Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

It’s only a movie, Mr. Paley. I’ll bring you some popcorn.
— Polly (Gwyneth Paltrow), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

This film was never an exercise in photo realism. That’s not what we were trying to do. And if that’s what people were looking for, and they feel like we failed them, well, I’m sorry, this is wasn’t the movie for you. It was a stylistic choice. It was in many ways a comic book brought to life.
— Kevin Conran, “The Art of the World of Tomorrow

“Starting here, these are a series of photos that make up both the interior and exterior of Radio City… the door in this sequence is the only thing that’s real. Everything else is a photo that was stitched together.” As Kerry Conran watches Gwyneth Paltrow walk into the movie theater in his stunningly digital-stitched-and-imagined movie, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, he’s pleased to admit that he has himself never stepped foot inside the New York landmark. His movie is all about recreating, building on previous images, and rethinking the ways that movies are made. Appropriately, the movie playing in this theater is The Wizard of Oz, which did some similar pop cultural work in 1939.

Budgeted at a mere $40 million, Sky Captain features giant robots, science fictiony explosions, and beautifully filtered, slightly sepia light and shadow, set against a set of circa-1939 characters and themes. As Conran and his production crew — animation director Steve Yamamoto, visual effects supervisor Darin Hollings and production designer (and Kerry’s brother) Kevin Conran — observe repeatedly in their DVD commentary, the creation took years, and the order of effects and editing was decidedly quirky and achronological. Watching Paltrow bounce around between stomping robot feet and zapping weapons, Conran notes, “I have to imagine these were some of the most challenging kind of moments. Because if you remove everything in the scene, it’s really just her on a barren blue stage, trying not to feel ridiculous and really having to trust us in a way, that we’d fill in this world with something that looked interesting.”

Indeed. This is the innovation, oddity, and fear posed by Sky Captain, that it might actually presage a future of filmmaking — no sets, no material, and eventually, perhaps, no actors. For his separate commentary track, producer Jon Avnet discusses this “ambition”: “To send a bunch of planes flying through a three-dimensional model of New York City is pretty adventurous.” And though he confesses that Kerry Conran anticipated that he could shoot the film in 20 days, Avnet notes, it was remarkable that he made it in 30 days. And for all the technical creativity and material economy, Avnet says, “Performance, working on a blue screen, was a big deal, for actors.”

The more successful of these performances — by Paltrow, as intrepid New York Chronicle reporter Polly Perkins, and Jude Law, who plays the titular hero, also known as Joe — combine intimacy and abstraction. Polly looks a little like art herself, exquisitely coiffed and lit, committed, courageous, and lovely too. When the robots attack Manhattan, she turns to run, she falls, her camera skipping across the street and into the gutter. Undeterred, Polly reaches for the camera, her fingers stretching, stretching, and finally grasping her precious instrument. Just then, one of the robots comes clunking dangerously near. At which point, of course, her savior arrives (actually her ex, as they share a testy relationship directly throughout the film). Joe knows precisely what to do, heading his P-40 Warhawk directly into the fray, shooting down the robot most immediately threatening Polly, stopping the rest of them with ingenious use of cable, firepower, and nerve. As he zooms away, he looks down and recognizes the girl he’s just saved: “Polly!” he whispers. At the same time, she looks up to the sky and sees the plane she recognizes immediately: she gasps, “Joe!”

The rest of the plot is equally imitative, and that’s the point. Joe and Polly seek the terminally evil Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier, his image lifted and digitized), who has kidnapped the world’s top scientists and Joe’s tech-boy sidekick Dex (Giovanni Ribisi). Time is running out, for Polly has been told by another scientist, just before his murder, that soon, “the countdown will start.” Sky Captain doesn’t spend much energy developing characters, either, though the relationship between Polly and Joe retains a certain tension, even amid all the distractions; their history is not exactly clear, though it appears to involve betrayal, or maybe just perception of betrayal. Polly may or may not have sabotaged Joe’s plane and landed him in a slave labor camp, seeking retribution for his affair with Franky (Angelina Jolie).

As detailed in the DVD’s making-of documentary, titled “Brave New World,” the artists committed based on the now-famous six-minute animated film that he showed around to get financing for the feature (the DVD includes this film, as well as two deleted scenes, called “Totenkopf’s Torture Room” and “The Conveyer Belt”). As Conran says, the computer animators he knew at CalArts exhibited a sense of freedom and ingenuity that he wanted to bring to live action drama.

Sky Captain‘s primary interest is emulation. At the most obvious level, this has to do with Conran’s already infamous “vision,” his obsessive dedication to computer imaging. Though the actors worked only 26 days, in front of blue screens, to make their parts of Sky Captain, Conran labored over the conception and rendering for some six years, supported by producer Jon Avnet to the tune of $70 million. While it dreams up a past that is also “futuristic” (with smoothly cylindrical rocket ships, an assortment of killer robots, and a sleek assassin played by Bai Ling in goggles and head-to-toe black bodysuit), it also taps the nostalgia nerve, increasingly profitable in this age of anxiety and distrust (that such yearning for “simpler” times omits the very real uncertainties and doubts of 1939 is par for the nostalgia course).

Combining well-known images from a range of sources — Buck Rogers, King Kong, Metropolis, Superman, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, among others — Sky Captain burnishes and refines its look to a kind of resplendent sheen. At times, this effect can be lovely. Early in the proceedings, Polly meets one of the scientists (whose escape from Totenkopf’s forced-labor “Unit 11” project in Berlin has sent them in different directions and apparently to varying fates). She finds Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter) in a loge at Radio City, where he fretfully reveals his secret (they made “terrible things”) and warns her of the coming danger, all the while Oz runs behind their intensely profiled close-ups, such that Glinda’s pink-bubbled arrival and Dorothy’s exclamation, “Now I know we’re not in Kansas.”

Quite. If the glorious surprise offered up by Victor Fleming’s 1939 film was its depiction of a world beyond any known material reality — the bubble, the flying monkeys, the wizard’s big floaty face — the agreeable gimmick of Sky Captain is its imitation of what’s come before. Not to improve on the past, or supersede or replace it; Conran doesn’t create a humanless CGI world, à la Final Fantasy, but rather evokes and pays homage to old school moviemaking, via processes that have evolved and allow more, and more specific and much grander, fantasies to be realized.

Joe and Polly pursue their target through all sorts of digitized environments, from stations in the air to undersea strongholds to the deepest jungles to the snowy mountains of Nepal (it’s not a little ironic that creating these locations on a computer is so incredibly expensive). In Nepal, they’re aided by Joe’s old friend Kaji (Omid Djalili), who provides a couple of comic doubletakes, but is primarily along to play the conventional third wheel for the combative lovers-to-be. Though Joe’s brilliantly capable former flame Franky comes up with the film’s best line (“Alert the amphibious squadron!”), she’s not a spoiler so much as an exemplary girl-who’s-one-of-the-guys, the sort of character who made 1940s films pulse with vital life.

That Sky Captain doesn’t trouble itself with plot or even an interrogation of conventions (the robots are bad, as is the Asian fighter girl) does at times seem a lost opportunity. It’s ironic that even as the actors don’t have to busy themselves with minor stunts or actual locations, they have been talking to interviewers about how difficult it is to perform without such “realities,” to focus instead on the pretending part of acting; and it’s true that such awkward pretending is also distracting for viewers. Still, Sky Captain something like it is the eventual future of movies, as virtual environments become “real” enough so as not to be distracting, to viewers or performers. Whether it will seem old or new then is less obvious.