It was one of those “right place, right time” type of things. Lightning struck, the right people saw and funded the film at just the right time. Actors who would go on to have huge and successful careers were cast in the relative unknown of their early careers, and one of my favorite movies to ever exist was created at just the perfect moment in time.
‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’ is the first and last movie directed by Kerry Conran to date, who spent four years creating a six minute black-and-white teaser to pitch his concept to producers. His idea – to shoot the entire movie around the actors in blue-screen – was a novel concept at the time, and indeed, ‘Sky Captain’ was the first film shot entirely with computer-generated backgrounds (with the exception of two small scenes, due to time & budget constraints). Films like ‘300’ and ‘Sin City,’ among others, would follow in Conran’s footsteps, and many films in recent years have seen the majority of their background work come via CGI. Much like the “handheld shaky-camera” effect pioneered first and most prominently by ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ Conran had the opportunity to do something just “ahead of his time” enough to be the pioneer.
So, what was it about the film, then, that largely failed to impress the audiences of 2004? Was it the somewhat odd title of the movie? The feeling at the time of an over-reliance on the blue-screen concept? The lack of huge leading actors (at the time) in the film? Earning a worldwide sum of $57.9 million, it fell over $10 million short of the budget it took to make it. Which is a shame; not only were the digital backdrops gorgeous, the ‘Indiana Jones’ meets ‘Superman’ styled musical score was a big credit to the film. The score truly set the tone and kept the pace well. Even though the film was considered a box office flop, it has generated a “second life” on home video as a low-key cult classic.
As for the plot of the film itself? It’s 1939 in a fantastical steampunk-adjacent representation of New York City. Six esteemed scientists from around the world have gone missing and are presumed dead. Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a fearless and tenacious investigative reporter for the Chronicle, has linked the scientists together.
Having run a piece on the most recent scientist to go missing (from passenger zeppelin the Hindenburg III, no less), she is contacted by a mysterious source: they claim to know who will go missing next. Spurred on by her ambitions, she soon discovers that the scientists had been part of a secret group formed in Berlin, thirty years ago, before the First World War, called “Unit Eleven.” Rather than deter her, the dangerous information only serves to whet Polly’s interest.
As an army of giant robots and remote-controlled war birds plague New York City, Polly enlists the reluctant assistance of her old flame, Sky Captain “Joe” Sullivan (Jude Law), who commands an army for hire with his modified P-40 Warhawk. The group has been secretly tracking these destructive devices, all built by the mad scientist that they come to know as Dr. Totenkopf (Sir Laurence Olivier, via the magic of digital editing, as he had been deceased for 13 years prior to filming).
When Joe’s friend and tech specialist Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) goes missing, the hunt for Totenkopf becomes personal as Polly and Joe race to stop a madman’s ambitions for doomsday from succeeding. Their adventure takes them to the ends of the Earth, and along with a little help from Sky Captain’s old friend Commander Francesca “Franky” Cook (Angelina Jolie) in command of a fleet of British flying helicarriers, they may just have what it takes to save the day.
The movie had a lot going for it that worked, in my opinion. In particular, the chemistry between Law and Paltrow was great. The underlying snarky-yet-obviously-romantic feelings between Polly and Joe felt solid and their back-biting proved to be a welcomed comedic effect. The pace flowed well and, while the idea of a mad scientist isn’t new, the way the movie concluded was particularly exciting.
The tone of the film was intentionally exaggerated from real life, with many pieces of technology and other fantastical elements appearing that never truly existed in their presented forms. The heavier commercial use of zeppelins, the giant robots and flying fortresses – all amazing to witness and enjoy, in a retro-homage type of setting. Conran has stated that he pulled inspiration directly from the pulp-y sci-fi comics of the 1950s and 1960s, directly citing some of my favorite characters and titles such as Airboy, Adam Strange, and even early Superman cartoons of the 1940s.
The special effects were nothing short of amazing, and still hold up pretty damn well against the test of time. Some of my favorite scenes were of the “Amphibian Squadron,” a group of airplanes that smoothly made the transition into underwater submersibles. I could have watched an entire movie about them. There were “easter eggs” throughout the film, and several stashed in the underwater scenes, including blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots of the Titanic, the Venture from ‘King Kong,’ and even a quick glimpse of the lost city of Atlantis.
All in all, ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’ is an engaging film that lets you simply get lost in the pleasure of watching something fantastic. I highly recommend taking the chance to check it out or giving it a good old-fashioned nostalgic rewatch if you haven’t done so in a while. Speaking of which – I think I’ll go do that right now. Until next week, friends!