Friday, August 4, 2017


(September 2004, U.S.)

It astonishes me how so few people I speak with about it have heard of SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, and yet, I almost can't blame them. Not only was the film released at the close of the 2004 summer blockbuster season, but it also had to compete with the likes of too many other faster-paced comic book action films of the new decade, including SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN. This is actually a film that might have done better in the 1980s, when its only real competition in action/adventure filmmaking would have been STAR TREK movies, Indiana Jones and the original STAR WARS trilogy. Regardless of its poor timing and its box office failure, the film is, in my opinion, a technological achievement in not only its use of digital artistry, animation and modeling, but also in its wondrous Art-Deco homages to adventure settings and heroes of the glorious past; from Flash Gordon to Buck Rodgers to Superman to WAR OF THE WORLDS, as originally envisioned by H.G. Wells. Among some others of its type, it influenced SIN CITY (2005), a much more successful film.

The year is 1939 in New York City, but it's not quite the same 1939 we know from history. Technology is advanced and the world's most valued scientists are disappearing without a trace. In one of its many homages, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Polly Perkins, a reporter and photographer for The Chronicle, and also a perfect replica of Lois Lane as featured in the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s. While investigating the disappearances, an air raid siren erupts and the city is soon under attack from an invasion of giant robots that, again, pay homage to a 1941 Fleischer Superman cartoon called "The Mechanical Monsters". In fact, some of the film's shots of armed police and the robots during this sequence are practically identical to the cartoon's original animation. Take a look...

Desperate for a hero's help, the city summons air force commander Joe Sullivan or "Sky Captain" (played by Jude Law), who flies a rather James-Bond-technologically-advanced Curtiss P-40 fighter plane, engaging the marching robots, but causing little damage. Like Lois, Polly shoots pictures of the whole thing from the street with little regard for her own safety. News reports tell of similar robot attacks all over the world. With one robot damaged, Joe and his team try to understand its technology and just what is happening and why. The only clue we have are two vials given to Polly by one of the scientist convinced he was next to be captured by the mysterious mad scientist Dr. Totenkopf. We never see this mad doctor, but the film builds him up to be as evil and diabolical as the classic James Bond villain hell-bent on world domination and destruction.

Throughout the film, there are spectacular action sequences of air battles, robot attacks, shoot-outs and daring rescues. Unfortunately, throughout all of it, we're left to contend with Polly's irritating whining about how she only has two shots left in her camera and can't decide how to best use them (this is the film's only real plot flaw). By the time the mystery concludes, we learn that the infamous Dr. Totenkopf is nothing more than a rotting corpse whose evil plan has been programmed into his robots for nearly two decades. Their determination to carry out their mission will ultimately bring about the end of the world and the start of a new race on a distant planet (with the two vials containing the new "Adam and Eve") unless the great "Sky Captain" can defeat them. Like the traditional weekly serial film of yesterday or even the Saturday morning cartoon adventure those of my generation grew up with, good surely triumphs over evil in the end and all is well with our world.

One of the film's most astonishing visual effects is the use of Laurence Olivier (who died in 1989), appearing as the deceased villain Dr. Totenkopf through the use of digital manipulation (Bryan Singer did the same thing with Marlon Brando in SUPERMAN RETURNS). This move not only adds to the great homages that SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW achieves, but also reminds us of just what kind of a year 1939 was in Hollywood because of this great English actor (there's a quick shot in the film of a movie theater marquee showing WUTHERING HEIGHTS and even a moment when Joe asks, "Is it safe?"). The film didn't gross too much in the wake of more popular adventure hero material of that summer, like SPIDER-MAN 2. It is, however, a film that shouldn't be ignored, not only for its beautiful visual experience, but also its ability to tap into our most wholesome imagination, creating the same spirit many of us felt when we first saw STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and SUPERMAN-THE MOVIE for the first time. In fact, I personally thought that Jude Law was so effective as the classic adventure hero, I even told people that I thought he'd make a great Indiana Jones if they ever decided to continue the franchise with a new actor. That was back in 2004. Instead, Lucas (look for the number 1138 in the film, too) and Spielberg made the regrettable KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL in 2008.

If nothing else, the film is all about homage and nostalgia, and its target audience are those who understand and appreciate such sentiments at the movies. And speaking of homage, during the underwater scene when "Sky Captain's" plane is functioning like a submarine (think of Bond's white Lotus Esprit in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), keep your eyes open for quick shots of the wrecked ships Venture (the steam ship from the 1933 version of KING KONG) and the RMS Titanic (in one piece, not split in two as in James Cameron's film).

Favorite line or dialogue:

Aerial platform voice-over: "Permission to land on Platform 327."

(another homage, this one to Cloud City in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I love it!)


  1. I anticipated this movie so much and I love the look of the film. The problem was it didn't sing like a serial, it crawled along and plodded to the climax. Something was just off and I was ultimately disappointed. I should go back and watch again because I still love the concept, maybe the passage of time and all the other crappy attempts to do the same sort of thing will change my perspective.

  2. Time is kind to just about any film.