Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Paramount, 2004

“What have you got me into this time...?”

—Angelina Jolie to Jude Law

As a general rule, it’s always good to treat corporate marketing with a great deal of suspicion. After all, its sole purpose is to sell, sell, sell – irregardless of the actual quality of the product. Despite a flurry of comparisons to all manner of past classics, to say that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a deliciously crafted train wreck would be gross understatement.

The story is as straightforward as they come: an intrepid reporter on the trail of a team of missing scientists joins forces with an implacable adventurer to solve the mystery and save the world before a Doomsday device destroys mankind. After thwarting an attack on New York City by giant robots, they rush pell-mell into a series of the sort of adventures which were a staple of classic serials.

Obviously, the modern blueprint for this genre is Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is a perfect example of the form: a cheetah-lithe story with wonderful characters, unstoppable momentum, and a creative team at the absolute height of their skills. But if Raiders is the modern model, the set of plans issued to first-time writer/director Kerry Conran and veteran producer Jon Avnet has been used by several hundred other people as a placemat. The problem with decades of smudges and stains is that they tend to obscure anything but the biggest, boldest, most obvious points, and from the opening bars of Edward Shearmur’s obnoxious score, it’s clear that this is going to be one painful journey through various bits of far better films.

Sky Captain is being touted as a classic example of adventure serial pulp fiction. Unfortunately, that claim obviously originates with people whose only experience with pulp fiction comes via Quentin Tarantino (who doesn’t understand what the term means, either). Sure, they’ve heard of Doc Savage and Flash Gordon, and they might even have seen a couple of Errol Flynn pictures now that the DVD’s are coming out, but that’s the sum total of their experience and to say that that is knowledge of any sort is beyond ridiculous. That level of (in)competence might be fine for studio marketroids and their generally uninformed audience, but it will never wash with true fans of the genre, and it’s utterly unacceptable when the writer/director seems to have learned everything he knows about the era by thumbing through the bins of the local poster shop.

There is a style and a vocabulary that goes with pictures and stories of “that” era, and their absence from Conran’s script is the first clue that he has no understanding of his setting. While superficiality has never been a crime in Hollywood, Sky Captain is literally undone by showstopping anachronisms. Characters speak repeatedly of the “first World War,” yet the story is set in March 1939, six months before Germany invaded Poland. In what is perhaps the first documented instance of digital movie piracy, a major set piece centers around a screening of The Wizard of Oz at Radio City Music Hall. (Which would be five months before it premiered in Hollywood.)

Perhaps the worst indication of the film’s contempt for its audience is the characters’ inability to do simple math. The evil Doctor Totenkopf headed a secret camp doing scientific, medical-type experiments “before World War I” and sometime during the war, he disappeared. No one has seen him in “almost 30 years.” It’s apparently a stretch to subtract 30 from 1939, or to remember that the devastating Great War lasted from 1914 - 1918.

Continuing in the theme of being numerically challenged, there’s also a camera that displays the number of remaining shots. While that’s no doubt a plot point concession to a demographic fuzzy on photographic technology prior to the development of the JPEG, it’s pretty insulting to anyone who’s ever wrestled with the chore of remembering how many exposures are on their current roll of film.

To some, these might seem like trivial nits to pick, so why would they be showstopping? Because it speaks to general attention to detail – or perhaps more accurately, the complete lack thereof. These aren’t difficult things to get “right” – and yet the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered. If they have problems with simple things, how are they possibly going to overcome issues with something as complicated as storytelling. The answer is simple: they don’t.

The ability to tell a simple, straightforward story is an almost Zen-like artform requiring precise knowledge of exactly what is to be done, so that plot and character mesh seamlessly in tight, flowing unison. For sake of comparison, it’s the difference between any given Michener novel, which while purporting to tell the story of a small group of people, invariably begins with a view of the Earth from somewhere around Venus, and Dashiell Hammett’s short story “One Hour,” in which an entire murder mystery is not only outlined, but investigated and solved in the titular span of time (and a correspondingly brief handful of pages).

By contrast, the storytelling in Sky Captain is such a complete and utter disaster that it makes you yearn for the intricate plotting and lushly penned dialogue of George Lucas. Unlike Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, both of whom careened from crisis to crisis with a bemused grin that implied all manner of humorous superiority and confidence – or Harrison Ford in Raiders, or even Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride – Jude Law is all furrowed brow and blank intensity. There’s not an ounce of humor in his character or portrayal, and it drags the picture down like an albatross tied to a freefalling safe.

There must have been a trick to successfully pulling off the sort of overly persistent (“plucky,” they called it), always in trouble heroine reporters of films long past. There must have been because they were endearing enough to become a staple item of a certain type of genre film. And they could only become endearing if they didn’t inspire feelings in the audience that they should be killed at the first possible (or every subsequent) opportunity, lest their incessant stupidity and screaming thoroughly detract from rest of the story. Unfortunately, the secret of this trick seems to have been lost in the intervening haze of time. It didn’t work in Switching Channels, it didn’t work in I Love Trouble, and it doesn’t even begin to work here.

As an actress, Gwyneth Paltrow has all the depth and substance of an empty pizza box. As a character, reporter Polly Perkins comes off as an incompetent riff on Sweet Polly Purebred, though the film would have you believe otherwise. She’s smart. She’s resourceful. She speaks German so fluently that she can read technical documents and simultaneously translate them into English without so much as a pause. She never notices that “Totenkopf” roughly translates to “Death’s Head” – an artistic motif emblazoned on the breastplates of the city crushing robots, in case you missed the subtlety. It’s not a good combination. Whenever supposedly intelligent characters turn into morons to serve the plot, it’s nothing more than a contemptible failure on the part of the writer.

Here’s another hint: determination does not (or rather, should not) equate to abject stupidity. From her vantage in a street-level phone booth at the bottom of a concrete canyon, she is treated to a lovely panoramic shot of a sky darkened by an entire squadron of giant flying robots which set down and start tromping through town. Poor Polly Perkins is in disbelief: Shock...! Awe...! Ooh...!

Now that we’ve got that exhausting emotional gamut crossed off the list, we can move on to some reporter-esque pluckiness. Which seems to entail chasing along towards – and even between the enormous feet of – a horde of unstoppable metallic creatures, without so much as a reaction. Not trepidation, or even general nervousness at the potential of being maimed or killed by something that no one has any context for recognizing or comprehending, in fact, there’s no reaction at all. It’s almost as if she were performing to a blank wall. Oh, wait...

Kurt Thomas turned in a more believable performance in Gymkata.

Equal ineptitude is found behind the cameras. Edward Shearmur cribs badly from every John Williams score you can imagine. Instead of leading the audience slowly towards a heroic march, taking the time to set up thrills and danger, making our hearts jump, race, and skip too many beats for our own good before giving us things to cheer about, we’re instantaneously pummelled by fanfare. As if that weren’t bad enough, the actual orchestral recording is noticeably terrible – and there’s no excuse for that.

Stella McCartney’s costumes are evocative – in that they are a hodge-podge of design elements from the ’30’s and ’40’s – and therefore make no attempt to be accurate, nor in the case of Jude Law’s duds, well-chosen and completely unsuited to his build. Sky Captain’s principal outfit is a “traditional” flying suit – leather helmet and goggles (neither of which he needs since he never once flies with the airtight cockpit open), and a bomber-style jacket. Unfortunately, the combination of helmet (or hat) and jacket serves to shorten his neck until it seems that his shoulders are mounted at ear level. Welcome to the world of Thak the Fighter Pilot, Savior of Humankind.

If there is an iota of truth, quality, or sincerity in the heart of Sky Captain, it is the stunning visuals. With a title that references the theme of the 1939 World’s Fair (the Trylon and Perisphere even put in an oblique cameo appearance, though not in New York), obviously, all of the attention was poured into production design. Stylistically, it combines the height of German Expressionism and futuristic design with Film Noir. Art Deco is only visited in the recreation of Radio City Music Hall, and Streamline is completely ignored. This pastiche of elements from select decades creates a dizzying and compelling view of an era that never really was – if only the same care and attention had been lavished on other aspects of the project.

To borrow from Pauline Kael’s (in)famous quote about the making of 2001, Conran has built a world of “enormous science-fiction sets and equipment, never even bothering to figure out what he was going to do with them.” As it stands, the audience would be infinitely better served by the use of a good set of earplugs. Sky Captain is retro-chic at its best and worst: sumptuous to behold, but crassly counterproductive in all other respects. It’s an odd case of being better off waiting for the book.