Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelian Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi
Synopsis: When New York and other significant cities across the
globe are attacked by futuristic robots and famous scientists begin to
disappear, the dashing Sky Captain and reporter Polly Perkins are drawn
into a web of intrigue and danger.
The idea of this movie, developed by director Kerry Conran and producer
Jon Avnet from Conran’s original 6 minute short, appears on paper to be
a movie nerd’s wet dream. It should have been the ultimate
marriage between style and substance. Art direction echoing the
evocative images of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Max Fleischer’s
Superman cartoons. A self aware script peppered with cinematic
references that infused the best parts of serialised adventure shorts
and classic sci-fi into a rollicking, gratifyingly guilt-free exercise
in suspension of disbelief. It should have worked
beautifully. Unfortunately it was a rather hit and miss affair.
The biggest issue that I could identify with the film was the
performance of Gwyneth Paltrow as Polly Perkins. Polly is
supposed to be the archetypal intrepid reporter. She is meant to
be Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall rolled into one – fierce,
determined and sexy as hell. Instead, Paltrow delivers a dull as
dishwater performance, almost devoid of any attraction and utterly
unengaging. In some places her acting is downright hammy.
In the opening scenes Polly is caught amidst the first invasion of
mysterious flying robots that attack New York City. As it goes in
most adventures of this sort, she is the right girl in the wrong spot
at the right time. Camera in hand Polly leaps into the fray but
is hampered by her tightly cut skirt. Cue the good old seam rip
that exposes a bit of thigh and proves to the audience what a fuss free
trooper our Polly really is. Or as Paltrow plays it…cue a
rather inept display of being unable to run in aforementioned skirt,
some limp wristed hand flapping and a few feeble tugs at her hem to
split the pesky seam, no thigh, and no appreciable change in her knock
kneed gait whatsoever. It is not that Paltrow didn’t deliver to
my expectations so much as she was so obviously overacting. To
her credit, her performance in the later half of the film was markedly
improved, however she seemed utterly unable to reliably capture the
spirit of Polly Perkins as a character.
Jude Law plays the titular Sky Captain, a dashing hero who rushes from
his island base to help fight off the bizarre mechanical monsters that
menace New York City. As a character Sky Captain is a mix of
Errol Flynn, Cary Grant and John Wayne – dashing, charming and willing
to crack more than a few skulls to emerge from a fight
triumphant. Law is more successful with his task than
Paltrow. He does manage to effect a rather dashing feel, his baby
blues and blonde locks helping enormously here. However, without
someone who is bothering to pull their weight in the scenes with him,
even his performance comes over as flat. This improves as the
movie progresses, with Law managing to acquit himself rather well,
although it is clear Paltrow was just wrong, wrong, wrong for the part.
Sky Captain is interesting technically in that it was filmed entirely
using blue screen with the special effects composited into the film
after principal photography was finished. This accounts for the
gorgeous look of the film, which was my favourite thing about it.
I spent the first twenty minutes simply luxuriating in the art
direction (when I Gwyneth wasn’t making me wince). So kudos to
the actors in that they had to act against nothing very much at
all. The overall design of the film synthesized many of the
familiar images from famous sci-fi films. The flying robots pay
homage to Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still for example.
The effects people should be commended for their brilliant work.
Giovanni Ribisi makes the most of his screen time as Sky Captain’s
nerdy genius and right hand man. You have to love Giovanni Ribisi
– even if he did make The Mod Squad with Claire Danes. He really
is the man. An up and coming character actor who is a gem all of
the movies he makes. From his cherubic face to his general
averageness he is worth his weight in gold and this movie is no
exception. In fact Ribisi is an actor who almost guarantees that
I will seek out a film, whether it be at the cinema or DVD if he is in
it – rather like Steve Buscemi, for me he’s in the same category.
Also look for a cameo from Angelina Jolie. Really she is the best
thing in the movie – gnawing on the scenery as Frankie. She’s all
British accent and eye patch and lips. Very enjoyable indeed.
The plot of the movie is very basic and firmly in the vein of the
Saturday morning serials – improbable escapes, cliff-hangers and all
sorts of soapish fiddle faddle that is diverting at first but tires
rather quickly. The problem was that it was just not sharp
enough. This film serves up a steaming heapful of cliché in a way
that is supposed to be post modern and nostalgic all at the same time,
but neglects to follow through with strong writing. You can only
get away with that stuff if you have the sharpest of dialogue.
The real brow furrower with this movie was the reveal of the mysterious
evil doctor Totenkoph. For some strange reason he is played
posthumously by the great Lawrence Olivier – for a motivation that
remained unknown to me other than the director was indulging
himself. Certainly Olivier’s oeuvre really didn’t contain much
material of the same ilk as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow or
the cinematic history it is drawing upon. Perhaps his was the
only estate to give permission for his image to be used in this way, or
perhaps no permission was needed at all which made him a logical choice
over other long dead movie stars. Again, the use of Olivier in
this role was interesting but ultimately this ploy failed to deliver
anything really noteworthy. With all due respect to Mr Olivier, I
think they may have gotten a better performance from a live
actor. In fact, simply by using a deceased actor for the role,
Conran gave away the twist in his tale’s tail. One thing that
particularly perplexed me is that many of the younger audience members
simply would not have gotten the reference. I don’t perceive that
Olivier is iconic enough for the general populous to appreciate the
device. Although I could be mistaken on this account.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a film that will appeal to
nostalgia buffs – those people that remember and appreciate the short
movie serial format and who love the cinematic language of the old
sci-fi films. It is kitschy and cute but ultimately doesn’t
deliver quite the same amount of enjoyment as the movies it is
referencing. Perhaps this is an example of where a high concept
short film should have remained exactly that.
The Litmus Test