

It is, on the other hand, resolutely his own take on all those elements, which he uses to come up with something he can call his own, even if the origins aren’t that obscure or even remotely forgotten.

And you’ve got to respect that. Unfortunately, it breaks my heart to say it, it doesn’t stop the movie from being a failure. It’s a noble failure for what it tries to do, and the paths of least resistance that it avoids, but it still isn’t that great a film. At best it is mediocre, and that is being kind.

The most unfortunate and cruelest cut for the director is to see a long term labour of love end up looking sub-standard compared to the stuff put out by other people at the same time. If it’d come out ten years ago it (might) have been hailed as a visionary masterpiece, and people would have tried to wrench the crown off of Lucas’ fat head and, after giving it a good wash, crowned Conran as the new king of fantastical science fiction. Today he looks like an also-ran. Like Peter Costello.

Worse than that, the greatest problem the film has is that is has a pretty poxy story. You’d think that over the course of ten years someone might have pointed out to Conran that the story really wasn’t that interesting. Sure, he does excel at creating an alternative history Earth where people still travel the skies in zeppelins and World War II never happened. But he doesn’t wedge in a story to best represent the virtues and flaws of this world. It is enough for him to have characters wear the right costumes and talk in a ‘golly gee willikers’ manner, but not enough to have them do anything that’s really that interesting. I might be missing the point by several hundred miles, since the story here is probably as banal as the stories he is doing a pastiche of: that early Buck Rogers in the 25th Century / Rocketman / Commander Cody stuff. Those stories were all kinds of stupid, but appropriate to the time and the medium. It doesn’t really wash that well now

Jude Law is really trying my patience at the moment. Imagine the gall of the guy, trying to redefine ubiquity like that. On Australian screens right now (4/2/2005) he is in Closer, Sky Captain, Alfie, I Heart Huckabees, and he does the narration in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. With The Aviator about to open up as well in a week or two that makes six currently screening goddamn films at the same time. When did Jude replace the image of Stalinesque Big Brother in order to terrify the legions of proles out there to submit to some totalitarian regime of his own devising? Whatever he’s doing he needs to slow down. Maybe he’s doing all this work to make up for the shitfest that was Cold Mountain. Perhaps he’s thinking of his kid’s education. Or maybe he’s trying to get enough work now before he loses all his hair and has to start wearing wigs.

He’s okay as Biggles here. Sorry, as Joe ‘Sky Captain’ Sullivan, I mean. He flies a Spitfire fighter plane and heads a mercenary airforce that nonetheless always heeds the call of duty to save people everywhere from badness and harsh language. All his dialogue is intoned in a fairly constipated manner, but I guess it’s in keeping with the spirit of the times. Gwynyth Paltrow looks the part as an elegant 30’s reporter, but has no dimensions to her, her character being as transparent as the special effects. She doesn’t use an English accent for once. She’s had a run of films where she’s used what Madonna herself would call a crappy English accent. Angelina Jolie is in the film for about three seconds, also with a crappy English accent looking (allegedly) sexy and sassy in a tight black leather British airforce uniform and an eye-patch. One eyed people wouldn’t have the visual acuity or depth perception to be able to fly planes or even kites, but hell, it’s not like this is a documentary. She’s there to look cool and show off those hideously frightening lips of hers.

There’s a bad guy sending giant robots around the world to kidnap scientists, steal stuff and do telemarketing. They are lead by a strange looking woman (Bai Ling) who gets practically no dialogue but looks vaguely nasty. She in turn works for some elusive German villain called Totenkopf. Totenkopf’s agenda is to do something bad to the Earth whilst ensuring the survival of all the animals of the planet. It’s up to Sky Captain, Polly Perkins and Frankie to save the day!

Giant robots. Flying robots. Robot robots. Tiny elephants. Planes that fly underwater. Aircraft carriers floating in the sky. Ray guns. Retro sci-fi chic. Mad scientist played by someone long dead. If as well it had managed to have any of the exciting action and snappy dialogue that you might hope for from such an eclectic mix, it might have elevated this film above mere mediocrity. As it stands the experiment will only be remembered for its look and its technical achievements, which is enough to make nerds cry tears of lunchbox-rusting woe.

This is meant to be a more cost-effective attempt at a special effects extravaganza, but in some ways is more of, to use a very confused and tautological phrase, a live-action animated movie. In other words the only ‘real’ stuff in this movie is supposed to be the humans. It’s not entirely true since they did use a fair amount of physical sets and props.

Leaving out stuff like the last two Star Wars films, and doubtless the upcoming third, the best other recent example I can think of was a curious monstrosity of a film called Avalon. Truly it was a bizarre combination of elements: a Japanese director and crew (Mamoru Oshi) making a film in Polish with a Polish cast in Poland (presumably), about a virtual reality game that kills. Or should that be KILLS!?! Most of the footage was filtered and altered with CGI to give it the impression of scifi-ness, with other CGI elements represented on the cheap and in one colour to save on programmer time (meaning money). Except for a few minutes at the end the entire escapade was represented thusly.

Okay, so I fucking hated that film (because apart from being dull it didn’t really impress me on any intemallectual, emotional, or groinal level). Sky Captain isn’t anywhere near as dull. But it does feel curiously ill-formed and unconvincing.

The primary relationship between Joe and Polly has less heat than skinny-dipping in Antarctica. The makers think it has dialogue torn screaming from a Preston Sturges screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, but I’ve seen arguments during wrestling matches that were wittier and more biting. And with far more at stake. Granted, it’s just people emoting to camera in front of green-screens, and no-one is saying Law or Paltrow don’t deliver their lines well; it’s the lines themselves that are the problem. The few times where the humour gets up there it reminds you of how clever it could have been.

The villains are too remote, too distant to have any impact, and are finally revealed to be even less of a threat than I could imagine possible. The story itself is poorly paced and detracts from everything else that happens on top of it. Much of the CGI that is wedged onto the story is pretty dated, though in a few scenes it works to the story’s benefit. That makes it sound like I was expecting a special-effects extravaganza, and I wasn’t. I was looking for a new kind of movie, and fuck me if I didn’t get what I asked for. How about film-making where some people deliberately try to create an original cinematic experience, and deliberately leave out a lot of the cliches that you would expect in a film of its ilk, only to clearly represent that they didn’t have a clue what to put in its place?

I still enjoyed it, to a guarded extent. I enjoyed the idea of it, and I forgave its many shortcomings despite the fact that they were glaringly obvious and were begging me to hurl abuse at them, the little bitches. But as an experiment it is a noble failure for my money, noble for what the people involved tried to do, but a failure all the same.

Weep not, ye geeks, for there is more to satisfy the geekified in this than to lament. It’s just a shame that the humans aren’t as believable as the unbelievable special effects. I did love much of the almost fascistic imagery, the newspaper stuff, a little homage to Godzilla, some of the genuinely good cinematic moments (the race through the streets of New York in a Spitfire, the flying aircraft carriers, the visual tone of scenes sepia toned or otherwise, most shots of the sky in fact) and Polly’s running gag with the camera. If you know the era retro stuff I’ve referred to and love it, then maybe this will be the cinematic equivalent of hot buttered heroin for you. If not then you probably stopped reading 1000 words ago.

I’d recommend it to anyone simply for the visual spectacle of it all, because in parts it is amazing, truly. Just don’t expect to get anything more out of it.

It does have a hilarious final gag that made me laugh out loud involving the reporter’s camera. Gwynyth Paltrow’s facial expression after Jude Law says two little words to her are almost worth the price alone, for her expression is priceless.

I did say almost. Hopefully Kerry Conron can do better with his next flick, if they ever give him another chance.

5 leather clad Angelina Jolies wearing eye-patches out of 10

‘I should strangle you, Polly, but I don't have the time right now’ – Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.