Sunday, September 19, 2004


Movie Review: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

I was bored with this movie.

When I first saw the previews for this film ages ago, I thought "Hmm. Interesting. Maybe." I had read about its production, and how they basically "built" a movie around the actors, with virtually everything in the film done on a blue and green screen.

Now, no discussion of this movie would be possible without full disclosure: while I'm no fan of CGI, I'm not ideologically opposed to it, either. The best CGI is the kind that does not distract at all from the movie; meaning, it must be seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film, and it can't interfere with the audience's suspension of disbelief.

Alas, very little CGI meets that criteria. However, I don't think it's inherently flawed, as some critics would have you believe (Jeffrey Wells, for one). I can still watch Titanic or Jurassic Park knowing that a lot of it is CGI and yet be sucked into the film; even today, when CGI is even better than in those films. The copious amounts of CGI in the Star Wars prequels don't really bother me too much either, as it's impossible to do some of the things they have to do without resorting to computerized graphics. I'd certainly prefer it if they could use more models, which always "feel" more tangible, but I'll take what I can get. Again, if the story is compelling enough, I can sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is never that compelling, however.

The story is inspired by cheesy serials like Flash Gordon or Captain Cody, common in the 1930's through 50's. What I find interesting is how anyone can really think this idea is a good thing. Nostalgia can't be a draw; most everyone who watched those serials are in retirement age. Arguing that since these serials were the inspiration of the Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies, a literal version of these serials would capture the same magic misses a major point: the reason these serials looked and felt cheesy was because they didn't know any better.


George Lucas knew enough not to have Luke Skywalker fly around in a silver rocketship with rayguns; he took inspiration from the serials but changed the vision to match modern storytelling sensibilities. Star Wars and Indiana Jones avoided looking or feeling cheesy even while they relied on straightforward plots and potboiled cliffhangers. The producers of Sky Captain evidently felt that going back to the source material would carry them along a similar wave; alas, to me it felt only musty.

The film opens with our intrepid New York Chronicle reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow, in a full-on Katherine Hepburn impersonation) investigating the disappearance of a number of renowned scientists. As she meets one fearful scientist in Radio City Music Hall, giant robots attack New York. Sky Captain comes to the rescue in his heavily-modified P-40 Warhawk, and off goes the story.

Sky Captain, played by Jude Law, is an international mercenary/peacekeeper called into action wherever there's trouble; like G.I. Joe, only with an even bigger chin. At times Law allows himself a little fun, but for the most part he's flat. Ditto Paltrow, and pretty much everyone else in the movie. I think it's safe to assume the general malaise in performances results from everyone working against green and blue screens.

Except for the performance from Angelina Jolie, who is simply the most awful actress to ever win an Academy Award. Okay, fine; she's tied with Whoopi Goldberg.

Yeah, she's got big lips; so does a fish.

Anyways, a lot of people-- including your author-- criticize George Lucas for his seeming inability to obtain human performances from his actors. Hell, he's made wonderfully-gifted actors like Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman act like zombies. Is there a name for talent in reverse?

However, seeing all the actors in Sky Captain deliver similarly flat performances strongly suggests to me that it may not have as much to do with directing as with a structural difficulty in coaxing a good performance from someone on an imaginary set. Just as the audience needs to see something "real" on the screen in order to connect to the actors, it's just as likely that the actors need the same in order to feel comfortable.

That all said, with its empty performances, Sky Captain has to rely on its visuals. The art design is impressive at times, but the washed out "glowing" effect used throughout the film mutes all colors into dull browns and grays. The omnipresent glow most certainly aids in obscuring the green screen effect, but after a while it just looks ugly. The big effects shots all look cartoony, perhaps purposely so-- but it only made me wonder why they didn't go all the way and simply animate even the characters. It would have been less distracting, and it may have even been liberating: voice acting seems to be easier on an actor's imagination than green screen acting.

Anyways, in the end, not all that good of a film. I'm shocked that Roger Ebert gave the film four stars-- while he is anything but consistent, the storytelling is pretty obviously flawed. I was bored, my buddy Brian the Mallet sat next to me bored.

If anyone who's seen Sky Captain disagrees with me, I'd like to hear a counteropinion, and what you liked about the film. I just couldn't get into the flick.

I am no Brando (I have worked on a film recently - Go see Fever Pitch folks, its a hoot) but I have done enough acting to know a bit about the "artform." Good actors are good actors. You can stick them in a refrigerator box and film them with an 8mm cam (like the one used to film all those fun scenes in....well........8mm) and they can act. Good actors adapt. Good football players can play in the rain and snow, good blog writers can write without any sense.................they adapt. Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie are not good actors. When you take the latters of their names and mix them up, then take a bunch away and add a "v" you can spell "vapid." Coincidence? I think not.

Anyway. That's my opinion. If you disagree, you are wrong. Go see Fever Pitch starring the NEVER vapid Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon and your's truly as a passerby.
Actually Ranger, I believe you *are* Brando, or at least the electronic voice of Brando, speaking from beyond the grave.

Oh, you can act in front of a green screen, I'm sure-- but you can't dispute that it's harder. Unlike in theater, where even if you have no set to speak of you at least have a dynamic between the other actors and the vibe from a live audience, with a movie set you have:

"Get ready. Wait. Wait. Okay, say your one line. Look angry. No, that's not right. Angrier. Wait. Wait. Oh, what the hell, we'll fix it in post."

Then, when done with that line, you get to go back to your trailer for five hours while they move the lights.

On top of that, add a blank wall and a nerd in flannel saying "That's a forest!" and I don't find it irrational to suggest that otherwise "good" actors would have difficulty adjusting to that environment. Oh, and add in a mediocre director, and you're pretty much guaranteed Mannequin Skywalker.

You are wrong.
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