If there’s one thing that most of the GotS faithful know for certain, its that I love old things. No, I’m not talking that rusty broken down tricycle in the back of my parent’s garage or that threadbare Smashing Pumpkins concert t shirt from 1995 that has been decimated by too many late night nachos.
No, I’m talking about older movies, tv shows, and comics. This is especially true in terms of my affinity for movie serials from the 1930s and 1940s. Blame it on my Dad and the fact that when I was an impressionable 10 year old, he picked up a video tape of “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” in a buck bin at some discount store, and I watched it with him one cold rainy afternoon. Sure, the special effects haven’t aged well with many of these types of films, but they still have a very specific charm about them. They are swashbuckling, daring, action packed, and filled with a genuine sense that anything was possible.
It was the years when science was still an unknown thing, and the sky was the limit in terms of what your imagination could conjure up. If you wanted foreign planets filled with Hawk men and Rocket ships that coasted between cloud filled outer space having dogfights like WWI Red Barons, that’s what you could have. Why do you think Star Wars has such an impact? There’s a need with humans to get caught up with the fantastical, the romantic, even if it doesn’t make much sense from a hard science perspective.
Anyways, despite what you might think in terms of this edition of the Insomniac Cult Movie Theater being about one of those old serials, it’s actually not. Instead I’ve decided to look back at a film that I feel tried so very hard to recapture that same spirit of those serials of years past, but failed to capture the audience I think it deserved. It was truly film making that was somewhat ahead of it’s time being filmed more with green screen than any real set. It’s the 2004 love letter to everything pulp. It’s “Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow”!
Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow
Sky Captain as I mentioned above is a 2004 science fiction/action film which was one of the first movies to be shot completely on a “digital” back-lot, using no real sets but instead merging actors with wholly created CGI worlds. This approach would later be used to create the live action adaptation of the Frank Miller gritty crime comic classic, Sin City in 2005, and extensively in other movies since, making this film somewhat of a pioneer in this new technological form of movie making.
The brainchild of director, Kerry Conran, the movie originally started life as a pet project as he spent 4 years making a black & white teaser with his own personal computer and homemade bluescreen. This teaser excited producer Jon Avnet who eventually found a big budget partner in Aurelio De Laurentiis and thereafter Paramount as a distrubutor.
I have read stories that one of Kerry’s main inspirations for Sky Captain included the Hayao Miyazaki’s anime movie Laputa: Castle in the Sky what with all the sky pirate, flying airships, and overall story of a madman trying to control the world from his secret island base. However, somewhat more interesting for some of our GotS regulars that both Sky Captain and Laputa are homages to an old Superman cartoon entitled “The Mechanical Monsters” that was done by the now famous Fleischer Brothers, in which Superman must overcome an army of giant robots that have been robbing the city of Metropolis under the control of their greedy handler.
In recently rewatching this short in preparation for writing this review, I definitely can see the similarities between the diesel punk style robotic soldiers used in both that original cartoon and today’s movie, so I think it’s fair to say that once again these cartoons continue to inspire from a creative perspective even nearly 100 years after they were first created. No wonder I pushed so heavily to include them on the GotS list of Greatest Animated Series involving Comic Books of ALL TIME!
The story of Sky Captain is fairly straightforward. The villainous genius named Totenkopf has decided he is fed up with the world and decided to employ a scorched earth policy of renewal, creating a “Noah’s Ark” style rocket ship containing all of the world’s animals, which he intends to use to repopulate the planet after he destroys it.
Unfortunately, one of the fellow scientists working in his think tank to implement the plan gets cold feet and steals two vials containing the DNA of the perfect human beings, which Totenkopf plans to make his “Adam & Eve” out of.
This forces Totenkopf to send his army of giant robots to recapture the scientist, putting him at odds with Jude Law’s Sky Captain character, a kind of independent mercenary/international peace keeper, who decides he’s going to bring Totenkopf to justice after he attacks both New York City and his own military base. Joining Sky Captain in his quest to stop Totenkopf is both Gwyneth Paltrow’s Lois Lane style reporter, Penny Perkins, as well as Angelina Jolie’s Frankie character who runs a similar paramilitary organization to Sky Captain complete with a flying aircraft carrier.
Despite it’s strong special effects work, favorable reviews by critics, and audience friendly Indiana Jonesesque plot, Sky Captain bombed miserably at the box office failing to cover its $70 million dollar price tag by a considerable amount.
However, that hasn’t stopped the film from becoming a pretty popular cult movie classic in the years since it’s release, especially among fans of the recent waves of comic book style movies, of which many now tend to lump Sky Captain in with.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
First off, let me say that’s amazing how many people I’ve talked to over the years that have wrongly thought this was a comic book movie. I’ve even had non comic book readers ask me if I could suggest a Sky Captain trade paperback to check out after seeing this movie.
I mean it’s a fair misunderstanding, because in their defense this movie does have tons of comic book-esque aspects to it. There are giant robots, gigantic floating air ships, plucky female reporters, lost islands of dinosaurs, rocket ships, square jawed, two fisted daredevils, oh and ray guns!
I think that’s gotta be my favorite part of this entire movie is that we get good ol’ fashioned ray guns, encased in that sleek art deco finned stainless steel blasting that non descript circular energy beam. That’s basically ripped from so many science fiction comics from the 30s through the 50s, that for me it should count as something specifically comic book inspired.
However, there is no such comic book as Sky Captain. Probably the closest thing you are going to get is maybe a cross between Buck Rodgers and but even that’s a stretch. Still though for me, in rewatching this film, I have to say that it’s a sight better than a lot of comic book related films I’ve seen over the years. It’s got that same Indiana Jones like world traveling quality that the original Hellboy movie does, except this one doesn’t have the occult trappings or necessity to follow a comic book’s backstory in order to spin it’s yarn.
So in that way, it’s almost better that it’s not a comic book movie. I feel like by being a film that’s influenced by a lot of things that came out that Golden Age era, including comics, but also pulp novels, radio shows, and movie serials, it is able to pay homage to all of them without specifically saying one was better than the other. Plus again, there’s no established mythology that it has to live up to and can instead pave its own path from a narrative perspective.
I feel like most geeks like myself out there will probably draw parallels between this movie and some of the filmography of Zack Synder, mainly because they both worked so heavily in computer generated environments and stylistically tried to engage audiences with interesting visual set pieces. However, I feel that unlike some of Synder’s non comic book films like say “Sucker Punch”, Sky Captain actually has a decent story which can be easy followed. Sure, it’s corny at times and a more than little unbelievable, but it’s still a story that we have seen before and has worked in such classics as Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Plus I really do think the characterizations of both Sky Captain and Penny work well as our main protagonists. You can tell that Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow have decent onscreen chemistry together, and despite the fact that they were probably acting opposite solely against fellas in green screen costumes in a warehouse in New Jersey, they do seem to have fun with the movie while not reducing it to campy silliness.
Final Grade: B+
I’m actually pleasantly surprised by my rewatching of this film so many years after I originally saw it. I can remember back in the day when I first saw movie trailers for it that I was pretty juiced to see this pulpy visual spectacle for myself. Of course, I waited for video and by that time, the buzz had completely died and had been replaced by internet chatter that it was all fluff and no substance or an interesting experiment that failed to capture the imagination of the movie going audience.
As a result, during that first watching, I felt a strange sense of being “let down”, like the film had some how disappointed me in some way by not being the blockbuster that it should have been. So I kind of drifted through it, not really caring one way or the other as to whether it was any good.
Now flash forward more than 10 years, and I can say for sure that despite this technically not being a comic book movie, it’s a damn sight better than a lot of comic book movies I have seen. And the main reason I say that is because it succeeds in staying in it’s lane as it were.
This is a movie that doesn’t try to be too many things. It doesn’t try to a romantic comedy at the same time as action adventure. It doesn’t try to rewrite years of characterization or go for some stunning reversal of our expectations.
It’s just a simple steampunk style representation of the same easy going stories that movie serials of yesteryear tried to promote. Classic melodramas that are as easily understood by children as they are by those in the senior set. And sure there might be movie goers that might want more from their films than just that, but when your big selling point is the recreation of some fictional pre war fairy land where Zeppelins ruled the air and mad scientists plotted to destroy the world with armies of mechanized monsters, I say you let the visuals just tell the story.
Plus it’s got Angelia Joule in a sexy eye patch as some sort of Rule 63 version of Nick Fury complete with Helicarrier. That’s gotta be at least worth some bonus points in the old film goers rating guide, right?
As an aside, if you are looking for a comic book that does have some of the same exciting retro 30s feel that Sky Captain did so well, I’d recommend checking out the “Half Past Danger” series by Stephen Mooney released back in the mid 2010s from IDW.
It’s really the closest thing to a comic book adaptation of the Sky Captain series despite having completely different characters. All the themes are the same though: Evil world conquering baddies, femme fatales, dinosaurs, leather jacket wearing buzz boys, you name it all wrapped up in that Golden Age style pulpy goodness!