Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – Review (Spoiler free)

A pulpy homage to early 1900 serial films, Sky Captain is a sci-fi/adventure film that tries, but frustratingly fails to capture the excitement and sense of adventure that it is so enamoured by. It throws in endless fun elements such as giant retro 30’s imagined robots, ray guns and a P-40 War Hawk aeroplane with such joyful abandon that I should be on board and loving it from the get go. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case and I blame the film’s script, it certainly isn’t due to a lack of love put into the film; without knowing about the years of work put in by director/writer Kerry Conran, you can still tell just through watching the beautiful, almost entirely green-screened environment, that the film was a real labour of love. I’m a bit of a sucker for the art deco stylisation of the film and with its soft and muted feel, as well as the hand-drawn quality to several shots, it is suggestive of having been filmed within a living breathing comic book. The result is pretty gorgeous but does tend to lose its power further into the film and is certainly not for everyone. Originally it was intended to be presented in black and white but Conran was denied this option both on the cinematic release and as an additional option on the DVD. If you have the chance it is interesting to set the gradient on your TV right down, reducing it to B&W for an alternate, arguably better experience. Pop culture references are strewn throughout the film and are a particular highlight. Both subtle and obvious they range from King Kong to Star Wars, Metropolis to the Titanic, and help to considerably up the re-watch factor as a film fan can’t help but keep an active eye out for them.

For a film which is meant as nothing but wall to wall fun, it soon becomes obvious that one of its most glaring problems is that it just isn’t fun enough. Sure it throws in loads of fun ideas and references, and is more than happy to abandon logic in order to serve a cool idea, which is nice to see occasionally in a film if it’s approached, as this one is, with the right attitude, but ultimately the script lets it down. Attempting to straddle a fine line between being something new and interesting, whilst also staying strongly reminiscent of the films it’s emulating, it often falls into unoriginality and dullness – which is crazy considering how well some parts of the film succeed at hitting that balance right. It’s as if they were having such a good time throwing in all the extra bits and pieces, fun references etc that they forgot to actually make a good film with a well written story and good dialogue. You know you don’t have to write an amazing story for this kind of film, just one which is simple and makes sense; which is what this film tries to do but fails because of its convoluted and badly drawn plot.

The cast assembled is decent; it’s billed as being led by Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, despite rather differing levels of screen time. Paltrow and Law are OK, trying to screwball through the film they wind up bickering instead due to the dialogue they had been presented with. Angelina Jolie seems to be having a lot of fun with her role, which is maybe why her ten minutes are a particular highlight. Undoubtedly underused, she still manages to leave an impression and that’s not just because of her resemblance to a certain pop culture figure. I reckon her character could strongly feature in a spin off/ prequel concentrated on Sky Captain serving as the roguish outsider to her and her squadron – sort of a version of Han Solo and the rebel fleet. Now that would be pretty great but this film’s reputation and box office sales pretty much determine that such a film will never get made.

It was originally conceived to be presented as an original serial film that had been lost within the vaults of time; it would have featured several distinguishing characteristics such as chapter cards and unknown actors and it’s a shame that along the way it has lost several of those concepts, no doubt it would’ve helped increase this film’s originality, in a sense. Still let’s not kid ourselves, even if it had kept them its script would still succeed at making this feel generic and a little dull at times. The glee with which this film is approached is a real positive however and is key to the film retaining what memorable quality it has, but I can’t not mention the other great thing about this film which is its soundtrack; seriously it’s good enough to evoke classic scores such as Indiana Jones’s and in a good way. This film has so many great elements that it hurts that it didn’t come together; instead ending up frustratingly mediocre and deserving of better.

If you have seven minutes to spare, stick this on, it’s an assembled collection of the film’s score by YouTuber tonyndbutt and demonstrates just how great it is. Everything the film should have been is contained in this video:

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6 comments

  1. I agree with most of what you’re saying. I like this film in one of those ways where you always enjoy it, even while you’re acknowledging its flaws. The two biggest problems for me are 1) It feels excessively CGI in the sense that the actors often don’t look like they’re reacting to real things, and 2) the film is literally too ‘bright’ most of the time, which may have been for atmosphere but just becomes jarring.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I’m pretty much the same as you – I enjoy it when I watch it, but it does aggravate me how I can sense a really good film buried within this one – it is fun though.
      I can agree to an extent about the CGI, I don’t often notice it but yes, their reactions do occasionally feel a little off. About the brightness, I can see what you mean – have you ever tried it in black and white? That may go some way towards helping you, although it won’t fix it entirely. I wouldn’t argue that it’s necessarily a better experience because I’m a fan of this film’s visuals, but it’s certainly interesting.

  2. I think also I like it because I can see its intent, like you can. I’m a fan in general of old forties and fifties sci-fi, even the stuff that’s really bad. If you haven’t already, you should look up some of those films to see what you make of them; stuff like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Attack of the 50ft Woman, It Came From Outer Space, Forbidden Planet, etc. Also, getting back to the Star Wars thing, have you ever seen George Lucas’s ‘THX-1138’? It’s an early Lucas film from the seventies, before Star Wars, but it’s proper sci-fi. I think you’d like it.

    1. I’ve seen The Day the Earths Stood Still but have been intending to watch some more of these films so thanks for the suggestions.
      I haven’t actually seen THX-1138, although I had heard of it before. Again thanks for the recommendation, I’ll keep an eye open for it. Another one of his that I keep intending to catch is American Graffiti, have you seen it?

  3. Very good review. I liked the look of this movie a lot and I was willing to give it’s lack of story some slack because I enjoyed the visuals. I had no idea there was a black and white option on the DVD I may have to revisit this one with just that. Thanks for the review

    1. Thank you! Oh yeah do check it out – it’s definitely a different experience.

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