Shot entirely against greenscreens, ‘Sky Captain’ is a peculiar love letter to the cliffhanger serials of the past, Indiana Jones with Macs. Natski looks into tomorrow and sees… pointy rocket ships.
Carrying with it a considerable aura of hype due to its entirely CGI-generated environment, ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’ is a curious and ultimately enjoyable slice of hi-tech, retro-futurist camp, combining the narrative sensibility of the graphic novel with the production design of an other-worldly 1930s adventure serial. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law, it’s in many ways an odd little film; a blockbuster, the genesis of which could not have been smaller or more personal. It’s entirely the brainchild of the passionately committed writer and director Kerry Conran, who spent four years of his life slaving over a hot Mac to create six minutes of computer animated footage of giant robots rioting in New York. This came to the attention of producer Jon Avnet, who collaborated with Conran to develop it into a full-length feature. The end result is a curious and largely entertaining adventure yarn, with a highly stylised visual sensibility that for the most part succeeds in drawing the viewer into its fast-paced hijinx..
New York. 1939. A giant zeppelin docks at the Empire State Building. On board, an unaccountably nervous scientist arranges for a package to be delivered to a colleague. Meanwhile, go-get-’em newspaper journalist Polly Perkins (Paltrow), working on a story about the mysterious disappearance of the world’s leading scientists, is caught in the middle of a sudden attack on the city by giant robots. The terrifying invaders are foiled by Sky Captain Joe Sullivan (Law), leader of an elite mercenary band employed by the world’s governments to bring law and order and, coincidentally an old flame of Polly’s. Joe and Polly trace the package to its delivery address only to find the house has been ransacked and the scientist attacked by a deadly assassin, who it turns out is the constant companion of the mysterious Dr Totenkopf (Olivier). When Joe’s base is razed to the ground by more robots, which kidnap his technically-minded buddy Dex (Ribisi) who has just managed to trace the source of the signal controlling the robots to a point somewhere in the Himalayas, Joe and Polly have little choice but to follow the trail into the mountains, believing it to be Totenkopf’s base, and bickering constantly all the while.
The first quarter of ‘Sky Captain’ drags alarmingly. Within the first 20 minutes Conran rather clumsily sets up the plot and characters and gives us the first action set-piece; the invasion of New York by giant robots. While attempting to take this all in, we’re also trying to adjust to the very unusual visual style which, at the outset, is dark, muddled and simply hard to see (not a good thing for visuals). By the end of the first half hour I was feeling restless and thinking how much better all this haute design stuff would be if the story was funnier and sexier. Thankfully, with the appearance of the British actor and comic Omid Djalili things start to pick up. Djalili plays Joe’s ambiguously ‘ethnic’ looking sidekick and his and Polly’s guide into the mountains. At this point ‘Sky Captain…’ morphs weirdly but compellingly into a cross between ‘Lost Horizon’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’, as Polly, Joe and Kaji struggle through the snowy passes to reach Totenkopf’s Himalayan hideaway. Around this time Polly’s torn skirt also brings her stocking tops into view, a welcome sight and one that – in the context of the stylised 30s production design – brought back warm memories of the BBC’s early 80s Chroma Key dramatisation of the ‘Jane’ comic strip, featuring a lissome Glynis Barber, which I’d devoured as a nervy pre-teen.
The plot’s various contusions from this point on, featuring flying airfields, renegade Buddhists, Joe’s acquaintance Frankie (Jolie) leading an airborne/waterbound assault and a gigantic rocket-ship Ark, are less important than the general loosening up of the script. The characters start enjoying themselves and so do we and while the storyline never quite escapes from predictability (somewhere between ‘Biggles’, ‘Indiana Jones’ and Buster Crabbe-era ‘Buck Rogers’) it also doesn’t cease to entertain. By the end you’d have to be a scientist bent on global destruction not to have raised a smile or felt a thrill of pleasure at the various cliffhanger action sequences.
So why is ‘Sky Captain’ being accorded such attention for the way it was made? Writer and director Kerry Conran filmed all the actors against bluescreens and then added all the backgrounds and other characters digitally afterwards. The advantages of this are several: to have shot a movie with the kinds of sets and locations depicted in ‘Sky Captain’ traditionally would have taken most of a year and cost tens of millions. Shot against the bluescreen, filming was completed in 26 days. Additionally, the director has greater flexibility in the editing process as actors can be inserted, deleted or moved around within the digital environment at will.
So, it’s faster, cheaper and easier to work with in post-production. Great, what does the movie look like? Well, it’s a matter of personal taste. On the one hand, there were many times throughout the film when the reality gap between the live action figures and the digitally created characters was jarring. No matter how hard they try, most of the actors in ‘Sky Captain’ have the faint air of self-consciousness you see on the faces of children who know they are too old to be playing cops and robbers; the kind of make believe and voluntary self-hypnosis that is, in a sense, part of the actor’s remit – and that’s much easier to achieve against a set or in an appropriate location – is clearly harder to pull off against the cold environs of a bluescreen set. In ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ Bob Hoskins made us completely believe that he was staring directly into Jessica Rabbit’s… eyes. That involved drawing animated characters into real world environments to interact with human actors who, during shooting of the live action footage, ‘pretended’ their animated counterparts were there (Hoskins later said the experience almost drove him insane). ‘Sky Captain’ inverts this relationship between the real and the artificial by putting real-life thesps into the minority and giving the lion’s share of the action to the digital worlds they inhabit. The two universes often fail to mesh perfectly, the humans appearing to be just slightly out of step with their virtual co-stars.
On the other hand, I’ve certainly never seen a movie that looked like ‘Sky Captain’. It’s an extraordinary combination of genuine 1930s adventure serial iconography, idealized retro-futurist hardware and contemporary digital aesthetics, with a muted colour palette that calls to mind the sepia of old newsreels. The original live action footage was shot in HD digital video instead of film, and has been sweetened; the light is oddly diffused, the characters appearing to glow slightly, as if bathed in a milky radiance, reminiscent of a 1930s romantic feature or the cover of a pulp adventure magazine of the period. Conran is clearly a fan of Flash Gordon, ‘Superman’ cartoonist Max Fleischer and classic sci-fi fantasies in general. The film’s title borrows from the famous 1939-40 New York World’s Fair (“The World of Tomorrow”), which postulated that within a short period the western world would come to resemble an episode of ‘The Jetsons’, with whizzing jet cars, plentiful time-saving mechanical devices and hosts of robot servants to do our every bidding (Gerry Anderson, of ‘Thunderbirds’ fame, was another who was inspired by the iconography of this period to create his own fictional world). There’s frequent in-jokes throughout the film, from the ‘War of the Worlds’ quotes to the ‘King Kong’-style prehistoric island where Dr Totenkopf has his base. In many ways the film is a huge, digitised love letter the classic adventure films of the past.
Jude Law acquits himself well in the lead role of Joe, the courageous Sky Captain. As always Paltrow is intelligent and capable and her classical, angular features and golden hair work a treat in Conran’s art deco universe; but to really take off, this kind of role takes a certain kind of moxie that she doesn’t quite have (a young Jennifer Connelly, appearing in the similarly-themed, though less adventurous ‘The Rocketeer’ had all the looks but also lacked the elusive element of hutzpa; Kate Capshaw, in ‘The Temple of Doom’, got it just right: funny, sexy and with a mean right hook). Kudos must also go to Stella McCartney’s fabulous costumes and Todd Toon’s excellent sound design.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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