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Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow – film review

May 30, 2013


Diesel punk meets thirties serials equals enormous fun.


Written & Directed by Kerry Conran. Produced Jon Avnet, Sadie Frost and Jude Law. Starring: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Giovanni Ribisi and Angelina Jolie. A Spanish, United Kingdom, United States, Italian co-production. Year of release: 2004. Running time: 106 mins.

Set in an alternate 1939, ace reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) joins daredevil aviator Joe Sullivan (Jude Law) in tracking down the whereabouts of a mysterious scientist who is linked to an attack on New York City by an army of giant flying robots.

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow is an affectionate nod to 1930’s serials – the same serials which inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark – but using the diesel punk aesthetic. It has likeable characters, nice touches of humour, spectacular action and is visually stunning. There is genuine chemistry between Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. Angelina Jolie sports an authentic English accent. Giovanni Ribisi is always watchable. And it features a posthumous appearance by the great Lawrence Olivier (who passed away in 1989).

Sky Captain initially began life as a six minute short entitled The World Of Tomorrow which Conran put together over a four year period on his home computer, using friends as actors. Essentially a simplified version of the subsequent feature’s opening sequence, the short was devised as a single episode in a continuing series of serialized adventures. The short garnered the interest of producer Jon Avnet and the two collabarated on expanding the screenplay to feature length. The resulting film was produced on a budget of $70 million – making it one of the most expensive directorial debuts ever.

Unlike the turgid, humourless excess which followed in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Conran’s homage to 1930’s serials is a great deal of fun. And it perfectly captures the balance of tone which made Spielberg’s original classic Raiders Of The Lost Ark so appealing. The rousing classical score by Ed Shearmur (Reign Of Fire) does much in setting the tone.

sky captain and the world of tpmprrpw - tiny elephant

On a purely technical level, Sky Captain is very much a pioneering film in its use     of green screen to incorporate actors into computer generated environments (a technique later used to equal effect in the comic book adaptations Sin City and 300). When one considers that everything we see – aside from the actors, their costumes and the props they have contact with – every set and location has been digitally created and added later – it is an astounding achievement just how seamless (for the most part) it all appears. And unlike the standard daytime soap coverage lazily employed by Lucas in the Star Wars prequels (long shots, two shots, over the shoulder shots) – Conran uses a variety of angles in order to tell his story – giving     the film a level of kinetic momentum which maintains our investment throughout.

If I were to have a criticism it would be that the soft-edged diffusion on the sepia-toned images is somewhat distracting at times. And the highly-stylized opening sequence is strangely uninvolving – which is perhaps due to the onslaught of German Expressionistic imagery. The artiface of technique completely overwhelms at first – but soon settles down, ultimately allowing the narrative and characters to take charge, inviting involvement from the viewer.

sky-captain-and-the-world-of-tomorrow-new york chase

Despite receiving a generally positive reception from critics back in the day, Sky Captain was ultimately a box office disappointment. A real shame considering Conran demonstrates remarkable flare for this particular style of pulp action adventure. A feat made all the more remarkable when one considers this was his very first feature. Soon after the completion of Sky Captain, Conran spent over a year developing a big screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s pulp sci-fi novel A Princess Of Mars (an inspired pairing of filmmaker and material if ever there was), however in 2005 he was forced to leave the project over ‘creative differences’ and the film remained in development Hell until its eventual lensing as John Carter under the direction of Pixar veteren Andrew Stanton in 2010.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

From → film reviews

  1. Haven’t seen this movie in years. Felt more like a tech-demo than a proper movie, which made the acting-talent on show seem bizarre. Maybe a cast of unknowns would have been better? Can’t be denied though, how it scarily shows what so many current films look like now with CGI sets and green-screen augmentations. This film was a glimpse of the future of genre movies.


    • gregory moss permalink

      Hey Ian, thanks for commenting. 🙂 Yeah, I wouldn’t arbitrarily just lump Sky Captain in with the likes of the Star Wars prequels or Crystal Skull. Unlike those movies (which tried and failed dismally to replicate a sense of reality) – Sky Captain doesn’t hold this as its agenda. It is more about creating a visual aesthetic which is closer to painterly cell animation I guess. As I mentioned in my review, if anything – it should be held in the same basket as Sin City and 300 – which were in themselves cinematic representations of graphic novels – and were in no way attempting to represent reality (whatever THAT may be). 🙂


  2. While I have not watched this film in many years, what stood out for me was the highly stylized look of the film, which was marvelous. I really should hunt this down for a re-watch.


    • gregory moss permalink

      Yeah, it’s a great look. And the stylized aspect is what saves it from being dated in a strange way. It’s a fun little movie and well worth a revisit. 🙂


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