Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

USA/Italy/UK 2004

Film still for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Reviewed by Ben Walters


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

New York, 1938. Reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) meets scientist Walter Jennings (Trevor Baxter), one of the last surviving members of a secret German research body led by Dr Totenkopf (Sir Laurence Olivier) before the last war. She is then caught up in the invasion of the city by giant flying robots, who are repelled by her ex, Joseph Sullivan, aka 'Sky Captain' (Jude Law), leader of an élite mercenary force. Polly and 'Cap' return to his offshore base then visit Jennings, who is killed by a mysterious woman. Polly pockets two vials. Cap's base is attacked by robot fighter planes; as he (and Polly) confront them above the city, technical expert Dex traces the robots' control signal to Nepal before being captured.

An examination of Jennings' notes en route to Nepal reveals Totenkopf's scientific genius and nihilistic extremism. In the Himalayas Polly and Cap narrowly escape a massive explosion in an abandoned mine after their guides betray them and steal the vials. With directions to Totenkopf's island base, they head for a flying airstrip commanded by British officer Franky (Angelina Jolie), Cap's old flame. Attacked by Totenkopf's forces, Franky's amphibious squadron wins an underwater battle allowing Cap and Polly to get on to the island.

They discover a 'space ark' constructed to preserve from Earth, which the rocket's booster ignition will destroy. They find Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), who explains that Totenkopf's retrieval of the samples in the vials allows take-off to proceed. Finding Totenkopf's office, they disable a 3D image of him but find the scientist himself is long dead; his robots continued with his plan automatically. Surviving an attack by the mysterious woman - in fact another robot - Polly and Cap reach the rocket as it takes off and disable it before booster ignition. They and the animals safely splash down.


The future ain't what it used to be. When the 1939 New York World's Fair offered a glimpse of 'the world of tomorrow' it was in a spirit of bold optimism, but futurology and science fiction have taken a turn for the dystopian since then (and particularly since the 1960s), with technological advances inspiring more apprehension than hope. Almost a decade in the making, Kerry Conran's straight-faced matinee caper offers a return to the modernist monumentalism of 1930s techno-fantasy, but its nostalgic aesthetic serves a story more in tune with contemporary techno-anxiety.

Set in a subtly alternative 1938 where civilisation is threatened by the robot armies of megalomaniac Dr Totenkopf, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is sited in an entirely computer-generated world, its performances the uppermost layer of a digitally composited mise en scène dominated by stunning backdrops inspired by pre-war pulp fiction and fantasy. From a New York skyline bristling with searchlights and bobbing airships to Himalayan ice caves, Lost World jungles and ocean-bed seascapes, the influence of Rice Burroughs and Conan Doyle, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, Metropolis and Max Fleischer's Superman cartoons is clear. Soft, luminescent lighting effects make this a far more romantic revival than, say, Tim Burton's antic, scabrous Mars Attacks!, but the backdrops remain pretty rather than physically convincing.

The most striking scenes - of giant robots marching through Manhattan two abreast - recognise that the city's scale suits not human beings but King Kong, Martian warships (the movie quotes Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast) or a Marshmallow Man. But the interiors prove equally dwarfing: it's apt that Totenkopf's inner sanctum suggests a mausoleum, but the cavernous brown-and-burgundy foyer of the Radio City Music Hall has the same echoing feel, as does the office of the film's love interest, reporter Polly Perkins; instead of the snap and fizz of newsroom banter, we get back-projected headlines and staid small talk with a sombre editor.

There are nice visual touches - the waves of the RKO tower summoning Sky Captain, the superimposition of map markings over photorealistic aerial landscape shots - but the picture seems reverse-engineered, as if, having conceived his spectacular milieu, Conran created monsters to populate it, then heroes for them to fight, then reasons for the heroes to be there, with emotional plausibility some way behind that. Polly's a bit of a shutterbug; you wonder how much Sky Captain would lose if presented as a slide show rather than a movie; it comes as no surprise that its cast and crew signed up on the basis of a six-minute showreel constructed on Conran's laptop - his first film-making experience - rather than a finished screenplay. The script suffers from sloppy dialogue ("alert the amphibious squadron!") and plotting (a very vague Macguffin, risible exposition, two suspenseless countdown finales). But flimsy characterisation is the biggest problem, with little chemistry between Gwyneth Paltrow's largely unlikeable Polly and Jude Law's 'Cap', who remains stolidly Boy Scoutish despite being based on the complex figure of Claire Chenault (leader of the mercenary Flying Tigers engaged by Chiang Kai Shek).

Sky Captain invites comparisons with The Wizard of Oz, which Polly watches at Radio City, but offers nothing to rival that film's emotional sophistication, sense of jeopardy or potent deployment of colour; when Totenkopf is revealed as an analogue for the Wizard it inspires not shock or pity but irritation that the much-hyped posthumous casting of Laurence Olivier should yield such piffling results. That the real villain of the piece turns out to be a hyper-efficient operating system leaves Sky Captain less closely aligned to Buck Rogers or Tarzan than to the Terminator films, I, Robot or 2001 (the production's main computer server was nicknamed HAL). Perhaps Totenkopf had the right idea: Kerry Conran's world of tomorrow might have been happier without all those messy humans cluttering it up.


Kerry Conran
Jon Avnet
Marsha Oglesby
Sadie Frost
Jude Law
Director of Photography
Eric Adkins
Edited by
Sabrina Plisco
Production Design
Kevin Conran
Music/Conducted by
Edward Shearmur
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011