There are plenty of computer geeks in the world capable of creating the kind of photo-realistic digital effects Hollywood has been deploying for over a decade now, from Jurassic Park to The Phantom Menace.
Pulp Fiction Meets CGI
[Editor's Note: This movie contains a lewd reference, a suggestive scene, and a few implied references to an affair.]
Some of these geeks are even dedicated or crazy enough to make an entire movie this way, though to date the only feature film actually made this way is Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. (Other CGI-only features, such as the Pixar films, are cartoony rather than photo-realistic.)
There are also plenty of film geeks who know and love the pulp fantasies of the early twentieth century, from Metropolis to the serialized swashbucklers of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Some of these geeks are even creative enough to weave their own fantasies in the spirit of those classic films, even to the point of writing and directing the films themelves, though to date the only film actually made this way, as far as I know, is Star Wars. (Raiders of the Lost Ark, perhaps the ultimate serial-adventure homage, was conceived by George Lucas but written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Steven Spielberg.)
But first-time feature director Kerry Conran may be the only man on earth who is all of the above. His debut film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, began life a decade ago on Conran’s Apple computer, over which Conran labored for four years to create six minutes of a noirish pulp fantasy that began with a giant dirigible docking at the top of the Empire State Building, and ended with giant flying robots attacking Manhattan.
Then Conran’s brother, artist and Sky Captain production designer Kevin Conran, showed the six minutes to a couple of Hollywood producers, who were impressed enough to give Conran the backing he needed to finish the film with the help of scores of digital artists and other technicians, a number of stars, and hundreds of extras.
Unlike Final Fantasy, Sky Captain uses flesh-and-blood actors, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, and Angelina Jolie, rather than computer-generated synthespians. The world they inhabit, though, is entirely virtual, apart from things they actually touch or pick up. (There seem to be at least two other 2004 pulp fantasy films utilizing the same approach, the French film Immortel and the Japanese film Casshern. Casshern is also its writer-director’s debut feature, and Immortel was written and directed by a comic book writer-artist adapting his own work but Conran’s combination of creative and technical chops appears to be unique.)
The result of Conran’s virtual approach is a beguilingly unreal excursion into the imaginative world of another age a soft-focus retro–sci-fi dream of the 1930s, with dirigibles and pulse blasters, intrepid girl reporters and dashing ace-pilot heroes, giant robots and doomsday devices. It’s a film in which characters say things like “Alert the amphibious squadron!” or in which the hero and heroine are ex-flames who bicker constantly like the stars of an old screwball comedy, or in which one might go to Mount Everest and find there a paradise variously identified as Shangri-La and Eden.
This One is for Buffs
Homages and allusions abound. Fans of classic animation will immediately recognize the giant robots of the opening scene from the Fleishers’ Superman cartoons (“The Mechanical Monsters”). An early rendezvous is shot in a virtual recreation of Radio City Music Hall, which is screening The Wizard of Oz (“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore… We must be over the rainbow!”). Much later there’s an “Oz the Great and Terrible” moment as a late screen and stage icon is digitally brought back for another performance.
All this means that Sky Captain is more or less must-viewing for golden-age Hollywood film buffs and computer-imaging enthusiasts. Mainstream audiences generally won’t have a clue what’s going on, which they didn’t with Raiders and Star Wars either, so that’s not necessarily a problem if the film is sufficiently satisfying on its own terms.
But Sky Captain is no Raiders or Star Wars. It entertains and impresses without ever becoming truly engaging. It’s certainly a lot more fun than Final Fantasy, in good part because it works not only as spectacle, but also as nostalgia and homage. Even so, it never quite comes to life in its own right.
Unlike, say, Raiders’s Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood, Sky Captain’s plucky Polly Perkins (Paltrow) and daring Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Law) never become more than types. Their bickering dialogue is only fitfully amusing, and never really charming.
On paper, the casting of Law and Paltrow seems ideal, but either Conran was unable to elicit the needed performances or something else went wrong. Law was spot-on as another jaunty character named Joe in Spielberg’s A.I., but here he’s generically heroic without the jauntiness and humor that made Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks such fun in these roles.
Paltrow, with her Veronica Lake hairdo, has Lois Lane spunk and determination, but can’t make the character particularly sympathetic or likeable. It doesn’t help that the script requires her to hide an important discovery from her ex-beau Joe, presumably in order to be sure of getting a story, though the film never spells out her motivation. And there seems to be no explanation for why, in the back story, Polly may have sabotaged Joe’s plane! Of course it also seems that Joe may have cheated on Polly in their past relationship, though the motivation there presumably needs no explaining, at least once we meet the other woman.
That would be Captain Franky Cook (Jolie), commander of a flying British naval base, played by Jolie with a blithe panache and amused detachment that puts Law’s Sky Captain to shame, as well as a feminine mystique that makes Paltrow’s Polly pale by comparison. Unfortunately Jolie doesn’t show up until the third act, though had her role been any juicier they would have had to call it Franky Cook and the World of Tomorrow.
Why Spoil it for the Kids?
Perhaps the most baffling thing about Sky Captain is why the film-makers chose, in a tame PG-rated film that could easily have been fine family entertainment, to add a few completely gratuitous elements that not only make it unsuitable for kids, but are also glaringly out of place in the film’s nostalgic milieu.
The most egregious example is a pointless lewd remark in a subtitle no less that doesn’t even make sense in context. Joe and Polly have just arrived by plane in snowbound Nepal, and a local named Kaji (Omid Djalili), a friend of Joe’s, gives Polly a once-over and makes a leering comment to Joe, presumably in Nepali, about the cold making nipples hard. But everyone’s so bundled up, it’s not like anything could be showing anyway. (In Star Wars, Princess Leia got soaking wet in the trash compactor, and no one felt the need to make crass comments.)
Later there’s an initially inexplicable scene in which Joe and Polly wake up in bed together naked under the covers, and Joe gazes languorously at Polly until he discovers Kaji, also naked, on his other side. (It turns out that there is a reason why a fourth party removed their clothes while they were unconscious, though no particular reason for them to have been put in bed together.) And there’s the running subplot about whether Joe cheated on Polly, a theme that could have been treated in a ’30s film, but would have been more discreetly handled.
Despite its flaws, Sky Captain is an extraordinary first film, and a fine summer popcorn flick despite being delayed until mid-September. Perhaps Conran’s next film will combine his established flair for nostalgia with a more engrossing story, better characterizations, and a more consistent tone. The title of his planned second feature, A Princess of Mars (from the pulp novel by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs), sounds exactly right.
(c) 2004 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.
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