Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow feels like the sort of film that would have been a landmark piece of cinema in some alternate universe. Watching it over a decade after its release, it seems like the sort of kid-friendly, technically innovative, fun pulp throwback that made Star Wars a nearly global cultural juggernaut. In some version of Earth vibrating at a slightly different frequency from our universe, Sky Captain is on its 4th sequel, has a TV spinoff, and has crossed over with Batman in his own comic book. The Rocketeer would also be more popular on that Earth, too, probably.
Sky Captain either feels ahead of its time, or 30 years too late. It’s the sort of movie that if released today, would have been hyped up by the comic/film nerd blogosphere who’d appreciate its two-fisted throwback style and make Tumblr gifs that juxtapose certain shots with the classic film and animation that inspired it. And if it were released in the 70’s, it could have been Star Wars.
Whether Metropolis, The Wizard of Oz, Jules Verne, or Buck Rogers; Sky Captain proudly wears it’s inspirations on its sleeve, lifting large chunks of its opening action sequence almost wholesale from The Mechanical Monsters – one of the Fleischer Superman cartoons. More attentive viewers will notice nods to Godzilla and King Kong. This film even has a helicarrier, almost a full decade before Marvel’s The Avengers would introduce the vehicle to the non-comics reading population!
Like the pulp serials that inspired it, Sky Captain’s plot is light, serving more as a way to link its aerial (and underwater!) dogfights with robots, and explorations into exotic locations like Shangri-La or its version of Verne’s Center of the Earth. Giant robots have been attacking cities all across the planet, stealing seemingly random electrical equipment, and it’s up to the Sky Captain and his allies to track the robots to their source, and stop their master’s heinous plot.
The characters, too, are broad archetypes. Besides Jude Law’s Golden Age flyboy, there’s a mad scientist, and an English Ace (Angelina Jolie). The film’s female lead, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is a blonde Lois Lane – the female journalist chasing the scoop of a lifetime. If it weren’t a feature film, Sky Captain could have easily been four separate serials.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’s most distinctive quality is its visuals. Besides its actors, the film is completely CGI; and the whole thing is also digitally recolored, giving the movie an aged, sepia-tone palette. The end result looks like a backwards Fleisher cartoon, with the actors rotoscoped onto the animation. All the settings are highly stylized, with Sky Captain’s 1930’s New York skyline evoking Metropolis and Batman: The Animated Series’ Gotham City more than the actual city’s deco architecture. Despite being CG, animals and robots in the film move like Harryhousen puppets, and ray-guns shoot hand-drawn looking animated projectiles to War of the Worlds pew-pew noises.
If all of these references make it seem like the film seem creatively bankrupt…well, it is. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is the film equivalent of a kid playing with all of their toys at once, licensing agreements being non-existent in one’s imagination. But being new isn’t a prerequisite for being fun, and Sky Captain is really fun. It’s a deliberate throwback to the kind of bold, straight-faced stories that got pushed out of vogue by more the grounded, serious storytelling that shows us a future of dystopias rather than utopias. There’s a hopeful retro-futurism and joy on display in Sky Captain that couldn’t care less for nuance. After all, there are robots to destroy, secret cities to explore, and a mad scientist to foil.
On paper, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a movie that seems deliberately designed to appeal to me, individually. But as bright and fun as it is, and no matter how much I appreciate its sources; it’s those same things that keep Sky Captain from really soaring. Because everything I really love about this film, anything I could really grab onto to remember it, comes from something else. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow kept a smile on my face for 100 minutes, but instead of sticking with me, all I really want to do now is rewatch Metropolis or those old Superman cartoons.