Computer generated special effects have been around for quite some time now, and often questionably so, but they come into their own with Kerry Conran's SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW--an innovative film that failed in theatrical release but which now makes a big splash in the home market. And whether you love it or hate it, SKY CAPTAIN is likely to cast a very long shadow indeed.
As a concept, the film seems to be based on the popular serials of the 1930s and 1940s. This is not limited to the use of an improbable plot fueled by special effects and cliffhanger action sequences, but it extends to the dialogue and characters as well, all of which are typical of such celebrated serials as BUCK ROGERS, CAPTAIN MARVEL, SPY SMASHER, and THE CRIMSON GHOST. The film also draws specific plot elements from such diverse sources as KING KONG, LOST HORIZON, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, to name but a few.
The story is typical of serials. "Girl Reporter" Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is doing a story on missing scientists--and when giant metal robots attack New York she unexpectedly holds a clue to their origin. She and Sky Captain (Jude Law) form an uneasy alliance to get to the bottom of things. With an assist from Sky Captain's faithful sidekick Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) and the disconcertingly military Frankie (Angelina Jolie), the two search the world--and finally track the wicked Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier, resurrected via CGI) to his secret lair.
The look of the film follows suit. The live cast worked on a blue screen set, and with the exception of a single set, the costumes, and items the live actors had to handle, everything you see on the screen was created in the computer and added after the fact. A great many people have described the look of the film as "deco," an arts movement associated with the 1920s; this is misleading. It would be more accurate to describe it as a mixture of pre-WWII arts movements filtered through a 1950s sensibility, and the result is like nothing so much as a pulp science fiction magazine cover unexpectedly come to life.
Now, how much you like this will depend to a great extent on how clearly you recognize the film styles and specific films that have clearly influenced it. If you know nothing about serials, for example, you are likely to be appalled by the flatness of the script and Paltrow's one-note performance; on the other hand, if you are a serial fan, you'll immediately recognize that the script is reflective of such serials as SPY SMASHER and that Paltrow echoes Linda Sterling, famous for such serials as THE CRIMSON GHOST. It wouldn't be too much to say that in many respects SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW is akin to an inside joke.
But most particularly, your liking for this film will depend on how you react to the visuals. I am not a great fan of CGI when it is used to bolster live action films such as GLADIATOR or TITANIC; I can usually spot the CGI and I find it distracting. But I have to come down in favor of SKY CAPTAIN: this isn't an effort to "make it look real;" this is an effort to make a totally artificial world, and whether it be giant robots, Shangri-La, or Radio City Music Hall the designs are stunning and remarkably well executed. Whatever other shortcomings it may have, SKY CAPTAIN has incredible visual "WOW!" The film is currently available in a DVD release that is visually handsome with superior sound, and the package contains a fair number of bonuses. Unfortunately, the two commentary tracks are less interesting than you might expect, but two short documentaries ("Brave New World" and "The Art of the World of Tomorrow") are quite good--and the original six minute short that inspired the film is fascinating. Not every one will get it, so I recommend you rent before you buy, but on the whole this is a show truly worth the money. Recommended.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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