This was one of those films for which I'd had high hopes but low expectations. The idea seemed instantly appealing, but I couldn't quite shake the notion that somehow, somewhere along the line, someone would screw it up. It looks like I was correct, and it's rather sad. I'd have much rather been wrong.
The idea of doing a forties-era Saturday matinee adventure with an appropriately retro view of future technology sounds like a great idea on paper. It even seemed like a great idea in the trailers. The visuals really do leap out at you; this is, point of fact, probably the closest thing to a black-and-white film that's ever likely to gross anything noticable. The image is desaturated and leans towards the sepia tones, and there's an undeniable film noir look to the whole thing that actual matinee serials of the time could never have afforded. As everyone now knows, the film was totally computer-rendered save the people, who were comped in later via bluscreen photography. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't. As actual films of the period being emulated often employed rear-projection or painted backgrounds to expand the scenery, the sometimes detectable nature of the fakery here actually makes it look more authentic. When characters are supposed to be standing mere feet from a wall that's obviously not really there, however, the film feels wrong. It wouldn't have killed them to build just a few sets. The CG is mostly quite good, though I noticed that it looked much more believable on the theater screen than on the TV spots, probably owing to the softer film image. Kudos should go to director Kerry Conran for restraining the all-too-common urge to have the camera floating around in every shot, an indulgence that practitioners of CG effects often overuse to a truly annoying degree.
The real problem with Sky Captain is that it never really sucked me into its story. For all of its techical wizardry and obvious love of forties-era cinema, the film feels more like a love letter to all that the director enjoyed in previous films than a film with a strong identity of its own. We get winking references to everything from Max Fleischer's robots of doom to Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds broadcast to Star Wars, and while there's nothing wrong with this in principle, the fact is that we end up mostly remembering the film for the other films it makes us remember. The titular Sky Captain (aka Joe Sullivan) never feels very fleshed-out as a hero, and but for his foil in Gwyneth Paltrow's Polly, would've been simply going through the motions of saving the world without any real humanity emerging. Angelina Jolie is clearly the one having the most fun here, though she, despite being billed alongside Jude Law and Gwyneth, doesn't even show up until halfway through the film. The banter between Joe and Polly is clearly inspired by that of the classic jut-jawed detectives and their spunky gal pals, but while it's mostly fine, it's nowhere approaching His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, or even the Coen brothers' modern-day homage The Hudsucker Proxy. There is a sardonic sense of humor to be found here-no one could accuse this movie of the crime of taking itself too seriously (though the final punch line is telegraphed a wee bit too much)-and this is its true saving grace. It just doesn't end up being quite enough.
Sky Captain may sport a great abundance of enthusiasm, but one has only to rewatch Raiders of the Lost Ark to see a much better example of the Saturday serial in modern perspective. Indiana Jones was the classic swashbuckling hero type, but he also felt very human. This was largely due to Harrison Ford's performance, but also because of an excellent script. Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan seems more like a simple by-the-numbers hero type (flashbacks of Tales of the Gold Monkey start coming to mind) than a character we can really root for. Ditto Polly Perkins, though as the more playful of the pair, she's easier to warm to. The much-ballyhooed "return" of Sir Lawrence Olivier is, whatever one may feel about the ethics involved, little more than a gimmick. Given the rather miniscule screen time devoted to his character, it's pretty clear that the part could've been played by more or less anyone at all. The choice of using archival footage of a dead actor seems more a device to get people talking about the film than a reasonable choice for story purposes.
I can't-and won't-say that the film is unenjoyable, because it isn't, but I really hoped for something meatier. I found myself actively trying to like it, and when that happens, you know the film itself isn't trying hard enough. Giant robots attacking the city and flying air force bases and underwater prop planes are all awesome things to have in an adventure story, but I never felt fully involved with the human component. There's more than enough style here to compensate for the general lack of substance, but only really enough for the first viewing. It's a shame. In a world of nondescript pablum, I was really hoping I could have Sky Captain and the World of Sometime Next Week to look forward to in the years to come. It still might happen, but I don't know how excited the prospect is capable of making me.
-review by Matt Murray