Yes, this is a stunt picture (I don’t think anyone would deny that a movie in which only the actors are real could be anything but). That said, several films that we now regard as classic or semi-classic — King Kong being the most famous — were originally stunt pictures as well. So that can’t really be held against Kerry Conran’s breathlessly clever debut work as writer/director — and as the fellow who figured out how to make this whole thing work.
And work it does, even if it makes a few nit-picky gaffes — notably that The Wizard of Oz played Radio City Music Hall (it didn’t), while the 1941 King’s Row has no business being on a marquee in the 1930s! What makes Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow slide right past such minor blunders is Conran’s enticing cocktail of technological wizardry, brilliant art direction that deftly captures the 1930s idea of the future, and a cheeky story line that is somewhere between the pulp sci-fi and the Saturday-afternoon serial of that era. This final quality is probably the real triumph of Sky Captain.
Earlier this summer, Stephen Sommers attempted to evoke an earlier style of filmmaking with Van Helsing, and quickly proved that he really didn’t understand the era he was trying to capture. Conran doesn’t fall prey to this. He understands the whole idea of 1930s Moderne, and its notions of the future and of pop culture. In fact, Conran understands it even better than Spielberg did with his Indiana Jones films.
Conran’s characters look like they actually stepped out of the ’30s; his film almost feels like some lost artifact of that decade. There’s little hint of modern-minded superiority here. Sky Captain‘s bright breeziness (including its absolutely priceless curtain line) smacks of the real deal, not some mocking version of the era retooled for modern tastes. When the film calls for a ray-gun, it gets an honest-to-goodness ray-gun that emits enlarging circles of its ray, not some latter-day hybrid that looks like a prototype laser.
The story line is pure serial nonsense, with scientists disappearing to help bring about the dreams of a typical 1930s megalomaniac. The idea of giant robots invading the Earth is also perfectly in period, though visually this more recalls the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. Actual giant robots, of course, were something outside the budget of a real serial, but workable in animation — and workable here in CGI form.
Truth be told, a large part of what makes Sky Captain so visually impressive lies as much in the film’s sound design as it does in what’s actually seen on the Big Screen. It is the noise of the gigantic metal monsters marching through the streets of Manhattan that gives these robots their true sense of weightiness and menace.
But all of this would be only so much cleverness were it not for the fact that Conran’s players were able to pull off the incredible feat of acting all this out in nonexistent settings, pretending to be faced with horrors that weren’t being portrayed immediately around them. It’s no wonder that the film constantly references King Kong (an in-joke reference to a sunken ship named the Venture, an island with apparently prehistoric animals capering about, a log-bridged chasm that’s straight out of Kong). Directing the actors must have been like Carl Denham test directing Ann Darrow — asking her to cover her eyes and scream for her life — at some nonexistent horror in King Kong. Everyone involved in Sky Captain got the spirit, and got it just right — even the frequently box-office killing Angelina Jolie shines here. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow are perfect, and there are also nice contributions from Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Gambon.
The film’s not flawless, however. A stint in Shangri-La (where would ’30s fantasy be without a touch of Lost Horizon) looks for all the world like test footage for The Lord of the Rings and seems sadly out of place here. Plus, the much-vaunted appearance of the late Laurence Olivier is both rather lame and none-too-convincingly done. For a film that is otherwise so self-assured in creating its own world, this is a bad misstep. These, however, are small matters in the grand canvas of a film that can actually make you accept the image of the Hindenburg III docking atop the Empire State Building.
Sky Captain has already handily taken its first weekend’s box office, but whether or not it ultimately ushers in the world of tomorrow for filmmaking remains to be seen. Regardless, it certainly opens up a wide range of possibilities. And whatever it does or doesn’t portend, it’s here, and it’s one grand, good-humored ride.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke