Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

2009 #63
Kerry Conran | 102 mins | TV (HD) | PG / PG

Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowIf the Indiana Jones series was a bit more sci-fi (even than Crystal Skull, that is), it might be rather like this. First time writer-director Kerry Conran evokes ’40s cinema serials more thoroughly than Lucas or Spielberg ever dared with a globe-hopping tale of a mad scientist’s giant robots doing all sorts of damage in a quest for… well, that would spoil the ending.

In the telling, Sky Captain is every inch a Boy’s Own adventure, packing every facet of that genre of storytelling into its brisk running time. There’s secret bases, ray guns, giant robots, flying aircraft carriers, snow-bound Himalayan treks, creature-infested secret jungle islands, huge underground bases, space rockets, planes that are also submarines, tree bridges over impossibly deep gorges… If it’s part of the genre, it’s probably here, and all finally executed with ’00s-level special effects. In some respects it does move between set pieces and locations in an episodic fashion, but then that’s more a trait of the films it emulates — i.e. episodic serials — than a flaw in Conran’s plotting.

Still, some might view Sky Captain as little more than an exercise in filmmaking — it was one of the first movies to be shot entirely on blue-screen, around the same time as Sin City and a couple of others. There’s more to it than that, but it’s also hard to ignore the style this creates. The shooting process is far from perfect if one were trying to recreate real life, but here the whole look is so stylised that it hardly matters. The period setting is nicely evoked, combining myriad influences into an intricately realised retro-future style, coupled with a lovely sepia sheen over everything. It’s beautifully lit, while individual shots and editing are frequently reminiscent of a style from the ’40s (and earlier). Again, Conran is being deliberately evocative of films of the period, rather than a modern film set then; more La Antena than Star Wars.

Another much-discussed feat of technology is the resurrection of Sir Laurence Olivier as the film’s villain. Unfortunately, his brief appearance is underwhelming. Perhaps we’ve become too accustomed to modern technology resurrecting deceased actors for ‘new’ performances (not that it happens that often); but then again, what was done with Oliver Reed for Gladiator — four years before this — seemed more impressive than the small amount of hologram we see here, even though the digitally created shots were equally brief. It’s a shame, because using Olivier for this key role is quite neat, certainly better than casting a glorified extra. In fairness, then, it’s a part so small that very few appropriately-big names would agree to it, which perhaps permisses resurrecting Olivier after all

Among the real performances, the acting is a bit flat. Perhaps this is deliberately in-keeping with the emulated style, though Jude Law is always this bad so maybe not. Similar comments could be made of the screenplay, if one were being unkind. What it does manage is a good amount of humour — an essential part of the genre, as any Indiana Jones fan will tell you, but it’s by no means guaranteed in these over-serious times (thankfully, the likes of Star Trek and Transformers are occasionally breaking down this barrier to fun).

Breaking free of any self-imposed period constraints, Conran also produces a few exciting action sequences, such as a plane chase through the streets of New York. It’s incredibly hard to create spectacle these days, but Sky Captain occasionally manages it. There are also lots of fun little references to other things for the keen viewer to pick out. 1138 crops up, inevitably, but my favourite is some dialogue lifted from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.

Sky Captain is a healthy dose of retro-styled fun. Perhaps that makes it an acquired taste, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

4 out of 5

My review of the proof-of-concept short that inspired Sky Captain can be read here.

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