Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow
It took a scant 26 days for 37-year-old self-professed computer nerd and comic aficionado Kerry Conran, director of photography Eric Adkins, compositing supervisor Stephen Lawes, lighting director Michael Sean Foley and their star-studded cast to shoot “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” Almost entirely filmed before bluescreens, with backgrounds “painted” in by Conran and his team over the course of a year following the shoot, the result is a remarkable blend of neveau technology and the sensibilities of 1940s entertainment - a stylish, exciting, truly remarkable achievement in film.
It is, in this critic’s opinion, the breakout cinematic story – and the best film thus far – of 2004.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays Polly Perkins, a plucky New York reporter who is following a lead – and her nose – in the disappearance of multiple scientists across the globe. An unexpected (awfully large and mechanical) twist leads her to former beau and dashing flyboy Sky Captain Joseph Sullivan (Jude Law). They band together to unlock the mystery and save the planet from the evil Dr. Totenkopf (German for “deadhead”, a fun metaphor you’ll understand when you see the film.) Along the way, Joe and Polly employ the assistance of techno-geek Dax Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi) and Joe’s other ex-flame, Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie). Set against the hyper-stylized visuals and the grandiose musical themes of Edward Shearmur, this cast of delightful characters works magic of their own as they race against time for the sake of all good.
Conran – who comes out of absolutely nowhere with this film – provides majestic vision to a story ripped half from comic books and half from film noir. He channels the artistry of “Metropolis” and blends it with the dashing adventures of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”… and he is entirely devoted to the whimsical, larger-than-life result. Technically, the film dazzles – proving, with a startlingly small budget, what is possible with computer filmmaking and what has been lacking in the recent spate of Hollywood CGI-based pictures: an organic delight that rises above digits and approaches art.
The performances – particularly the charming, understated relationship portrayed by Paltrow and Law – support Conran’s vision with nuance. It’s a remarkable achievement to act entirely out of context, but the actors nail their work to the digital floor, their joy in working on the project effortless and apparent. Production designer (and big brother) Kevin Conran delivers an equally powerful character in the realization of sets and costumes. And the team’s total commitment delves even further to accommodate the final (we think) performance of Sir Laurence Olivier in a post-humus performance as ingenious as it is enjoyable.
And yet it’s the dramatic intelligence of the piece that has staying power. Technical gimmickry and fine thespians are forgettable when a film lacks thematic appeal; “Sky Captain,” for all of its exterior merits, does not disappoint on its human ones. The film is mythically self-aware, from call to action to threshold barriers to a denoument as ironic as it is iconic; the clash of good and evil, of apparent gods and mortals, of tragic weaknesses and heroism with depth is as delineated as it was in Lucas’ “Star Wars” – and as pleasurable to experience. Don’t look for hidden motives, subplots and an exploration of the dark recesses of the human mind; this is model storytelling of the most fantastic kind – the kind we grew up with and dream about, the kind we haven’t seen in decades.
And perhaps that is the greatest achievement of “Sky Captain.” It reminds us that the human condition – elements of good and evil, love and hate – remain refreshingly present in today’s hyper-sarcastic, caustically pessimistic, spiritually adrift world. It reminds us that hard work and bright ideas can save the world – or make a movie in the basement. And it reminds us that the “World of Tomorrow” is still out there, still something we craft with our own hands. Conran crafted his world with guts and hope, and he challenges us all to do the same.
Can a movie really be that great? Go see for yourself.