Monday, September 23, 2013

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) Review

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow poster
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow title screen
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow empire state building
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow Wizard of Oz
Gwyneth Paltrow in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Angelina Jolie in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Giovanni Ribsi with ray gun in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow snowy mountain landscape
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow ice cave
Gwyneth Paltrow in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Gwyneth Paltrow in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Gwyneth Paltrow in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
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Director: Kerry Conran
Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Giovanni Ribsi, Angelina Jolie
Genre: Science Fiction, Adventure

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
 is a dieselpunk fan's dream come true, with an unforgettable visual style and a fun pulp-style adventure.

The story concerns Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan and his ex-lover Polly Perkins, a newspaper reporter. Together they aim to stop the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf, who they believe has been terrorizing the world with giant robots and is plotting to put an end to the world, and partake in an Indiana Jones-like adventure.

Like many pulp adventure stories, the plot is simple yet somehow manages to make little sense. There's plenty of plot holes and questionable logic at play here. But a lot of it seems very intentional. The film is definitely an homage to old pulp adventure and detective stories. This is sort of a double-edged sword, though. While a homage can be enjoyable for fans of that which is being paid tribute to, that still doesn't necessarily excuse the inherited flaws. A poor plot is a poor plot regardless. In this way it can be hard for a homage to both pay tribute and avoid the unenjoyable aspects of that which it is tributing, all while maintaining the necessary style and themes.

Sky Captain certainly does have a ridiculous plot that likely shatters most people's suspension of disbelief. And it does have cliched characters and plot elements. It certainly provides nothing you haven't seen before when it comes to those things. But all that doesn't hurt the film...too much. I felt it did detract from it a bit, because it was harder for me to care about the characters and the plot was terribly predictable, but at the same time it still managed to be fun. Really, you have to be in the right mind-state to overlook the flaws. You need to trick yourself into embracing the flaws; laugh at them.

The most notable and indeed noticeable thing about the film is easily its visual style. Sky Captain, along with some other films like Sin City, is one of the earlier films to be shot entirely on a digital backlot, which means that it was entirely shot in front of a blue or greenscreen, with the entire background being computer generated. The benefits of this are obvious: you can achieve things you couldn't in real life, and on a smaller budget. The problem is that CGI mixed with live action often looks very fake and artificial. However, Sky Captain, like Sin City, bypasses this unwanted side-effect by employing a unique visual style that doesn't conform to realism.

The visual style of Sky Captain is in a way simultaneously new and old. Impressive and cheesy. Good and bad. It nails the sci-fi pulp noir 1930s style, yes, but it also manages to look very...silly at the same time. This goes back to the idea that Sky Captain is in many ways intentionally bad. But yet, I wouldn't call its visuals bad, and they're actually very creative. It's hard to explain. It's like a cutscene from the video game Wing Commander III: its backdrops are very clearly fake and as a result it all looks kind of cheesy, but at the same time what it manages to achieve is actually pretty impressive. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is very similar to the full motion video (fmv) games from the 90s; like a weird hybrid of Wing Commander III and Tex Murphy.

The CGI isn't very impressive itself either. It looks like what it is: early 21st century CGI, i.e. not at all convincing by today's standards. Many of the models lack detail and come off looking like an early Playstation 2 game. But somehow Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow takes the poor CGI, the cheesy greenscreens, the 30s pulp style, and the dieselpunk aesthetics and combine them into something that actually works quite well. I can't really explain why it works; I think maybe it does because it feels not only like a homage, but like something that really would be made in the 1930s if they had today's technology. The director said that they "wanted the film to feel like a lost film of that era." Of course it's unconvincing as a lost film from the 30s, as we can recognize the modern technology being used, but what it does achieve is feeling like a a lost film from an alternate 1930s; a 1930s that, just like in the film's story, has the same style but different technology. 

A better descriptor for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow's style, better even than pulp or dieselpunk, is retrofuturism. That is, the future as seen from the past. Think of a style along the lines of Brazil or Fallout. It's no surprise that this film took much influence from the 1939 New York World's Fair, a fair that set its focus on the future, and, as the fair's slogan was "the world of tomorrow", the place where this film gets part of its name.

At the end of the day though, Sky Captain does have some gorgeous imagery. My particular favorite being the part where two characters are talking while The Wizard of Oz plays in the background. Some of the landscape shots, particularly the snow and city ones, just look stunning as well. 

The cast here is solid. There's no great performances and everyone seems to be acting intentionally wooden, but a solid cast nonetheless. The beautiful Gwyneth Paltrow does a fine job as a clumsy news reporter. Giovanni Ribisi does a charming job as the Sky Captain's friend. Angelina Jolie's talents were certainly underused here, not just in screentime but in writing as well. Though she still does an okay job. The only one who sort of let me down here was the Sky Captain himself, played by Jude Law, who often felt uninterested and lacked any real emotion in his acting. 

The film, and even its technology, isn't incredibly innovative or revolutionary. It does little new: it tells a story we've all heard with character we've all met. But yet, Sky Captain feels more like a culmination of its influences rather than an evolution. It doesn't build upon them, it basks in them. It's homage through and through. And I can understand why many would see such a thing as a detractor. In a way, I do too. I wouldn't ever call Sky Captain a great or important film, but for what it does it's enjoyable and I think it achieved what it set out to do: to be a homage that sees the future from the past rather than from the present, to not be prophetic but to be intentionally wrong, and to have fun the with it the whole way through.

3/5 stars

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