I’m not sure when or where I first ran across Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but it has become one of my favorite “something to watch when I’m just up for some light entertainment” movies. (This is not a bad thing, and is no reflection on the quality of the film, as you’ll see below.)
The movie opens as the dirigible Hindenberg III is arriving in New York — it docks, of course, at the Empire State Building. One of the passengers, Dr. Vargas (Julian Curry) urgently requests that a package be delivered for him. The messenger, of course, looks at the note Dr. Vargas has included — he’s convinced that he’s next. As it turns out, scientists are disappearing — and they are all scientists that were involved in a particular project. Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baster), the intended recipient of the package, is also on the list.
And then giant robots attack the city. Ace reporter Penny Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is on the story with her trusty camera — and I mean, right in the middle of it, to the extent that she almost gets squashed. The call goes out to Sky Captain (Jude Law), the leader of a squad of mercenary pilots. Joe (Sky Captain’s real name) has his hands full dealing with the robots and rescuing Penny (an old flame, as it happens), when the robots suddenly just turn around and leave.
And it seems that the attack on New York was not an isolated incident — cities around the world are reporting similar attacks and the confiscation of oil reserves and electric generators.
Together, Joe and Polly, with the invaluable help of Sky Captain’s trusty sidekick, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), set out to discover what’s what after Polly follows a mysterious summons to meet a mysterious stranger — Dr Jennings, as it turns out, who is later killed by a mysterious woman who was looking for something in his office.
The “what,” as it turns out, is nothing less than a plot to destroy the world, masterminded by one Dr. Totenkopf (in a posthumous cameo by Sir Laurence Olivier). Along the way, they encounter more giant robots, the mysterious female assassin (Bai Ling), and Shangri La — with a little help from another of Sky Captain’s old flames, Franky (Angelina Jolie) and her squad of state-of-the-art fighter planes, based on airborne landing fields.
I think you have to have grown up on the pulps and the old “science fiction” serials from the Thirties — Flash Gordon comes to mind, or even more so, some of the science-fiction movies of the Forties and Fifties like War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Make no mistake: this is pure pulp fiction, from the story to the characters, although it does seem to borrow more from the comedies of the thirties than the adventure stories.
First off, Paltrow as Perkins is superb — the role is a perfect fit, a little cheeky, a little stubborn, even sometimes a little vulnerable, but always the ace reporter. Jolie hits just the right note as Franky, the right combination of humor and command and just a bit prickly. Law’s characterization of Sky Captain fits the milieu: he’s the Thirties hero, witty and distanced, who always knows more than he’s telling. He’s kind of low-key, but it does fit the character.
And this is a beautiful film, with that slightly soft-focus luminosity you find in the very best black-and-white movies of the Thirties. It’s almost as if it had been shot in black-and-white and colorized: the color is understated — indeed, except for the people, it’s barely discernible — not particularly naturalistic (as we’ve come to interpret that through Kodak’s supersaturated hues), with a sort of sepia-pink undertone, and perfectly apt. It’s like the whole movie has been hand-colored, and it’s gorgeous.
The effects are seamless, from the giant robots to the killer planes (which actually flap their wings) to the secret laboratory on a mysterious island (which doesn’t show up on anyone’s charts). And there’s a definite Art Deco cast to the design.
There is one glaring error in the script which leapt out at me. The film is set in 1939, and Polly at one point refers to World War I. World War II hasn’t happened, and from the context, doesn’t look like it’s about to.
This is one to catch if you can — Kerry Conran, who both wrote and directed the film, has put together a small masterpiece. And happily, it’s available for streaming on Netflix.
Running time: 106 min.
(Paramount Pictures, Brooklyn Films II, Riff Raff Film Productions, Blue Flower Productions, Filmauro, Natural Nylon Entertainment; 2004)