Monthly Archives: October 2004

SKY CAPTAIN and the World of Tomorrow

If somebody had offered me a million dollars–well, I could have for a million dollars, but if somebody had offered me a thousand dollars if I could cram Metropolis, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Superman, the War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones, Rivendell, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Star Wars, the Wizard of Oz, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and his Helicarrier all into a single, seemlessly integrated pastiche, I don’t think I could have.

The short version is that I loved Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I loved how crazy things just started to happen without warning or explanation. I loved characters calmly running around the feet of giant robots as if unaware of the danger. I loved that the giant robots shot laser beams out of their eyes. I loved Jude Law’s Supercurl. I loved the German label morphing into English. I loved the superimposed concentric circles that rippled out from radio antennas.

How embarrassing, I’m sounding like Harry Knowles.

Jude Law was pitch-perfect, so it’s no use saying anything else about him. I’ve heard many complaints about the off-the-Richter-scale magnitude of Gwyneth Paltrow’s annoyingness, but I thought her Polly Perkins was a perfect Lois Lane, even if her editor, Paley, wasn’t a clone of Perry. But maybe it was easier for me to ignore her because I’ve never liked Gwyneth Paltrow anyway. In any case, her attitude made Jude Law’s comebacks all the more enjoyable.

I was pleasantly surprised that the dialogue completely avoided the outright corniness it would have suffered if it had been a routine Stiller- or Ferrell-style send-up of an era rather than the genuine celebration of one that Sky Captain is. Campiness almost surfaces when somebody, by leafing through a briefcase of mostly pictures for a few seconds, is able to summarize the subject’s complete biography in perfectly phrased sentences of exposition, but the convention is played so straight, without hint of hamminess, that it becomes kind of cool.

The movie also lacks another seemingly obligatory vice which plagues–let me see, yes–every other retro-based movie: the inevitable “political correction” of whatever that particular era’s un-PC sensibilities were. But Sky Captain is astonishing in that, in the antagonistic guy-gal relationship, the guy actually gets the last laugh and all the ones leading up to it. To be honest, I can’t think of anything more challenging to today’s culture, in which every comedy, every television sitcom, and every single commercial on the radio feature “ignorant/foolish male” educated/embarrassed by “informed/clever female.” The formula is so basic that to see it not in play made me almost uncomfortable: Surely it’s an aspect of chivalry that men forfeit positive characterization in advertisements for the sake of insuring the positive portrayal of women in media. But even if it is a good development for society, it would seem inauthentic in Sky Captain and the movie doesn’t risk anachronism for the sake of being egalitarian.

Nonetheless, there are no weak women in Sky Captain, and there are numerous homages, large and small, to post-1939 movies and characters, ranging from a Marvel Comics helicarrier “manned” by a female Nick Fury, right down to the eye-patch–compare the letters in NiCK FuRY and FRaNKY CooK–to a few seconds that recall Luke Skywalker’s arrival on Dagobah. But none of these influences make Sky Captain anachronistic because all of its second-degree sources of inspiration were themselves inspired by the same primary material; it has become axiomatic that George Lucas made Star Wars in the spirit of the old Flash Gordon serials.

And speaking of Lucas, it’s also important to note that Sky Captain decisively obliterates the rationalization that the acting in Star Wars episodes I and II is so terrible because the actors had so many blue- or green-screen scenes. It still amazes me that the entirety of Sky Captain’s human ingredients were filmed in front of bleen-screens. Yet the filmmakers expertly kept their world from looking computer-generated by obscuring it with lots of shadows and perpetual soft-focus, leaving only a couple of automobiles positively CGI in appearance. The movie feels black and white because it largely is, Paltrow’s blonde hair and red lips being the only color accents–at least, until the characters reach… but that would be telling.

Sky Captain just came out yesterday in the UK, but all of you in the United States should have seen it by now. If not, what are you waiting for? There is literally nothing negative I can think of to say about this movie except that there wasn’t enough of this or that, namely Angelina Jolie, whose character deserves far more in the sequel than the glorified cameo she’s given in this one. And believe me, there should be a sequel. Following proper serial convention, “The World of Tomorrow” is just the name of this episode of what I hope are Sky Captain’s many adventures.