Pulp Masterpieces, Part 2: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

During the ’20s and ’30s there was a near worldwide fascination with aviation. In the United States, after the Great War, there was a phenomena known as “barnstorming”, where veteran pilots would tour the country selling rides in their aircraft and performing stunts for rural populations. There were celebrity pilots like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart who set records and captured the populace’s imagination. The first airlines were formed in this era, the United States Post Office began their air mail service, Admiral Byrd flew over the North Pole in 1926 (the feat has since fallen into controversy), and people were seeing the world shrink more and more every day.

The article continues after this advertisement...

And the people’s fascination with aviation was reflected in the Pulps, with heroes like G8 and his Battle Aces or the lesser known Dusty Ayres and The Red Falcon. Taking place during the Great War, many of these stories would involve a sci-fi or supernatural element to them. And these stories are reflected in the movie I’m looking at today: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

The plot is as follows (Spoilers!): Taking place in a fictional 1939, the world is under the threat of giant flying robots that scour the Earth, attacking major metropolises and stealing massive industrial components and resources for an unknown purpose. Reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow)…

…believes she may be on the trail of the culprits, who are also kidnapping a small cadre of scientists. When she gets in over her head, she’s aided by the mysterious soldier of fortune Joe, the Sky Captain (Jude Law)…

…who, with the aid of his friend, the genius inventor Dex (Giovanni Ribisi)…

…and his possible past love interest Franky (Angelina Jolie)…

…seeks to uncover the plans of the mad scientist only known as Totenkopf (German for death’s head) and his menacing henchwoman (Bai Ling)…

…and help get Polly her story.

Sky Captain came out at a time when some producers were experimenting with what was later called the “digital backlot”, developing movies that used live actors in a mostly CGI environment. Sin City is one example of this, as are 300 and The Spirit. For this reason, Sky Captain has a very unique look to it, and an unreal quality that I think plays well to the fantastic nature of the plot. It’s almost like a live-action cartoon. Since the middle ’00s, the digital backlot movement seems to have gone away, with the failure of the second Sin City movie putting a nail in its coffin (unless, of course, James Cameron’s promised Avatar sequels get produced). In a way I’m glad, because the scarcity of the genre just makes Sky Captain all the more unique, and though it’s part of a small genre of films it has a look all its own.

I would say, however, that Sky Captain rises above being a mere cinematic curiosity. It’s a wonderful movie, with awesome visuals, fine performances, and a good plot. Flint, Michigan native Kerry Conran, the creative force behind the film, does a credible job of directing his first film and he wrote one hell of a screenplay, and I think it’s a crime the man hasn’t seemed to have worked in Hollywood since. Seriously, what the hell happened to this guy? The last anyone seemed to hear from him, he almost directed John Carter but got replaced… and then the guy who replaced him got replaced. I would love to see Conran get another chance to show Hollywood and the world what he can do, because despite the fact that Sky Captain was a box office flop, it wasn’t due to a lack of production value or talent.

The decisions Conran made in framing shots paid homage to classic films. Speaking as someone who’s seen plenty of old movies on TCM, when I saw a scene like this…

…I couldn’t say for sure which film inspired it, but the feelings these scenes inspire in me say “classic movie” in a way that’s homage rather than parody. Its obvious Conran loves his old films and hence is a man after my own heart.

The movie begins in New York, and I have to say it looks utterly stunning, from the opening scene…

Nothing says “it’s the ’30s” quite like a zeppelin.

…to the streets below…

…to an amazing skyline…

…the amount of work that went into fleshing out this world borders on the gloriously ridiculous. Sky Captain’s base…

…is only seen in the first act, but it’s lovingly fleshed out. Look at that control room, and the crest on the floor:

That’s latin for “the roaring of the celestial sphere”, and you can see a winged tiger. All that detail for just a few scant seconds of screen time. I can only hope all of this is lovingly stored in some computer database for posterity for future generations to appreciate.

The movie is not limited to New York; it also takes us to far off Nepal…

…to see a mad genius’ base…

…and mythic Shangri-La…

…and to a tropical island populated by prehistoric creatures…

…and Totenkopf’s lair.

That rocket screams “Flash Gordon”. Thismovie oozes nostalgia like sweet maple syrup.

The exotic locales scream pulp, drawing viewers (well, American viewers, anyway) from familiar places to exotic in the same way scribes back in the day did with their typewriters. You know what my biggest problem in writing this article was? Forcing myself to limit the number of screen caps. I could post a hundred screencaps and still feel that I’m not adequately illustrating how stunningly beautiful this movie is. Conran made the best use of the digital backlot concept, hands down, creating an exotic retro world we can only wish had existed in real life.

I can’t express how much I love the choice of Jude Law’s aircraft, the venerable P-40.

First flown in 1938, it achieved fame in 1941 – 42 as the aircraft of choice of mercenary group known as the Flying Tigers, who fought in China against the Japanese. I love this plane so much that I have a print of Into the Teeth of the Tiger hanging on my wall…

…which was inspired by a real life incident where pilot Donald S. Lopez had a near fatal collision with a Japanese “Oscar” in 1943. The P-40 was a tough aircraft, not as pretty as the P-51, but still a magnificent bird, in my opinion. So Sky Captain’s choice of airplane, which at the time this film takes place (1939) is practically state-of-the-art, was heartily met with my approval. One could argue that Sky Captain’s aircraft should be “retro-futuristic”, but I beg to differ; Sky Captain’s aircraft should (at least outwardly) look mundane in the face of the fantastic.

As to the casting, the decision to use archive footage of Laurence Olivier as Totenkopf to me was inspired.

Olivier is thespian royalty, and few actors approach his near-mythic stature, so it seems only natural that he play this larger-than-life super-villain whose very name inspires terror. Jude Law was one of the producers, and it was his idea to use Oliver. It’s interesting to note that in 1939 (again, the year Sky Captain takes place), Olivier appeared in a movie called Q Planes, which was about a series of advanced aircraft going missing, with Olivier playing a pilot helping a woman reporter (played by British actress Valerie Hobson) uncover the mysterious thefts. Unconscious homage to a movie that might have played a part in inspiring Sky Captain? Perhaps. Maybe Law had once seen the movie and it inspired him? Or maybe, like many actors, the thought of acting alongside Oliver, even if it is just a digital ghost, was too good a chance to pass up.

Moving on, Jude Law is fantastic as the titular character. He’s square-jawed heroic but he stops just short of being ridiculous.

I do like how his character is so very self-assured when he’s given a problem to overcome, but when it comes to Polly he’s at a complete loss, as if like many men, women (especially women he has feelings for) baffle him and short circuit his brain. He’s written as an outstanding pilot with all the requisite skills, but he by no means comes across as superhuman.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Polly Perkins is wonderful.

Smart and driven, she’s the perfect foil to Sky Captain. One of my favorite scenes happens when she’s about to be stomped by giant robots, but rather than run away, she tears her skirt and opts to run through their legs, figuring the odds are better. She’s no whiny shrinking violet, and the interactions between Paltrow and Law are entertaining, as their past relationship keeps coming to the fore. I’m glad Conran opted to give the two a history rather than make them meet for the first time and bog the movie down with a love story.

Giovanni Ribisi is also good as Dex.

He plays the part of tame mad scientist pretty well. Omid Djalili’s turn as Sky Captain’s friend Kaji…

…is serviceable and he provides some much needed comic relief. Also, I’m amazed at the digital rendering that was done to him; that body hair looks so real! However, Angelina Jolie’s role of Franky…

…feels pretty tacked on. I don’t know what else they could have done to rectify this particular problem with the script; perhaps they could have at least mentioned her earlier rather than having her, her flying aircraft carrier, and Manta Squadron conveniently coming into existence for the third act. It wouldn’t have taken much to have Manta Squadron mentioned in a newspaper article, or on the radio, or perhaps being mentioned as a rival to Sky Captain’s unit in regards to the fight against Totenkopf’s robotic hordes. It does feel strange that it only seems to be Sky Captain fighting Totenkopf’s hordes. And it feels strange to have Sky Captain given another potential love interest and rival for his affections so late in the film. Still, I will admit Jolie does the most with what little she’s given; she has a ton of charisma, and it’s amazing how much she can convey with just a sly look or a charming smile or a raised eyebrow.

Bai Ling is great as Totenkopf’s chief minion.

While she has no lines, she does a pretty good job of giving the enemy a face. She also looks badass in her dieselpunk outfit. As for Michael Gambon as Paley, Polly’s boss…

…he doesn’t get to do much. But what little he does he predictably does well, because he’s Michael freaking Gambon.

Moving on, I can’t express how awesome the robots of Sky Captain look. They’re reminiscent of those Superman fought in the 1940 cartoon “The Mechanical Monsters”

…in that they’re robots whose arms become wings.

They’re also awesomely stunning as they march inexorably down the street…

…and tear open the very guts of New York to take what they want.

Later in the movie, we see another homage to the cartoon when Sky Captain and Dex show Polly the wreckage of other robots they came across.

You can again see the influence from the aforementioned cartoon.

The other robots, the flying wings… Well, to me they just aren’t as cool.

I like their style, but did they really need to have their wings flap like birds? I still enjoy the action sequences involving them, and maybe it’s just a minor nitpick on my part. On the other hand, I absolutely loved Manta Squadron:

These aircraft look equally at home in the air and in the sea. And I dig the “mobile airstrip”…

…which looks like a golden age predecessor to Marvel’s helicarrier. You can almost believe both exist in the same world, eras apart.

The soundtrack by Edward Shearmur is pretty good; it certainly does the job of enhancing the action, and I liked it enough to purchase it. I can’t say much about the rest of the composer’s work, as most of the movies and TV shows he’s worked on aren’t stuff I’d normally watch, but he does seem to keep himself busy.

If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend you do so. It has a unique look with cool visuals, fantastic action and a good plot, with solid performances from everyone involved.

Tag: Pulp Masterpieces

You may also like...

  • Fully agree with everything you say. I loved the montage treatment of the backgrounds, which was 30s film-making turned up to 11 in the way a contemporary director would have loved to do it if they’d only had the technology. The ray guns were utterly wonderful. And the anti-gravity barge/tugs in Totenkopf’s lair were straight off a cover of Amazing Stories but also referenced streamlined trains of the period. Where to end?

    The film utterly bombed in the UK, because we don’t have the same pulp tradition. We saw it in an otherwise empty theatre.

    And Omid Djalili’s body hair was one thing that WASN’T CGI…

    • Thomas Stockel

      Ha! Next thing you’ll be trying to convince me Khan’s chest was plastic in Star Trek II.

  • ussafs3

    Only real nitpick I had with Sky Captain was how they wiped out his entire squadron at the very start of the movie. Kinda took away any feeling they were supposed to be really badass. .Been a fan of Jude Law since he was in Gattaca.

    • Thomas Stockel

      It’s an excellent point. I would like to have seen his squadron in action somehow. And yeah, Gattaca is a fantastic sci-fi movie. A fantastic movie period, really.

  • Eric E. Frisch

    Speaking as the proud owner of a vintage Irvin jacket, the artsy part of me, like the author above, considers this a masterpiece. It loses me a few times, like when Law’s P-40 turns into a submarine, but I’ll forgive it those oddities for Jolie in an envelope cap and Paltrow with 40s hair.

  • Cristiona

    I love this movie so much. It’s just great, start to finish. And I loved the soft focus, too. Made it feel like a relic from the era. Pity it didn’t do better.

  • CaptainCalvinCat

    I have the DVD – because I really liked reading the novelization of the movie and thought “Okay, that’s one DVD you’re gonna buy.” And – I gotta say – I really, really love that movie. So of course it bombed. All movies, I like bomb. ^^