Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: When giant robots appear in the skies over New York, fearless reporter Polly Perkins is desperate to get the scoop, even if the crisis brings her into the cockpit of dashing pilot and old flame Joe, known and loved as ‘Sky Captain.’ Polly has been given secret information – and more – by a terrified scientist, and Joe’s genius friend Dex has the inside track on the robots; but can Joe keep the world of today safe when faced with Dex’s kidnap – and a seemingly undefeatable foe?

Ask many a director where they discovered their love of film and they will point you towards Saturday morning serials, films full of breathless action and exotic adventure shown in bite-size chunks across fifteen weeks or more. The legacy of these serials is clearly shown in fare like The Mummy and the rip-roaring Indiana Jones series, but when filmmakers have attempted a more direct tribute – Flash Gordon, for example – the results have often looked more than a little cheap.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow aims for authenticity, presenting a wildly exciting Boy’s Own tale in a style mimicking those of old Saturday morning films, but using 21st Century technology and acting talent to bring the story to vivid life. That story involves ace reporter Polly (Gwyneth Paltrow) being trusted with the secrets, including two vials of an unidentified liquid, of a scientist whose time is numbered. Polly doesn’t know what the vials are for, but one thing is certain: the murder of scientists is surely linked to the name Dr Totenkopf and the emergence of a fleet of massive robots swarming over, and through, New York City.

The authorities are helpless in the face of this menace but they know who to call on – Sky Captain (Jude Law). The heroic freelance airman, known as Joe to his friends and (we presume) ex-lovers like Polly, halts the robots with the help of his gadget-filled plane-cum-submarine and even gets one delivered to his hideaway, where Polly is lurking for a scoop. But there is little time for catching up with who cheated on who, for saying hello to young gadget/weapons expert Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), or even for touring Joe’s museum of older robots that his mercenary army, the ‘Flying Legion’, have captured: no, further waves of machines send the Captain and the insistent Polly into the air, while Dex is kidnapped even as he discovers the Himalayan source of Totenkopf’s signals to his robotic army. The pair fly to Nepal and are helped by Joe’s old friend Kaji (Omid Djalili), unlike some other shifty foreigners: but through trial and tribulation Dex must be rescued, Polly must have her story, and Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier) must be stopped from putting his evil plan into action, whatever the cost.

I’ll come back to the plot later, but Sky Captain is a film where visual style dominates over storyline. Rather than building sets, Kerry Conran has taken advantage of leaps in technology to present almost everything as a computer-generated image. Other than the actors and the things they touch, stand on or sit in, hardly anything on the screen actually exists; this allows the director to portray exactly what he likes, and he brings to the screen sepia-toned locations that ooze comic-strip style.

New York in the 1930s (or early 40s) looks like a film reel, something out of King Kong; Nepal is cold and mountainous, the hidden paradise within it sumptuous; there are dinosaur-filled jungles and underwater lairs, gigantic hangars, floating aircraft stations, rocket ships and dozens of robot legions; in short, the playground for every boyhood adventure you could ever wish for. More than that, in bringing back images of Olivier to play Totenkopf, the viewer is immersed ever more into the glory days of Hollywood. It’s a film that looks truly unique.

But not, sadly, in a particularly good way. Despite all the trickery, there is a sheen around the actors, and a certain fuzzy softness around the edges, which means you never quite believe that the actors are fully integrated with their scenery. However active and impressive the backdrops are, Paltrow, Law and Co. look as though they are standing in front of backdrops, and for some reason this huge but unsuccessful effort to convince prevents any further suspension of disbelief. In a purely commercial sense, you have to ask why the film has been made this way: fans of Saturday morning cinema are now thin on the ground and unlikely to be impressed by new-fangled technology, whilst younger viewers, unaccustomed to B-movies and the like, are likely to wonder where the colours have gone. The same goes for the strange appearance of Sir Laurence Olivier: an old audience will most probably object to the use of his face, a young one not recognise him to start with. In any event, whenever Totenkopf is called upon to speak on-screen his mouth moves below the level of the picture, making the late star’s cameo both a gimmick and something of a swizz.

Coming back to the plot, Sky Captain has bigger problems still. I’ve listed some of the locations where Joe and Polly get themselves in and out of scrapes; you will note their disparate nature, and the story is a bizarre mishmash of action and Science Fiction ideas as it flits about from place to place, the couple coming a bit closer to declaring their feelings every so often (until Polly pulls her blasted camera out again).

There are some nice ideas – I liked the plane flying over maps and the nods to The Wizard of Oz – but an awful lot of poor ones too, such as the silent assassin lady or Polly’s supposed love rival, the super-posh and bizarrely one-eyed Franky (played by Angelina Jolie with her good eye on her cheque). The film is Rocketeer one minute and Jurassic Park the next, which would be brilliant were the enterprise carried off with the gusto of the original movies or Harrison Ford’s Indy; but the script is naff, delivering gems such as ‘something bad happened here’; there’s a laboured explanation of the entire plot read from a scientist’s notebook; and both hero and heroine are desperately bland characters, not in the least livened up by Gwyn and Jude’s unmotivated acting. Jude’s lazy, uncharismatic turn is perhaps the most harmful element in the whole film, since most of a film’s faults can be overlooked if the lead takes us with him. As it is, the action sequences take place in a vacuum and are only interesting for their technical excellence. We’re not even too bothered when Joe and Polly start punching each other.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow deserves some praise for trying to achieve a look and nearly pulling it off. Unfortunately, the director has devoted all his efforts on the look of the film at the expense of spinning a simple, credible yarn; if he had left the computers at home and spent more time developing elements such as character, logic and humour, he might have come closer to the excitement that the makers of Saturday morning serials achieved effortlessly, despite – or maybe thanks to – the primitive tools at their disposal.

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