Tuesday, June 29, 2010

“I spent six months in a Manchurian slave camp because of you. They were gonna cut off my fingers.”

Here at Castle RMWC, ADVENTURE! is always a welcome guest, so when a two-fisted retro-pulp adventurer with a tricked out P-40 Warhawk from 2004 comes a’knockin’, I’m listening. Here’s 2004’s Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow.

Scientists are disappearing around a sort of 1930s-40s world where things like the Hindenberg III can dock at the Empire State Building without exploding. Suddenly! Giant Robots attack New York and our Heroes, a high flying adventurer for hire and a plucky female reporter have to find out what the hell is going on. Sure sounds like ADVENTURE! to me.

Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan: Jude Law cuts a dashing figure as a pulp hero. He does a good job of looking determined and overcoming every obstacle that comes his way. Just like in the old Adventure serials. He’s also got connections across the globe, a sweet modified fighter plane and an island base outside of New York City that is staffed by a small army. Sky Captain is quite badass.

Polly Perkins: Gwyneth Paltrow does all right as a stereotypically inquisitive reporter who keeps getting in trouble. She & Joe have a…rocky history, to say the least.

Dex Dearborn: Giovanni Ribisi plays Sky Captain’s go-to tech guy, a young mechanical genius who’s helped design some of the crazy tech in the movie. He gets captured by robots fairly early on, which of course, makes things personal.

Captain Francesca “Franky” Cook: Angelina Jolie in what amounts to a glorified cameo as they eye patch wearing leader of a British Helicarrier mobile reconnaissance platform. She’s also got a squadron of amphibious fighter planes at her command.

The Mysterious Woman: Ling Bai is the villain’s, er, mysterious henchwoman. A black-clad, goggled silent killer who is also in control of the robotic minions sent to plague the world.

Dr. Totenkopf: Sir Laurence Olivier (well, through the miracle of computers he’s able to live again in recorded images) is the mysterious and reclusive genius behind the disappearances. Discovering the reason why he’s doing these things and has a robot army is the driving action of the plot.

Directed by Kerry Conran with cinematography by Eric Adkins, I have to admit, for a modestly budgeted project, the visual style is incredibly distinctive. It’s the same kind of mostly blue screened, heavy on the CGI method used in Episode II and later 300, and the art direction here is stellar. The movie has a great diesel punk atmosphere that’s filled with retro robot designs and art deco architecture. The camera movements are also subtly impressive, with pans and turns that achieve some interesting angles.

However, I have a huge gripe about the visuals. While the movie goes for a very retro visual style that includes blown out lighting, it’s in color. And somehow that just makes it look a bit too off in a way I can’t quite explain. This bugs me on a pretty substantial level, since I watched the whole thing thinking that it would’ve been so much better in black & white.

Kerry Conran again on script duty. You can tell this is a real labor of love. The characters, the globe-trekking plot, the crazy inventions and the dialogue are all deeply rooted in the old school pulp science fiction stories that inspired it. On the downside, it does seem to hew a little too closely to the old serials. Things like dialogue and some bits of characterization could have used a more modern polish, but overall, it’s a satisfying result.

Original score by Edward Shearmur and it kicks ass, balancing the right blend of high flying Heroics and ADVENTURE! Shamelessly retro and totally appropriate for the movie.

I really wanted to love Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. It’s got a laundry list of elements I like: Giant robots, mad science, fedoras, fighter planes, dogfights, blimps, great music, teals coils and more. I’m quite convinced at this point that a lot of the CGI elements and the color bloom would’ve been better masked by the film being in black & white with a touch of film grain added for extra atmosphere. Interestingly enough, the six minute short that led to the feature length movie WAS in glorious black & white with a bit of film grain, and it is awesome. As it stands, Sky Captain is a valiant effort at recapturing the feel of old school sci-fi ADVENTURE! I respect and rather like the film, but I don’t want to name my firstborn after it.

And for comparison's sake, the original "Sky Captain and the Flying Legion" short:

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