Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

| September 17, 2004

They were called Serials. One-reel movies that got you to come back to the theater next week for the latest installment of the series. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is the thoroughly modern version brought to the big screen by Kerry Conran and starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. Those movies, like Fritz Lang’s silent “Metropolis” were drawn or had minimalistic sets. Sky Captain is acted almost entirely against a blue screen and had amazing “sets” that would make this film cost many millions more than the estimated $50 million.
The story involves a 1939 where World War II did not happen, but where giant flying robots attack great cities for their energy resources. Paltrow, as reporter Pollyy Perkins, wants to know why. Sky Captain Joseph Sullivan (Law) is the only man who can save the earth but he needs her help. That the two of them used to be lovers long parted is what makes it difficult for them to work together. Think any of the incarnations of The Front Page and you will have the basis of their relationship. They follow the robot trail all the way to Tibet, under the sea, to islands teaming with mutant creatures and above the clouds onto hovering helicarriers commanded by Franky Cook (Jolie in an eye patch). Cook and Sullivan, by the way, also used to be an item, so we have a very sexy love triangle to mix with the sci-fi drama.
Law (Cold Mountain, Talented Mr. Ripley, Road to Perdition) Paltrow (Talented Mr. Ripley, Shakespeare in Love) and Jolie (Girl, Interrupted, Gone in 60 Seconds, Gia, Hackers) all agreed to star in this movie after watching a six-minute test real that Conran took four years to create. It is filled with art deco skylines, grand zeppelins and other futuristic technology seen in those 1930’s and 40’s serials. Using over the counter software, Conran and his brother scanned vintage photographs and other designs into the computer to create digitally composited backgrounds that were combined with live action actors working in front of a blue screen.
The actors are required to perform the entire film against a blue screen. They performed in a near empty sound stage in London with no prop bigger than an airplane cockpit and nothing other than what they would physically touch to orient them. Conran had a roughly animated version of the whole film created for the actors to see beforehand but they still felt odd reacting to a monster that was little more than a tennis ball on a stick. Says Jolie, “There was one moment when I had a clear bubble on and the eye patch, and I was just sitting on a box. I wasn’t in a plane, I wasn’t anywhere, just in a room with 100 people pretending I was operating this submersible.” That was how they felt for the 29 days of live shooting, but it took another two years for post production work as the actors had to be computer composited with the fantastic environments that had been dreamed up by Conran and his brother Kevin.
The film has a very sepia kind of feel. But it was not shot that way. After the compositing, all the color was converted to black and white and then color was added at the end of the process, almost like a hand tinted photograph.
This was a very wonderful sci-fi picture. It was a throw back to the beginning of the genre and when combined with modern production values, it seemed very real. The music by Ed Shearmur (Wimbledon, Charlie’s Angels, Miss Congeniality) had a very Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Star Wars John Williams kind of feel and was excellent for setting the mood. The only thing I would have liked to see was more of Jolie. Also more of Giovanni Ribisi (Cold Mountain, Gone in 60 Seconds), who plays Dex Dearborn – Sullivan’s Mr. Fixit – would have been great.
As new technological breakthroughs come out, it is always good to applaud the innovators for their forethought, with Sky Captain, it is also good to congratulate the filmmaker for a great movie, as well.

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