Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow



USA (US/UK/Ity) 2004 : Kerry CONRAN : 107 mins

This enjoyable tribute to cliffhanger adventure serials of the 1930s and 1940s is executed with sufficient panache to compensate for some glaring shortcomings. Not the least of which is the way writer-director Conran spends so much time and effort on spectacular set-pieces that he overlooks the basic nuts and bolts of his backstory. There’s a reference to the “First World War” which suggests that, as the film takes place in very the early forties (King’s Row is the big new movie), World War II should be underway. But it isn’t, somehow: instead of Hitler, this world is menaced by a fictional German of a more enigmatic nature, Dr Totenkopf – played, in an amusingly bizarre deployment of visual trickery, by the (very) late Sir Laurence Olivier.

The film’s alternative history is distractingly off-kilter throughout. Conran films everything in strikingly accurate early-40s style, even if he does go a bit over the top with the gauzy, foggy-sepia visuals. But many of the smaller details are clumsily muffed: Sky Captain is even more of a no-smoking zone than Michael Bay’s much-derided Pearl Harbor, and when a message is hand-written on the flyleaf of a book the script used is plain wrong. A more serious problem is the casting: Jude Law retains his ‘Thames estuary’ accent as heroic ‘Sky Captain’ Joe Sullivan, but this “elite mercenary” doesn’t seem especially English – he’s a ‘Captain’, but apparently not a veteran of either the RAF or the USAF.

And the endless bickering between Sullivan and his on-off girlfriend, plucky reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) sounds absolutely nothing like anything from any Hollywood genre of the thirties or forties. Paltrow has been carefully dressed, coiffed, made up and photographed to look like Veronica Lake or Lauren Bacall – which makes it all the more jarring when she opens her mouth and modern-day dialogue comes tumbling out. But Perkins isn’t the centre of the film – Law makes no attempt to retrofit his usual acting style, whereas Sky Captain should really be a buccaneering old-school figure in the Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks mould, or – at a stretch – a proto-007 Cary Grant type.

Third-billed Angelina Jolie is even further from period accuracy, but is somehow much closer to the mark in her relatively brief appearances as Frankie, an eyepatch-wearing upper-class officer in the Royal Navy’s aerial wing who could easily be Lara Croft’s granny. Keeping her face admirably straight while hovering on the edge of spoof (“Alert the amphibious squadron” indeed) Jolie gives the picture a kick in the pants whenever she appears – but it’s nearly half over by the time she finally pops up, and even then she doesn’t get nearly enough to do.

None of these concerns would matter greatly if the film was pitched more squarely at the younger end of the viewing market – Sky Captain globetrots at a merry clip, barrelling along with more than enough giant (flying!) robots, explosions, death-defying derring-do and general chaos to keep junior audiences happily munching their popcorn. But there’s a knowingness to the shenanigans that will fly straight over their heads. Older viewers will appreciate how much Conran adores the serials he’s aping, and get a kick out of in-jokes such as Michael Gambon cameoing in Singing Detective mufti as Perkins’ Manhattan editor – there’s also a priceless throwaway quotation from a later Olivier picture.

But nobody actually sat down and watched a “serial” for a full two hours, and expanding the material to feature length is a little beyond first-timer Conran – at times we sail a little too close to Thunderbirds, at others to Wild Wild West. And those pesky anachronisms prevent us from suspending our disbelief for very long: Conran is perhaps victim of his own talent – he gets so much spot on that any deviation stands out like Britney Spears plonked amid a Radio City chorus-line.

29th September, 2004
[seen same day : UGC Nottingham : press show]

by Neil Young