Movie Review: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

My husband and I found Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to be a fun film. My mom would have gotten a kick out of this homage to science fiction of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, because it takes everything she loved as a kid and puts it in one big, entertaining movie. There are a huge number of references to a huge number of classic golden-age SF books, movies, comics, and serials. Sky Captain was particularly inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the original Buck Rogers, and Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons.

The influence of Fleisher’s animation is imprinted on practically every frame. The giant killer robots are right out of the Superman cartoons … and really, that’s no bad thing, because Fleisher’s loot- and lady-stealing robots were just cool.

What was a little less cool was the artistic decision to model the cars of the world of Sky Captain on Fleisher’s cartoon cars. Since 1930s automobiles are real-world objects (and beautiful objects at that), seeing matte-finish, cartoony cars kicked me out of the scenes.

Another possibility was that the filmmakers simply didn’t have time to re-render the cars to improve their specularity and make them look a bit more realistic. Sky Captain took six years to make, and I can easily picture a studio boardroom conversation in which the producers told writer/director Kerry Conran “No more rendering! You’re done! We’ve given you enough money, and enough time, and this needs to go to theaters. It looks fine

And in the main, the computer-generated movie looks more than fine; much of the movie is breathtakingly gorgeous. However, there are places where rendering was clearly not quite ready for public consumption. There’s a scene late in the movie where a skeleton falls to the floor, and the skeleton just plain looks bad.

Also, the entire film is in soft-focus. That got really hard on the eyes in the movie theater, though on the small screen it’s not so bad. I guess the filmmakers decided to do this to give the film a glow of nostalgia as well as to cover up some lingering digital seams; either way, I wish the film had been sharper.

But those are quibbles, really. A fight scene late in the movie that manages to reference both Star Wars and Evil Dead II mostly makes up for it.

Seeing this movie without being familiar with the classics it’s based on is a bit like seeing the Kill Bill movies without having any knowledge of 70s kung fu flicks or Sam Peckinpah’s creations — you’ll probably enjoy it, but not as much as the film geeks in the room who’ll be chortling at all the references.

Oh, yeah: there are real people in this movie, too, and in the main they do a good job. Gwyneth Paltrow has seemed flat in many of her roles since she won her Oscar, but her sulky manner serves her well as Polly Perkins; in the old days, Carole Lombard would have played Perkins, and Paltrow fits the bill.

And the use of Sir Laurence Olivier’s face and likeness to create a new character is surely the shape of things to come in digital cinema. In the world of tomorrow, I expect we’ll be seeing the resurrection of many a matinee idol.

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