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Non-Review Review: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow evokes pulp science-fiction cinema with an earnestness and an eagerness that is endearing, if not infectious. Although the special effects have dated significantly in the time since the movie’s release, it’s hard not to admire director Kerry Conron’s use of computer graphics to forge a connection to classic cinema. However, one senses that Conron might have been better suited to emulate the mood, rather than merely the appearance, of these old adventure serials. The problem is that despite its rather wonderfully crafted appearance, there’s never anything in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to really get excited about. And that’s a shame.

A ray of hope?

After watching the film, I can tell you relatively little about the eponymous character. Sure, I can define him as a lovable rogue, but somehow the character seems much less real than the graphics around him. Jude Law is normally a relatively decent leading actor, but it seems like he has literally nothing to work with. (Of course, my inner cynic might argue that, due to the way the film was shot, that was precisely the problem.) He’s never charming, never dynamic, never engaging. I never see why I’m going on this lavish adventure with him as opposed to with anybody else.

I’ll concede that it’s perhaps unfair to pick on Jude Law. He just stands out as the lead character. Other veteran performers give weirdly stilted turns in roles large and small. They are delivering dialogue that seems constructed to emulate the contrived exposition of classic science-fiction, but very members of the cast seem willing to adjust their performances accordingly. Instead, some try to wrestle the dialogue into a more conventional performance, while other can’t seem to muster even that enthusiasm. The generally awesome Michael Gambon appears in the opening few minutes, but seems slightly confused – as if he has wandered into the wrong green screen room.

Flight of fantasy…

It doesn’t help that Law shares no chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow, who seems disinterested at the best of times.The two are supposed to evoke the archetypal romantic couple in films like this – bickering back and forth, only to eventually realise that they really do love one another. The problem is that there is no passion in either the lines or the delivery. “I spent six months in a Manchurian slave camp because of you,” our hero tells the intrepid reporter. “They were gonna cut off my fingers.” The problem is that he never seems even the least concerned about this. Jude Law sounds like he’s reading the news.

As the two face death, our hero harps on about his suspicions that she sabotaged his plane, and she responds, “Our last moments on Earth and this is all you have to say to me?”The problem is that neither of them seems interesting enough to talk about anything else – and prattling back and forth doesn’t seem engaging or charming, it’s just masking the fact that there’s no real chemistry between the two and no strong writing to counter that problem.

A bit of colour…

Even ignoring the issue with cast dynamics and the writing, there’s the simple fact that, although Conran has lovinglybuilt this world, he doesn’t seem quite sure how to direct it. The movie looks pretty, even stunning, but there’s no life. There’s a sequence where the lead pilots a plane through a construction site that should be thrilling. In the hands of Conran, it’s just stale. During a gigantic robot attack on New York City, our reporter doesn’t run towards her misplaced camera – she sort of does a light jog, at best. At another point, the Sky Captain nearly has his head shot off with a laser – and he barely reacts.

I do wonder if this is down to Conran’s approach. Is it the fact that he’s using a cast that probably isn’t too familiar with CGI, and unaccustomed to acting off objects they can’t see? In recent years I suspect that actors have grown to embrace that aspect, but Conran’s work here is relatively revolutionary – it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the cast would be in a situation they’d never imagined. With only one feature film to his name, and the fact that he seems to be driven by the CGI, perhaps it’s fair to suggest that Conran isn’t an actor’s director. And I think the movie suffers because of it.

I had sky hopes for this…

These are fundamental problems. No matter how pretty the film looks, and how lovingly Conran crafts this world, the movie can’t cross that hurdle. It’s a shame, because it looks absolutely beautiful. While the special effect might seem a little clunky, especially in high definition, it’s hard to fault Conran his enthusiasm for the sheer mechanics of it. It’s an ambitious project, and it’s hard to hate that. It’s very clear that Conran does possess a deep and abiding affection for these sorts of stories, but that his attention is lavished on the more technical aspects rather than the greater picture. You can see it in things as simple as the way he frames his shots.

Visually, it is impressive. It is, at times, almost breathtaking. The problem is that Conran has pieced together something that looks like a fantastic slide show, a sequence of occasionally beautiful images that are not connected by interesting characters, strong direction or clever plotting. Taken in isolation, almost any shot of the film could look like a loving throwback to an earlier age, but they don’t really add up to anything when strung together.

Domo Arigato, Mr Roboto…

Even a cameo from the long-dead Laurence Olivier reflects this. It’s a well-realised special effects experiment, but why? It’s a cardboard role with no complexity or development, and it could have been given to a living actor with no changes. It might seem like an homage, but then why particularly to Olivier? Why not Orson Welles or any other individual that Conran seems to admire greatly. It doesn’t change anything about the film, and yet it remains the most discussed aspect of it. I think that sums up the problems with the movie.

It’s a shame, because there’s good material here. There’s pulp heroes, dogfighting, mysteries, monsters, madness, mayhem! But none of it ever feels truly alive. It seems like an experiment to prove the validity of a certain mechanical film-making technique, rather than a movie in and of itself. And that’s a little disappointing.

11 Responses

  1. I rather liked “Sky Captain,” especially in theaters – where the spectacle of the visuals was vivid and encompassing. Upon re-viewings at home, though, many of the problems you describe here became more apparent to me. For the most part none of them have greatly damaged my fondness of the film.

    In certain ways, it’s the faults of “Sky Captain” that leads to the authenticity of the experience it creates. Because something is “off” with the performances, and the dialogue is clunkier than it needs to be, the film feels like a genuine pulp serial, sci-fi adventure (i.e Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon).

    It’s one of those funny circumstances were being too well crafted can push an homage out of it’s element. Tarantino does a great job of recreating old “B genres” in the generous way he remembers them but often his talent as a director, and his wonderful contemporary dialogue, make for excellent pictures that are merely nostalgic and not authentic reproductions.

    Obviously, “Sky Captain” is no “Jackie Brown.” Then again, when you’re looking for 80’s “Battlestar Galactica” the new series is never going to cut the mustard, despite being the clearly superior production.

    Some days you want “Raiders” and other days you just have to watch “Temple.”

    • I actually – completely unironically – love Temple because, to be honest, it feels more like an authentic 1930s serial filmed in the 1980s – down to the reckless cultural insensitivity, child sidekick and very dark pulpy themes – than the other two. I don’t hink it’s better than the other two, but I probably enjoy it at least as much.

      But I can see what you’re getting at. Maybe I missed something on the small screen. But I do think that there was a certain “spark” missing from it.

  2. I liked this 😀

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