Shiny Shelf

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

By Lance Parkin on 11 October 2004

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

I have a theory about good movies, which has two propositions, which run: 1) you can never have enough robots in a movie, and 2) there isn’t a movie made that wouldn’t have been immeasurably improved by having the hero and heroine chased by a dinosaur about an hour and a quarter in. ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’ follows this theory with slavish devotion.

Some critics have drawn attention to the fact that the sets were computer generated. These critics, presumably, haven’t seen a movie this century – the giveaway being the use of the archaic word ’sets’. All movies (at least all the ones worth seeing) are made like this now. Presumably the same critics are impressed by Pixar’s skill at training tropical fish. ‘Sky Captain’ just makes the process more obvious and stagey, like … er … ‘Moulin Rouge’ did, three years ago. ‘The Phantom Menace’ is a huge influence on ‘Sky Captain’, both in terms of how it was made and in the old movies and serials it quotes from. Add ‘Things to Come’ (now, surely, the greatest movie not out on DVD) into the mix, and ‘Sky Captain’ is the most visually rich and rewarding movie of the year.

Unlike its rivals, like ‘Hellboy’ and ‘I, Robot’, it doesn’t get all the money shots out of the way in the first five minutes. Every scene there’s some fantastic piece of design and an action sequence to make the most of showing it off. A running joke has the heroine bemoaning that her camera only has a couple of shots left, and she doesn’t want to waste them when she might see something better. By itself, it’s an OK joke, but it’s vindicated by the fact that she’s right: every time she turns a corner, it’s to be confronted with something even more exotic and spectacular.

‘Sky Captain’ has its faults. The dialogue is pared-down and basic, and so doesn’t get in the way of the important and interesting stuff, but when characters in 1939 talk about ‘the First World War’ and the RAF officers then have radar and measure things in metres, it becomes very clear that a lot more attention has been paid to the pictures than the words.

Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow are both actors who are great when they have good material and entirely forgettable when they don’t. Here, Paltrow’s job is often little more than to glower at the back of Jude Law’s head. They certainly aren’t miscast here, and both obviously understand the sort of movie they’re making … they aren’t bad, not at all, but there are only a few moments where they make it sparkle. In a movie with a small cast, which essentially has the two of them together in every scene, it really needs that sparkle. That said, the film’s been cleverly structured to avoid the problem seen in ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ – and many other recent movies – where a million CG things swarm over anonymous good guys. There’s a heart here, just one that needs to be a little bigger.

The main problem is that discussion of what motivates the baddy is confined to a quick chat between the good guys about five minutes before the end. The film’s much-touted villain (played, death being no obstacle, by Laurence ‘Last Action Hero’ Olivier) appears too briefly. The old serials – and indeed ‘Star Wars’, nearly as old now as Flash Gordon was when Lucas’s film came out – never made the same mistake. The most interesting and watchable character in them was often the bad guy. The absence of an antagonist with a face and a voice means, in places, that there’s little urgency to the plot, only frenetic action to cover up that fact. It also makes the ending feel both rushed and something of a formality, replacing, say, the hero and villain locked in aerial dogfight or swordfight (or perhaps both, simultaneously, wouldn’t that be cool?) with a race against time to flick a switch.

That said, ‘Sky Captain’ has got far more to it than previous attempts to recreate the serials, like ‘The Rocketeer’ and ‘The Shadow’, both very watchable, fun movies that just don’t catch fire like they ought to. It’s done OK in the States, and made its money back, but ‘Sky Captain’ isn’t a huge hit. Bizarrely, it’s crying out for toys and ‘The Art of’ type books, but no such things exist. This is a good, fun movie. A colourful, action-packed CG fest, but that’s what blockbuster movies are, now. It’s a lot more interesting to look at and exciting than ‘Spider-Man 2′ or ‘I, Robot’.

Not an instant classic, then, but it’s a film that seems to have been made with one eye on a two-disc DVD presentation, and it should find a large and willing cult audience there. I’ll certainly be among that number, but I’d also recommend seeing it on the big screen. This is king-sized eye candy, and everyone loves candy.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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