Shiny Shelf

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

By Stephen Lavington on 09 October 2004

It’s easy to understand the origins of this film in a five-minute showreel dreamed up by wrtier director Kerry Conran of giant robots menacing Manhattan. It’s a classic pulp sci-fi concept, made all the more clever an idea by the use of modern technology to implement effects that could only have been dreamt of in the mid-twentieth century. However, the film adds little more to this other than length – without a script or story to speak of and with the most cursory of performances by Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow this is a hollow bit of novelty cinema.

There is retro charm however, and plenty of it. Conran has taken inspiration (bordering occasionally on plagiarism) from pretty much every classic fantasy source of note (Orson Welles’ radio ‘War of the Worlds’, ‘King Kong’, the ‘Flash Gordon’ serials, ‘Metropolis’, ‘The Lost World’) and much of the optimistic vision of a futuristic utopia embodied at its peak by the New York world fair of the late 1930’s – itself called ‘The World of Tomorrow’. Shot entirely on blue screen, it’s been described as the sort of film directors like Fritz Lang would have made if they’d been able, and there’s perhaps some truth on this. However, ultimately it’s very much a creature of its time and for all the zeppelins and propeller planes it’s a movie with visual references to ‘Empire Strikes Back’ and nods to ‘Marathon Man’ in honour of Laurence Olivier – raised from the dead to play the film’s chief villain.

Which brings us to another of the film’s contemporary anchors – the pretty girl/pretty boy pairing of Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law. The result: pretty dull. Paltrow appears to be composed of wax (save for one beautiful moment of Bill Murray-esque pathos), while it seems the most crushingly obvious thing about Law has failed to occur to studio execs. He. Is. Not. A. Leading. Man. Giovanni Ribisi does the usual good stuff (he makes a decent ‘gee whiz’ Jimmy Olson sidekick) while Michael Gambon pops his head around the door to collect his paycheque and Angelina Jolie proves once again that she should never be allowed within 200 feet of an English accent.

So far, so little fun, but what Conran loses in substance and acting competence, he almost makes up for in sheer enthusiasm. It’s clear he both loves his source material and has the vision to smack it up onto a 00’s cinema screen. There are moments of pulp joy, beautiful technical implementation of CGI and sheer lunacy. In places it is truly gorgeous, but very rarely does it get the pulse going. Perhaps fun is not quite the right word – the urge is there to out and out enjoy the movie, but it never quite engages on the necessary visceral level as, for instance, ‘Star Wars’ does and is too diluted in its influences to have the simple-minded focus of any one of them on an individual level.

The end feeling is not bitter disappointment, but a vague sense of dissatisfaction. It’s very pretty, but one can’t help but feel that the writer/director has plenty of untapped potential. Must try harder.

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By Stephen Lavington

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