Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Forgettable Flop or Undiscovered Masterpiece?

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How does such a sure thing fail so badly? A casual glance at the cast tells you that the studio that made Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (showing Wednesday, May 20 as this month’s Science Friction selection at the Alamo Drafthouse) fully expected it to be the Next Big Thing. Jude Law as the titular sky captain, starring opposite Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow? Hell, why don’t you just go ahead and digitally resurrect Laurence Olivier and stick him in there, too? Yes, the filmmakers did exactly that. Then they used revolutionary — at the time — CGI techniques to put them all in a fantastic retro-future world populated by flying robots, impossible airships and mad scientists bent on world destruction. And after all that, it didn’t even make back its budget in box office receipts, and shortly disappeared without a trace. Does that mean it’s a bad film?

Its reputation might lead you to believe so. Ask most people about the movie and if they remember it at all — most won’t — they’ll probably call it a bomb, a flop or maybe even a turd. The movie itself doesn't support that, though. While it has some issues, it has an incredible amount going for it, even beyond the cast.

Let’s start with those visuals. While the CGI looks a bit dated now, it’s still as visually distinctive as anything Hollywood has produced in the last three decades, not to mention just flat-out cool-looking. It’s packed full of visual references to classic films — Godzilla, King Kong, Star Wars and more all get little nods that make for fun little Easter eggs for film nerds. Best of all, it mines an area — call it steampunk plus, or dieselpunk, or just retrofuturism — that is sadly neglected in cinema. Every action movie set between the first and second world wars should have bizarre robots, rayguns and skies populated with enormous helicarriers, and yet this is one of a very small handful that do. That alone is worth the price of admission.

It’s also a pretty entertaining movie. Part Raiders of the Lost Ark, part Star Wars, and huge parts old pulp comics and Saturday-afternoon movie serials (which those first two themselves borrowed heavily from!), it’s a modern-day twist on the old, square-jawed heroes (man, does Jude Law ever have a square jaw) starring in tales of apocalyptic danger. Director Kerry Conran doesn’t display the kind of mastery that Raiders and Star Wars both show, but that doesn’t make the movie bad — just not instantly classic.

Its issues are relatively minor, but very real. The biggest issue is the pacing, which feels alternately glacial and rushed. It’s probably ten minutes too long, and manages to still feel a bit overstuffed at times. The acting is below par for the principals, most likely due to them working almost exclusively against a green screen. It’s never noticeably bad by any means, just a little stiff. The constant homages, while fun, are also a bit distracting, and most likely should have been throttled back. And while it definitely contributes to the original aesthetic of the film, the weird almost-sepia tone effect they use throughout the movie can be off-putting.

None of those things make it bad movie, though. In terms of its success as a business venture, yes, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was a flop. But you don’t see movies because they made a lot of money (at least, I hope you don’t) — you see them because they are fun, or entertaining, or have some kind of artistic statement to make. And Sky Captain is fun, and entertaining, and has an artistic statement to make, even if that statement is just, “Damn, those old comic books and pulp novels were sweet, weren’t they? Let’s do a new one!” Sometimes, that’s enough, and this film is absolutely one of those times. 

Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.

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