by James Crawford
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Dir. Kerry Conran, U.S., Paramount
When pulp writers needed to invent enemy they didn’t have to look very far. If ever there was a diabolical plot to take over the world, odds were the Soviets were behind it; before them, Germans—Nazis or pre-Weimar; before them, cowboys were terrorized by malevolent Indians. Politics have always controlled American fiction, but what happens when authors create stories without sufficient regard to the social implications of the archetypes they invoke? Meet Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. In terms of visuals, Conran’s film is a meticulous homage to Thirties adventure serial and comic book aesthetics, but on every other conceivable level it offers little inspiration.
On an appropriately paranoid note, Sky Captain begins with the mysterious disappearance of a small group of German scientists. The news filters its way to New York Chronicle reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow); no sooner does she begin to investigate than an armada of hulking metal robots fly and march on New York City, ravaging the skyline in search of raw materials like electric generators. The citizens of Gotham call Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law), who dispatches the first wave robot behemoths only to become obsessed with discovering where the mechanized menace came from, what their master, Dr. Totenkopf, wants with New York’s natural resources, and what he’s done with the missing scientists. Sullivan and Perkins fly across the globe to locate the Doctor’s lair and thwart his evil plan, meeting up with pilot Frankie Cook (Angelina Jolie) along the way. Since writer-director Conran devoted so little time to constructing his story, there is no need to further expound. What passes for a plot is no more than a sequence of poorly motivated transitions from one perilous stunt piece to the next, relying heavily on a series of deus ex machinae and implausible character revelations. The hastily written script only serves a vessel for the splendor of Sky Captain’s rapturous, carefully detailed visuals.
Cinematographer Eric Adkins shoots interiors and accentuates the New York skyline within the clean lines and swoopy curves of Art Deco, and the robots, with their prewar Buick sedan stylings, are ripped intact from the pages of era comics. In this somewhat noirish tone poem, surfaces glow with matted light and the screen is always slightly overexposed, accompanied by a shift in the visible spectrum at the darker end, with charcoal and navy blue dominating. The closest analogue is Janusz Kaminski’s work in Minority Report, but where Kaminski’s frame, bleached and slightly gritty, conveyed a sense of social detachment, Adkin’s world is more in love with its own artificiality. Everything is slightly blurred, hazily gleaming, and airbrushed within an inch of its life, the Thirties as seen through a veil of nostalgic gauze. Ultimately, the film is more interested in capturing gorgeous pools of burnished light reflected off Paltrow’s wig than making a sustained commitment to storytelling.
Sky Captain retreads the familiar superhero-cub reporter relationship while borrowing liberally from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, and throwing in “Man in the Black Hat” villainy for good measure. In final execution, however, the story only vaguely waves its hand in the direction of period pulp. Every recreation of that era from recent memory—Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, Spielberg’s Indiana Jones trilogy, Russell Mulcahy’s mediocre 1994 The Shadow—took serial drama storytelling as a point of departure, sending up the genre’s visuals, perpetually suspense-laden structure, and purple verbal cadences to loving excess. Conran, by contrast, seems to have little appreciation (or affection) for serial dramas’ campy sensibilities; he uses its conventions as a substitution for real ingenuity. Dialogue takes on a decidedly modern tone, and the characters sketched out make only the barest evocation of the archetypes on which they are based, and even the cliff-hangers feel excessively contrived—no small feat for a genre that finds sustenance on implausible last-minute escapes. In one wince-worthy moment, Law is able to interpret the meaning of a Shaman’s staff, use it to decipher an ancient Tibetan navigation enigma, and chart his course to a secret island destination, all in the space of less than a minute. With that scene (as with the rest of the film), there seems to be nothing of homage, parody, or even self-referentiality.
If that sense fails to take hold, then Paltrow’s performance is also largely to blame. Not for one minute does she create a credible replica of the fast-talking, alliteratively-named intrepid reporter from comic books, turning instead to the pouting lips and weepy delivery that have made her the darling of so many romantic comedies. Paltrow squanders and nearly negates the charisma of Law’s acutely observed genuflection to his matinee idol predecessors. She drags down so many ostensibly romantic moments that, by the film’s midpoint, dialogue scenes become filler until the next kinetic stuntpiece. She may be somewhat forgiven, because of the fact that the actors were exposed to so little of anything tangible; every sequence in the film was filmed in front of a blue screen—we’ve witnessed what this can do to otherwise estimable players: Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor both reached creative nadirs when forced into an all-electronic world in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Yet nothing is more disturbing here than the film’s glib relationship to period politics. Nazism, so often the nemesis of pulp fiction, is invoked here with a casual air bordering on indifference. The sculptures populating the enemy’s halls are modeled after the work of Albert Speer, chief architect of the Third Reich, and Dr. Totenkopf’s experiments on people find horrific historical analogy in those performed by Dr. Josef “Angel of Death” Mengele and others. The fictional villain’s name, Totenkopf, translated from German means “Death’s Head”; that symbol, a skull flanked by iron wings, was the insignia of the Nazi SS and finds its way onto the crests of the robot army. These inclusions are problematic because they are oblique, peripheral, and inadequately explored. Contrast this to the Indiana Jones films, in which anti-fascist ideology is an explicit and repeated motivation and was very much a part of director Steven Spielberg's cultural heritage. As with much of the film, Nazism is used as narrative shorthand, but using that group for purely symbolic purposes denudes it of its ideological associations, which is an irresponsible and decidedly apolitical game.
Throughout the film, there's an underlying sense that Kerry Conran’s superficial anti-Nazi stance is a result of his desperate desire to be Orson Welles, himself a rabid anti-fascist ideologue. Paltrow’s telephone conversation to her editor as the robots arrive is unmistakably derived from Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast, the international newspaper montage comes most obviously from the same in Citizen Kane, and when the military calls for the Sky Captain’s help, the plea is depicted as RKO’s globe-topping radio tower sending signals all over the world. The film’s ending is less Wizard of Oz than the 1937 anti-fascist radio drama Fall of the City, which Welles narrated1. The difference is that Welles, like other pre-WWII artists, had a reason to write politics into his works: faced with a growing totalitarian threat, fascists were easily identifiable as villains and also served as warning shots to awaken a politically dormant public. Kerry Conran invokes Nazism because he’s a lazy craftsman.