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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow Print E-mail
Friday, 01 December 2006

Image On face-value, “Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow” should have worked. It reached back into the same 1930s to 1940s Saturday morning serial storytelling that proved so successful for the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg re-invented as Hollywood blockbusters. Those movies used to be broken down into ten- or fifteen-minute segments that were aired every week before the main movie. That way moviegoers had more reason to come back week after week to see the new releases.

The serials were known for their quick pacing, heroic characters, and escapism that stopped – most of the time – just short of total disbelief. That was the style Kerry Conran, the director and writer, was reaching for. On many levels, Conran succeeded. However, the movie simply didn’t find as large an audience as it needed.

Filled with over-the-top action sequences that never completely stall out between the other scenes and larger-than-life characters, villains, and threats, the movie serves up an almost non-stop plunge toward the finish line from the beginning. Unfortunately, the verb of choice here is “plunge” rather than race. Although Sky Captain is supposed to be the champion of the skies, the movie never quite gets the lift it’s supposed to and tends to lay there most of the time.

The movie began life as a six-minute short that Conran put together himself with the intention of simply making the movie himself on his computer. Until he figured out that it would take him twenty or more years. The original six-minute presentation is included on the Blu-ray disc, and definitely shows the seeds of what Conran intended, and – in fact – is almost blow-by-blow of the first few minutes of the finished movie. After showing the short to a friend of the family who showed it to a producer, the project interested backers and Conran ended up with the clout to get the money to put the project together as well as get top actors. He also got to direct his first movie. The two principle characters in the movie are Joseph “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law), an aviation mercenary for hire (which isn’t exactly heroic in a sense, and foolish if he’s working for free, and Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), an inveterate reporter for a large metro paper that comes across very much as a brash Lois Lane from the Superman comics of the 1930s and 1940s.

That’s pretty much all we get to know about our hero and heroine. They’re both good, and they’re both good at what they do. But we don’t know anything about what motivated them and set them on their course with their destinies. And the only real motivation we have for them to track down the villain behind the attacks is because they were scripted to do so. Well, Polly would like the story because it would be good for her career, but she’s hardly trained for this sort of thing. And Sky Captain is one of the good guys, but he’s supposed to be a leader, which would lead to me surmise he’d be leading his squadron. Instead, the only one who shows up in the movie after Sky Captain’s base gets shot up is Dex.

Oh, and by the way, three years ago Polly and Sky Captain were romantically involved. Only Polly may have sabotaged Sky Captain’s plane and caused him to spend six months in a harsh prison. And Sky Captain may have two-timed Polly. So between outlandish action scenes, incredible CG effects, and meandering world journeying without the support a guy like Sky Captain should have had on hand, the two constantly bicker over who did who wrong and who is lying about it. If the characters had been more than tissue-thin, maybe that would have worked. As it was, it just comes across as annoying.

Angelina Jolie plays Franky, a British commander of a super-secret flying aircraft. She was also Sky Captain’s love interest in Nanjing three years ago when Polly and our dashing hero had their rift. Although Angelina plays the role of the eye-patch-wearing commander to the hilt and with zest, she’s really wasted in the film because anyone could have fulfilled that role.

Giovanni Ribisi plays Dex, Sky Captain’s plucky sidekick and general all-around scientific whiz. Dex could even give James Bond’s Q a run for his money in the spy toys business. Ribisi nails the role with just the right degree of golly-gee and sincerity, and actually was my favorite in the movie. Ribisi was the only one who truly felt real.

Omid Djalili is on hand for humor while Sky Captain and Polly are searching for the hidden base located in Nepal. He plays Kaji, their guide, and has a history with Sky Captain. Again, except for the bits of humor, the character never quite achieves life like John Rhys-Davies did as Sallah in the Indiana Jones movies.

The plot is an amorphous thing. With the movie set in a heavily stylized 1939, it references the Great War (which we now call World War I) and a special operation called Unit 11. No one knew what Unit 11 was about (until our heroes solve that mystery), but it pulled together the scientific genius of several countries to make it happen. After they war, they disbanded. Now, all of these years later, the surviving scientists are being tracked down and kidnapped by giant flying robots.

The opening shot of the Hindenburg III quickly establishes the fact that we’re dealing with a slightly skewed version of our history. But the shots of the zeppelin mooring at the Empire State Building (which actually has mooring mounts that were put there for that very reason) are striking and also announces to viewers that they’re in for a visual ride unlike any they’ve ever had before.

However, the film wavers on fulfilling that promise from the very start as well. The set piece that introduces Polly Perkins in the news room is too idealized. She wouldn’t have been in such a large room by herself in the real world, and I realize that we’re not talking about the real world, but it was too stagnant, too isolated to make her feel a true part of anything. More than that, the colors in the first 30 minutes of the movie really seem off. They’re too dark, like a warm, syrupy sepia that smoothes out the edges of the images and renders them too soft.

The story moves along briskly, quickly putting Polly in harm’s way as she meets with one of the surviving scientists from Unit 11. Almost immediately, the giant flying robots attack. The attack is carried out pretty well, but there’s no doubt that this is all CG imaging. The robots look like they’re fifty feet tall and march together. Their huge, heavy feet slam against the street and bring the subwoofer to vibrant life as it thunders again and again.

Sky Captain appears out of nowhere after a frantic radio transmission to save the day when Polly gets caught out in the street. But where is the rest of his squadron? No reason is given for why Polly didn’t simply duck into one of the nearby buildings for safety’s sake. In effortless derring-do, Sky Captain employs a variety of weapons that include machine guns, bombs, and anchor lines, none of which threaten any humans in the area, though we know they’re there. However, no explanation is given as to why Sky Captain, a known mercenary, is there risking his life against the giant robots. After all, unless he’s on retainer for New York City, no one has paid him.

The action continues spiraling from that point on, including a scene after the attack on Sky Captain’s base that results in his team getting shot up and Dex getting captured after he tracks the radio transmission back to their origin that defies physics as I know them. Sky Captain flies his plane into the ocean, switching it over to a submersible, which really looks cool, but I’m left wondering how it maintained structural integrity after slamming into the water, why the wings didn’t rip away, and how the sudden change from a diving descent from the air into the water didn’t give our heroes whiplash at the very least. After all, the pursuing aircraft ended up shattered across the sea surface for those very same reasons.

Okay, so the movie requires a love of Saturday morning serials and a huge reservoir of willing suspension of disbelief, and I was standing by with buckets of it, but the characters just never drew me in. Our villain was never on stage either, and I really think that was part of the problem. His mysterious henchwoman Ling Bai (played by Bai Ling) never uttered a word and flitted around with silent menace that just didn’t quite come off.

If it weren’t for the amazing visual effects in the movie, I wouldn’t generously give it three stars. But Conran and crew absolutely knocked themselves out with the appearance of the film. However, I feel I have to point out a couple of “source” materials I feel certain Conran drew his movie from. Marvel Comics features a flying, super-secret helipad used by Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D., who is also an eyepatch-wearing tough commander. Furthermore, the sequence showing the giant robot invasion of New York is extremely remindful of Max Fleischer’s second Superman cartoon short, “The Mechanical Monsters” (particularly the look and movement of the robots as well as the police armed with Tommy guns). And then there’s the fact that Sky Captain could have been based on “Blackhawk”, the comic book put out by Quality Comics and later a serial starring Kirk Alyn, or a pulp magazine called “G-8 And His Battle Aces”.

Granted, there’s a lot of source material for this sort of thing, and it’s hard to create something that looks new with what our vision of that world was. I feel Conran was creating homage to those things as well as an attempt to create his own story. After all, his vision came to life onscreen and presented a very real, very tactile world for the movie audience.

Video Presentation: This is absolutely some of the best CG work to ever grace a movie. Not only was an artificial world created, but it is also a world that we’re somewhat familiar with. The high-def presentation is amazing, but is somewhat clouded early on with the dark look of the movie.

Audio Presentation: For whatever reason, movie studios still haven’t gotten the fact that high-def disc purchasers want the Lossless or PCM uncompressed audio with their movies. Although the presentation here is Dolby Digital 5.1 and is well separated, there is a difference between the levels. The movie as a cool soundtrack that deserves the best.

The special features don’t include anything that wasn’t on the much lower priced DVD. While the documentaries are fascinating as well as educational, if you’ve already got an earlier copy of “Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow”, you really don’t need to pick the Blu-ray version up unless you just want to shift it over to your Blu-ray library.

“Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow” is very watchable for the whole family. The action and the imagery will capture the attention of young minds, and the story holds together well enough to keep adults interested. I’d really like to see Conran make another run at turning this into a franchise because I do love the world and the look of that world.

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