"Emergency protocol 90206... calling Sky Captain, come in Sky Captain..."

"... This is Sky Captain. Sit tight, I'm on my way."

Released: September 17, 2004 (US)
Directed by: Kerry Conran
Written by: Kerry Conran
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Running length: 107 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Major cast: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi, and the voice and image of Sir Laurence Olivier

A 2004 retro-futuristic sci-fi film, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as nattily dressed no-nonsense journalist Polly Perkins, and Jude Law as the movie's eponymous aviator hero, "Sky Captain" H. Joseph Sullivan. Angelina Jolie plays a supporting role as a saucy, one-eyed British flight commander named Frankie (though, I'm sorry to say, her faux-English accent is even worse than it was in Tomb Raider). Giovanni Ribisi plays Sky Captain's sidekick, Dex, a Bazooka Joe-chewing whizkid type who spends his freetime building radios and ray guns (which, admittedly, makes for some very keen SFX). Kerry Conran directs, and more than half a dozen CGI studios provide visual effects. The movie was shot almost entirely in front of a green screen.

Imagine, if you will, that Hugo Gernsback and Frank R. Paul were given millions of 1930s dollars and the film-making technology to take a story from the pages of Amazing Stories and put it on the silver screen. William Gibson once coined the term "The Gernsback Continuum" in his short story of the same name, and that's basically what you've got here. The movie opens with a shot of a zeppelin drifting through the fog above a steel gray New York City. Spotlights play moodily across the airship's hull, revealing its name as the Hindenburg III. The lights are guiding the zeppelin in to dock with the Empire State Building. (People who know their history will smile at this point, remembering that in fact the originally intended purpose of the skyscraper's spire was for its use as a mooring mast for dirigibles; that is, before the Hindenburg disaster made airship travel suddenly unfashionable.) This is a world where the Hindenburg never crashed, and majestic zeppelins soar above every shining Metropolis, ushering in a new age of industrious prosperity and marvels both mechanical and radiological...

Oh, and giant killer robots.


A word of advice, gentle reader: If you see it in a theater, sit towards the back. There's a humorous scene where the dashing Sky Captain wearily pours himself a shot of Milk of Magnesia after a hectic battle. I laughed, but by that point I felt like I could've used one too, and a bottle of eye drops to boot. Conran went a little too far in trying to sell the sepia-toned motif by making virtually every scene of this movie bleerily overexposed and out of focus. Yes, filming technology was awfully primitive in the 1930s, but I believe they actually had discovered by that point how to operate an adjustable lens, right? "Your eyes do get used to the fuzziness after awhile," my buddy whispered to me. "Yeah," I quipped back, "that's what I'm afraid of. It's like, 'This film is brought to you by Lenscrafters'."

And sadly, the storyline also is somewhat belabored by clichés. True, some might say that the entire point of a movie like this is to trot out dusty nostalgia and old sci-fi cliches, but that's still no excuse for lazy screenwriting in my opinion. On more than a few occassions I felt like it'd seen all this before, but not so much in Golden Age comic books as in a slew of other adventure flicks of late. Despite the imaginative premise and fantastical window dressing, we're really trodding on very well-worn Hollywood ground here.

The plotting is, shall we say, "overly convenient" (Sky Captain just happens to have an old war buddy who lives within walking distance of the bad guys' secret mining base in Nepal?), in spots the dialogue is as colorless as the cinematography (e.g. after plunging underwater, the ever-observant Ms. Perkins remarks "We went underwater!") and the big climactic sequence at the end seems strictly by-the-numbers. But still... Giant robots? Buck Rogers rayguns? Aerial hijinks and feats of derring-do? ... What's not to love?


Heads up, ace! Possible spoiler at 12 o'clock... I wanted to hold off mentioning this until now because, unless you're a film buff or heard about this beforehand, it may not have actually registered even if you've seen the film already. Over the course of the story, the movie's shadowy villain, one Herr Doktor Totenkopf, is slowly built up and then, when the big reveal finally arrives, we find that he is played by none other than silver screen legend Sir Laurence Olivier! This is noteworthy insofar as, as most of you know, Laurence Olivier is quite deceased. He died 15 years ago.

This particular special effect was made, with the sanction of his estate, by taking archival footage from some of Sir Laurence's classic films and splicing them together to create the crackling, ghostly hologram that accosts our heroes when they attempt to break into Totenkopf's* inner sanctum, like a voice from beyond the grave.


Lastly, a bit of trivia: Aeroplane enthusiasts will be happy to learn that, while the rest of the planes are pure fiction, 'Sky Captain' himself kicks around in a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk (tricked out James Bond-style naturally, but still sporting authentic shark's teeth insignia). The P-40 was the plane famously flown by the A.V.G. "Flying Tigers" over Rangoon in World War II.

Basic film info and trickily-spelled names are thanks to imdb

* - StrawberryFrog informs me that "Totenkopf" is German for "Death's head". Behold! Subtle foreshadowing!

Braunbeck and I found Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to be a delightful film. My mom would have gotten a kick out of this homage to science fiction of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, because it takes everything she loved as a kid and puts it in one big, entertaining movie. There are a huge number of references to a huge number of classic golden-age SF books, movies, comics, and serials. Sky Captain was particularly inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the original Buck Rogers, and Max Fleischer's Superman cartoons.

The influence of Fleisher's animation is imprinted on practically every frame. The giant killer robots are right out of the Superman cartoons ... and really, that's no bad thing, because Fleisher's loot- and lady-stealing robots were just cool. What was a little less cool was the artistic decision to model the cars of the world of Sky Captain on Fleisher's cartoon cars. Since 1930s automobiles are real-world objects (and beautiful objects at that), seeing matte-finish, cartoony cars kicked me out of the scenes.

Another possibility was that the filmmakers simply didn't have time to re-render the cars to improve their specularity and make them look a bit more realistic. Sky Captain took six years to make, and I can easily picture a studio boardroom conversation in which the producers told writer/director Kerry Conran "No more rendering! You're done! We've given you enough money, and enough time, and this needs to go to theaters. It looks fine"

And in the main, the computer-generated movie looks way more than fine; much of the movie is breathtakingly gorgeous. However, there are places where rendering was clearly not quite ready for public consumption. There's a scene late in the movie where a skeleton falls to the floor, and the skeleton just plain looks bad.

But that's a quibble, really. A fight scene later on that manages to reference both Star Wars and Evil Dead II makes up for it.

Seeing this movie without being familiar with the classics it's based on is a bit like seeing the Kill Bill movies without having any knowledge of 70s kung fu flicks or Sam Peckinpah's creations -- you'll probably enjoy it, but not as much as the film geeks in the room who'll be chortling at all the references.

Oh, yeah: there are real people in this movie, too, and in the main they do a good job. Gwyneth Paltrow has seemed flat in many of her roles since she won her Oscar, but her sulky manner serves her well as Polly Perkins; in the old days, Carole Lombard would have played Perkins, and Paltrow fits the bill.

And the use of Sir Laurence Olivier's face and likeness to create a new character is surely the shape of things to come in digital cinema. In the world of tomorrow, I expect we'll be seeing the resurrection of many a matinee idol.

Note: This is not a review of the film.

I popped over to the multiplex yesterday for a showing of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. To sum it up, the movie was fun but ultimately forgettable - some have compared it to the Indiana Jones films but I fail to see how the experience is similar.

However, that's not the story here. The real story has to do with the fact that sitting right behind me was The Comic Book Guy.

Yes, that's right...the real-world personification of the much-loved character from The Simpsons. From the portly disheveled look, through the exact voice and "witticisms", right down to the smell (or what you can only imagine The Comic Book Guy smelling like, given that he's a cartoon character).

Throughout the movie, The Comic Book Guy decided to share in his pearls of wisdom while munching loudly on his extra-large barrel of popcorn. To wit, he let us know of the following, all done in that exact tone:

Well, thanks, Comic Book Guy for sharing your wisdom. Your loud commentary throughout the movie surely endeared you to the rest of the audience, most of whom made it a point to stare directly at your direction while leaving the theatre.

I can only hope that you're back again for Blade: Trinity and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

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