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Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow:
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Monday 20 September 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

a movie review by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Kerry Conran

Written by Kerry Conran

Starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Giovanni Ribisi, Angelina Jolie, Bai Ling, Omid Djalili, Michael Gambon

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow isn't a great movie. Sometimes, it isn't even a believable movie. But it sure is a swell movie.

Person: OK, here's the backstory: In 1994, Kerry Conran, a guy who Hollywood knew from Adam, decides he's going to creature a feature-length movie, from an idea he's had in his head for a long time, on his Macintosh IIci. (In 1994, not only was a Mac Iici, all 25 Mhz 68030 of it, not state of the art, it wasn't even art of the state.) So he wrote his own rendering software. How fast was it? To quote John Hodgman in The New York Times talking about one scene, "Every limb of every giant robot had to be rendered separately in advance and reassembled later. Each leg took 12 hours. Each robot had two legs. There were 20 robots." This sort of fanatical devotion to detail makes even Wallace & Grommit's Nick Park and his four seconds of claymation a day of look like a piker.

So, come 1999, Conran has six whole minutes of his feature film in the can (or rather, his hard drive). He shows it to a friend of his, who shows it to someone in the movie business, one thing leads to another, and before you know it, he has a contract to make a $70 million film.

Is this a great country or what?

So, after shooting principal actors against a bluescreen, then rendering everything else in CGI, Conran's created a gorgeous, breathtaking, sepia-tone-drenched homage to a glorious art deco future that never happened.

And the film itself? Well....

* * *

Waldrop here: Let's talk about divergences from our 1939 in the world of this movie...

The movie opens with the Hindenberg III docking, which means it's a world where zeppelins are still flying in 1939, safely — we assume that's because they're using helium rather than hydrogen. But the zeppelins at the mercenary island — see below — explode when they're shot, rather than just deflating. So there are still some hydrogen-filled dirigibles around, despite, we assume, the Hidenberg/R101/Akron/Macon disasters...

This is a world where there's a mercenary air base — much like, and with former members of, the American Volunteer Group (The Flying Tigers) from Indo-China — about an hour's drive from Manhattan...

There are aerial aircraft carriers, yet Sky Captain Joe Sullivan (Jude Law) still flies a P-40 (the Flying Tigers planes from 1939), which was a 300 mph plane, tops, yet at one point the robot planes chasing him are reported to be capable of 500 mph...

These robot fighters are based on the twin-jet powered Horton HO-X or Messerschmitt 1011 flying wing fighters the Luftwaffe would have put up in late 1945 if they hadn't run out of war first, only these are ornithopters — they fly by flapping their wings like a crow, or Airboy's plane Birdie from the comic book (and still go 500 mph...)

There are B-24s like Hal Clement flew over Ploesti in the war, but operating in 1939 here, not just prototypes. There are giant robots by the squadron, any one of which would take the GNP of the British Empire to build and run in 1939. There are working ray guns.

Dex (Giovanni Ribisi, the young Dr. Heur part, i.e., the super-inventor brains behind Sky Captain's operation; if this had been publishing in Campbell's Astounding, Dex would have been the hero, and with good reason) says "Shazam!" in 1939, which means Whiz Comics started a year earlier in this world; it's snowing so it must be late winter 1939 or late fall 1939 — and it must be late fall, as Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) refers to WWI. It wasn't called WWI until after September 1, 1939, when Hitler crosses into Poland and started WWII, in our world. Before then it was called The Great War. But then, when they're flying in Nepal, there's a reference to March when Sky Captain looks in his aviational Ephemerides. Also, WWI must have been fought at a higher technological level, from the photos we see...

I'm telling you all this because I care...

You can't fault a movie like this from the glitches I list above. Like Moulin Rouge, any mistakes are not the result of pretesting by committee. These are one guy's choices: they come with the vision. People run/drive/swim/fly around all movie, chasing what is eventually a human McGuffin. (For those of you living way down in wells the past month or so, for whom the revelation will spoil things, I'll refrain from telling you the name of the actor playing Dr. Totenkopf — that's Dr. Death's Head to you.)

P: The plot, such as can be described without spoiling the really swell stuff: German scientists are being mysteriously killed. The last on the hit list sets up a rendezvous with reporter Polly Perkins to spill his soul about his work with the sinister Totenkopf (albeit mysteriously enough to avoid spoiling the later surprises). Just then giant robots attack New York (I hate it when that happens) to steal some subterranean generators. (Although Totenkopf can build entire armies of giant robots, and later we see his secret island base (think Blofeld's volcano from You Only Live Twice, as designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Speer on a budget that would bleed Bill Gates dry) has technology so advanced it might as well have been built by the Krell, he can't build generators?) Turns out they've been stealing things from all over the world. A visit to the last scientist results in him slipping two vials (which turn out to be the McGuffin within the McGuffin) to Polly just before dying while Sky Captain gets the snot beat out of him by Totenkopf's mysterious assistant (Bai Ling, in silent yet ass-kicking form). (Polly is burdened by having to perform both of the Idiot Plot exercises, both involving the McGuffin.) Sky Captain's own base gets attacked, and Dex snatched just before he fixes the coordinates for their radio control signal in Nepal. And after that, it's wonders, each one bigger than the last, all the way down. (And the other Bond film it resembles is Moonraker...)

P & W: Acting is generally pretty good. Giovanni Ribisi nails Dex, and Angelina Jolie steals the show in a small but juicy role. Jude Law is good, but needs a little more raffish charm, a bit more Han Solo, or at least Errol Flynn. Gwyneth Paltrow is the weakest of the principals, coming across more as laid back than hard as nails, probably a combination of slight miscasting, a first-time director, and the inherent problems of working entirely against bluescreens. Her Polly Perkins is sort of a Lois Lane with brains; the added bit of characterization is that she and Sky Captain have a history — a "we'll always have Nanking" kind — that is the driving engine of the character. Of course, the ante is upped when Jolie's character shows up — she and Sky Captain have also been an item. Michael Gambon, one of the finer actors on this planet, anyway, has a part that could have been filmed in 20 minutes one morning — he's the gruff, yet caring, editor of the major NY daily for whom Perkins works.

Essentially in this film — like in pulp and comic books antecedents — the characters don't change; they just have to work harder within their set personalities. And things are open-ended enough that plugging sequels and prequels into it presents no problems. (More Dex and Frankie, please.)

W: Some of the robots here are out of the 1942-44 Fleischer Superman cartoons, esp. Mechanical Monsters. Some, I swear, came from Magnus, Robot Fighter comic books of the early 1960s, especially the ones we see on Totenkopf's Island.

W & P: There are several scenes where you (in W. H. Frohock's immortal words on James M. Cain) swallow the whole 6 lb ham, can and all, and only later say "Ouch!". The movie's also smart enough to build off these scenes, until, by the end of the movie, you're swallowing the whole hog (and giraffe). Neil Gaiman once said that "suspension of disbelief is sometimes much harder to pop than you would imagine," but here, they really, really try, each improbable wonder a mere scaffold to pile on an even bigger and more improbable wonder than the last. (The giant propeller-driven aerial aircraft carrier should send avionics engineers racing for their slide-rules to calculate just how many orders of magnitude its existing propulsion system would be short of actually keeping it aloft. And there are at least four more Big Science revelations after that point which are even less likely.) But while the logical portion of your mind is telling you just how impossible each scene is, your eyes are still fooled by just how gorgeous everything looks. It's as if Wiley Coyote could keeping running to the other side of the chasm on sheer momentum.

As for production values, the way this thing is done is every bit as good as the way they hyped it. (They'll have to figure out what categories people go into at awards time — I mean, are you a set decorator even when there's no set?) There's one effect that does Raiders of the Lost Ark's "plane flying across the map bit" one better, laying latitude and longitude grid lines, compass devices, and map legends across the landscape itself, and then later, submerged below the surface of the ocean, that has to be seen to grasp exactly how indescribably cool it is.

W: The one review I allowed myself to see (as this was delayed from late May to July to now) is Joe Siegel's on ABC-TV. He hit some of the problems on the head when he said "This guy invented the process. They gave him $70 million to write and direct it. Isn't that like giving Gutenberg money to write all the books?" (P: Though the credits say that at least some of the film was doing using Pixar's Renderman.)

Not that there aren't breathtaking scenes of wonder as good as I wanted them to be, and some better. (All the while I was watching this I was reminded of Karel Zeman's The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, which we saw earlier but which we'll be reviewing (from your viewpoint) later — it's the same kind of through-visioned total movie, only here the object, unlike with Zeman, was to make it hyper-real and Expressionistic at the same time...)

And for what is essentially the vision of 2 guys — the writer/director and his brother — this has the loooooooongest end-credits I've seen in my life — I was staying to find out who did the second rendition of "Over the Rainbow" — no, not the late Hawaiian — and I found out just after the onset and retreat of the glaciers of the next Ice Age...

P: The main knock on the film, beyond the sheer unbelievably of the last 30 minutes, is that it's a loving homage to its myriad inspirations, but doesn't transcend them in the way that Raiders of the Lost Ark (the most obvious point of comparison) transcended its inspirations. Raiders succeeds in building its own world, rather than seeming an amalgamation of every comic book, Radebaugh illustration, and Republic Serial a boy's heart could desire. In fact, Sky Captain's over-the-top sensibilities work against establishing that underlying reality; save the central Biblical supernaturalism, nothing in Raiders is physically impossible; unlikely, yeah, impossible, no. Counter-intuitively, because Indy's enemies are all human, triumphing over them actually seems a real achievement. By contrast, the forces arrayed against Sky Captain are so formidable (the rocket, the robot, the countdown, etc.) that he's left the realm of human logic and entered that of movie logic, where triumph for the hero is always assured. (Has there ever been a scene with ticking bomb timer at the end of the movie where the hero didn't cut the red wire in time?) Then again, "Hey kid, you ain't no Spielberg yet!" is hardly a devastating critique.

W: All that being said: you'll probably enjoy the hell out of this movie. It's a combination of live acting, the totally animated hyper-real, the Expressionistic and the gritty. (Questions of inertia aside — way aside — the air chase through the buildings under construction is 1939 in a nutshell.)

The great lines in the movie — there are some — come out of the characters and situation — not because it's time for one, or the actors thought they needed one.

The way the film was made points to the future. I wrote about all this in a story called "French Scenes" more than 20 years ago, so it's nice to see it finally happening. (Since CGI came in, it was only a matter of time til someone made a movie with just the principals on an empty soundstage.) No more location shooting; no more losing the light; no more imbalance in the mise-en-scene; NO MORE EXTRAS — unless I'm very mistaken, the scene in the packed Radio City Music Hall has 2 people in it. No more period costumes except for the principal actors. As I said back in '82 — if I were in the Stuntman's Union I'd be learning a new trade, unless it, too, becomes a featherbedding advisory crafts guild.

So — he's shown the way to do it, if not having made a film as great as I wanted it to be. ("Pioneers leave ugly towns.") Of course, no one could have made a movie as great as I wanted it to be, unless someone hands me a pile of dough and goes away until I say "It's done..."

W & P: We are now in the era where movies can do anything they need to. (This also will open up, unfortunately, very big, very bad comic book movies, courtesy this process.) Sky Captain is better than that — much better — but it still needed another script, one based on about 2/3rd of what's in there now. At least a third of the movie has nothing to do with the main plot. When you're through watching this, you have more questions, but not the right kind. Why the dinosaurs? Why the underwater sequences? Why the levitating robots, which we aren't going to see in 2039, much less 1939? Because we can isn't good enough. What did that part of Totenkopf's experiments have to do with this goal? Etc.

We would have liked this to have been the greatest action-flick ever made, and then some. It's not. But there's so much good stuff in it we can hardly wait for his next film.

Howard Waldrop's stories include Nebula Award winner "The Ugly Chickens" (1980) and numerous other counterfactual/alternate history stories, from "Custer's Last Jump" (1976, with Steven Utley) to "Major Spacer in the 21st Century" (2001). His most recent book is Dream Factories and Radio Pictures from Wheatland Press. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue. Waldrop has recently been posting a blog at The Infinite Matrix.

Lawrence Person's short fiction and poetry has appeared in Asimov's, Analog, Fear!, and the anthologies Alternate Presidents and Horrors! 365 Scary Stories. He edits the Hugo-nominated critical magazine Nova Express.

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