Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

(Kerry Conran, USA, 2004)


In 1994, writer-director Kerry Conran began making, with artisanal precision, a six-minute short called The World of Tomorrow. The short was finished four years later, and six years after that we have its star-studded, feature-length remake. It is a pity that the end result, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, manages to be interesting for approximately six minutes.


Those who like to complain about the primacy of special effects in contemporary Hollywood blockbusters may be left speechless by the audacity of this enterprise. The entire film is shot with its human figures placed in front of a blue screen (for Chroma key), the backgrounds filled in later by various digital processes.


Plot counts for little here. The old-fashioned adventure places Polly (Gwyneth Paltrow), an intrepid journalist, alongside her shifty ex-boyfriend, Joseph (Jude Law doing his Alfie act yet again), in a race to circumvent the scheming and treacherous Dr Totenkopf (the digitised remains of Sir Laurence Olivier). An inordinate amount of story time is devoted to the two snaps left on Polly’s camera – solely to prepare us for the film’s quite amusing final line.


Sky Captain does not aim to be realistic. Instead it aims for a deliberately nostalgic, even cheesey look, expending a lot of time and money to ape the patently artificial, disembodied special effects of another era. The closest comparison would be the deliberately comic blend of modern actors and backgrounds from old movies in Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). There is even a phantasmic glimpse of Daffy Duck in his Buzz Boy mode.


Anyone fond of discerning Australia’s influence on world cinema might be pleased to note that Sky Captain would likely not exist without the effects-driven films of Alex Proyas. But, unlike Proyas’ best movie, Dark City (1998), Sky Captain is a clear case of style overwhelming, indeed pulverising, content.


There is something quite screwy about the priorities of Sky Captain. In an early scene, long before the blue-screen folly of the special-effects enterprise wears out its welcome, there is a scene where Polly has a secret rendezvous with a snitching German scientist, Dr Jennings (Trevor Baxter) – in a movie theatre (Radio City Music Hall, in fact) that happens to be projecting the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939).


The good Doctor speaks in hushed tones of the “terrible things” he and his colleagues had been forced to do by that mad-genius scientist, Totenkopf. The rest of the film expends a great deal of energy in running away from this unmistakable and provocative allusion to Nazi medical experiments and the Holocaust.


For any fan of the Australian avant-garde, this Radio City scene is doubly disquieting. In a masterpiece of the short film form by Jackie Farkas, The Illustrated Auschwitz (1992), the audio recording of an Auschwitz survivor’s testimony is juxtaposed, on the image track, with refilmed fragments of The Wizard of Oz. For most of the film, this association might seem strained, a merely cute or even horribly tasteless exercise in free-associative, second-degree surrealism. But when the survivor’s account reaches its trembling conclusion, everything falls into place: on being released from the camps into freedom, this woman’s first act was to immediately go and see Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. And those famous, ringing words – “there’s no place like home” – suddenly held a terrible meaning for that solitary, traumatised spectator who knew there would never again be any home for her like there once was.


Once the hot potato of the Holocaust has been dropped by Sky Captain, there are only a few telltale crumbs lying around to remind us of it. Totenkopf’s “mad dream” is glimpsed in the menagerie of miniaturised and crossbred animals that he loads into the modern Noah’s Ark of a spaceship. Sure, he also intends to destroy Earth as his very own Utopia blasts off. But one’s overriding impression is: don’t those beasts look really cute?

© Adrian Martin February 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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