Saturday, March 30, 2019

Stubs - Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Gambon. Directed by Kerry Conran. Screenplay by Kerry Conran. Produced by Jon Avnet, Sadie Frost, Jude Law, Marsha Oglesby Run Time: 106 minutes. USA Science Fiction, Action Adventure

Few movies create new ways of production. Such a case was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, known as the first major motion picture to be shot completely on a blue screen with computer-generated backgrounds (with the exception of the two sets built due to time and budget constraints). Films such as Sin City (2005), 300 (2006), and The Spirit (2008) were all influenced by Sky Captain. But being first does not always mean best. For all its inventiveness, Sky Captain borrows heavily from other stories and in the end is rather boring, which is practically the worst thing you can say about a movie.

Kerry Conran spent four years making a short film in his apartment, Sky Captain and the Flying Legion In The World of Tomorrow - Chapter One: The Mechanical Monsters, which showcased the filming technique. He showed the film to the producer, Marsha Oglesby, who was impressed by the scope of the project. She put him in contact with Jon Avnet, who helped find financing for a feature film. Working with his younger sister, Kirsten, who served as art director, Kerry wrote the screenplay. With the exception of two sets, one only partially built, the film was made entirely on blue screen, with backgrounds, lighting, and other effects added in post-production. A group of almost 100 digital artists, modelers, animators, and compositors created multi-layered 2D and 3D backgrounds for the live-action footage yet to be filmed. The actual production took only 26 days with a budget reportedly as high as $70 million.

The Hindenburg III docks atop the Empire State Building.

The film opens in a technologically-advanced 1939. The German zeppelin Hindenburg III flies into New York City and moors atop the Empire State Building. One of the passengers on the airship is Dr. Jorge Vargas (Julian Curry), a scientist who arranges for a package containing two vials to be delivered to Dr. Walter Jennings (Trevor Baxter). The courier looks at the note and when he looks back while leaving with the vials, he sees that Dr. Vargas has vanished.

Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a newspaper reporter, writes about missing scientists.

Meanwhile, Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a reporter for The Chronicle, is looking into the disappearances of Vargas and five other renowned scientists. A cryptic message left for her leads her to Radio City Music Hall, against the warnings of her editor, Mr. Paley (Michael Gambon), where she meets Dr. Jennings during a showing of The Wizard of Oz.

Indestructible robots attack New York City.

He tells her that a Dr. Totenkopf is coming for him next. He gives her a little background of his theory. Suddenly, seemingly indestructible robots attack the city. Clearly outmatched, the authorities call for "Sky Captain" Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), the commander of the private air force the Flying Legion. Turns out this is not the first time Sky Captain has been called upon to save the day. Sky Captain turns out to also be a former lover of Polly’s.

Joe flies a modified Curtiss P-40 in Sky Captain in the World of Tomorrow.

Joe flies in a modified Curtiss P-40 pursuit fighter and engages the robots while Perkins photographs from the street with little regard for her personal safety. After Joe eventually manages to disable one robot; the rest fly away. News reports show similar attacks around the globe. The disabled robot is taken back to the Legion's air base so that technology expert Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) can examine it.
Polly shows up on the base and convinces Joe to let her in on the investigation. Her information takes them to the ransacked laboratory of a dying Dr. Jennings while an assassin, the Mysterious Woman, (Bai Ling) escapes. Just before he dies, Jennings gives Polly the two vials and states that they are crucial to Totenkopf's plans. Polly hides the vials and neglects to inform Joe.

A disabled robot is brought back for Dex to examine.

They return to the Legion's base just before it comes under attack from squadrons of mysterious ornithopter drones. While Joe tries to buy him time, Dex tracks the origin of the signal controlling the drones and notes it on a map before his capture by them, but not before he disables one with a ray gun of his own invention. Turns out the ornithopters are under the command of the Mysterious Woman.

Joe chases the ornithopters through the skies before heading back to base.

After chasing the ornithopters through the streets and high rises of New York, Joe returns to base. Joe and Polly find Dex's ray gun and map and fly to Nepal and then Tibet, where they discover an abandoned mining outpost. There they meet up with an old friend of Joe's and former comrade-in-arms from the Flying Legion, Kaji (Omid Djalili). Two of their guides, Creepy (Khan Bonfils) and Scary (Samta Gyatso), turn out to be working for Totenkopf and force Polly to turn over the vials.  They then lock Joe and Polly in a room full of dynamite.

All hope seems lost until Kaji lets them out. The three of them manage to escape the room just before the dynamite explodes. They are thrown and knocked unconscious. Also destroyed in the explosion is most of Polly's film. She’s left with only the roll in her camera and only has a few shots left to take.

Joe (Jude Law) waits for Polly in a Shangri-La like setting.

The three of them wake up naked together in the same bed in mythical Shangri-La. Their clothes are burned and the Tibetan-speaking monks, led by Kalacakra Priest (Tenzin Bhagen). offer to help them after Joe says he’s looking for Totenkopf to kill him. Their people had been enslaved by Totenkopf and they had been forced work in the uranium mines. Most were killed by the radiation, but the final survivor (Thupten Tsondru) provides a clue to where Dr. Totenkopf is hiding.

Franky (Angelina Jolie) runs a Royal Navy Flying aircraft carrier.

By the time they figure out the clues, it becomes apparent that they have insufficient fuel to make it there. Joe sends a message to an old friend and assumes they will meet before the fuel runs out. Joe’s old friend, Franky (Angelina Jolie), is Commander Franky Cook and she runs a Royal Navy flying aircraft carrier. And there is more to their relationship than just old colleagues.

A fleet of flying carriers in Sky Captain.

Franky has found Totenkopf’s island, which is not on any known maps. With her amphibious unit, she leads the attack on the island, which has to be entered through an underwater inlet. Dex has done the same thing to her planes as he has to Joe’s and they are able to go underwater with a few modifications in flight.

There is a large mechanical guard blocking the entrance and Franky destroys it by guiding missiles fired at Joe’s plane back into it, narrowly escaping and using a jet pack to take her back to the carrier.
Joe and Polly find themselves on an island with dinosaur-like creatures, which Polly hesitates to photograph as she has only two shots left. They do find a secret subterranean facility in a mountain, where robots are loading animals, as well as the mysterious vials, onto a large "Noah's Ark" rocket.

Joe and Polly are detected by the robots but Dex, piloting a flying barge, arrives with three of the missing scientists, Dr. Jennings, Dr. Vargas, and Dr. Kessler (Peter Law). One of the missing scientists explains that Totenkopf has given up on humanity and seeks to start the world over again: the "World of Tomorrow". The vials that were taken from Polly were genetic material for a new Adam and Eve. Joe thinks they should just let Totenkopf go, but Dex states that they can't; if the rocket reaches space, the afterburners will ignite the atmosphere and kill everyone on Earth.

Joe battles one of the two robots guarding Totenkopf's office.

They find Dr. Totenkopf’s office, but it is guarded by two large robots. Joe approaches and manages to destroy both with a ray gun that Dex, naturally, had designed. But before they enter, one of the scientists is electrocuted and burned down to his skeleton by the defense system.

Lawrence Olivier appears as Totenkopf in a hologram.

A hologram of Totenkopf (Lawrence Olivier) appears, speaking about his hate for humanity and his plans to rebuild it as a new master race. Dex disables the defenses. To test that it's safe, Joe and Polly walk through the opening and survive. Dex had thought they’d stick an inanimate object through it instead.

They find Totenkopf's mummified remains.

Entering the office, Joe discovers Totenkopf's mummified corpse inside with a scrap of paper clutched in his hand: "forgive me". He had apparently died 20 years prior, but his machines continued his plan.

The Mysterious Woman (Bai Ling) blocks Joe's entrance to the ship.

Joe decides to sabotage the rocket from the inside, allowing the others to escape. When Polly tries to tag along, Joe kisses her and then knocks her out. On the barge out, Polly recovers. Meanwhile, Joe’s entrance is blocked by the Mysterious woman, who turns out to be a robot or gynoid. She gets the best of Joe, but Polly shows up and disables her.

On board the rocket, Joe and Polly have to disable it before it reaches 100 km when its second stage is scheduled to fire and thereby incinerate the Earth. Polly accidentally pushes an emergency button that ejects all the animals in escape pods.

Joe’s attempt to disable the rocket is interrupted by the same assassin robot who has somehow gotten on board. He jolts the robot with its own electric weapon and then uses it on the controls, disabling the rocket.

Joe and Polly watch as the animals, in their own pods, glide down to the Earth.

Joe and Polly use the last pod to save themselves as the rocket safely explodes. They watch as the animal pods splash down around their escape pod, while Commander Cook leads a group of flying aircraft carriers towards them. Polly then uses the last shot on her camera to take a picture of Joe rather than the animal pods.

Joe grins and says: "Polly—lens cap."

Sadly, the film hasn’t aged all that well. When it was released, the film might have been cutting edge, the problem is that there have been great advancements in the 15 years since in special effects. Blue screens and green screens are everywhere now and the effects have only gotten better. It also doesn’t help that there is a honey glaze look over everything, which may help hide the bluescreen effect, but doesn’t wear well.

The story isn’t as original as the production values and borrows freely from other stories. Most notable to me was the quote directly from Mercury Theatre’s radio version of War of the Worlds. Polly is on the phone to her editor back at The Chronicle when the robot invasion begins.

[Polly is in a phone booth when the robots invade]
Polly Perkins: Wait a minute. I can see something now coming into sight above the Palisades. They're crossing Sixth Avenue... Fifth Avenue... they're a hundred yards away...

There is also the obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Polly, again, drops her camera down a storm grate and we see her hand reaching down, ever further, reaching out until her fingertips find the camera. It’s taken from when Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), on his way to plant Guy Haines’ (Farley Granger) lighter on the amusement park island, accidentally drops it down a sewer grate.

And there is the reference to The Wizard of Oz (1939) when the hologram of Totenkopf (Lawrence Olivier) appears. It is an updated version of when the Wizard shows himself to Dorothy and company. “Don’t look behind the curtain,” is all that’s missing.

There are other references that are not so obvious. King Kong (1933) must have made quite the impression on Conran since there are several references to that film in this one. According to the documentary "Brave New World: The Making Of The World Of Tomorrow", during the New York sequence when Sky Captain deploys a bomb to stop a giant robot, the shape of King Kong can be seen on the Empire State Building in the background.

Also, when Joe and Franky’s airplanes go underwater to gain access to Totenkopf’s island, a light momentarily displays the wreckage of a ship with the name Venture – the tramp steamer that sailed to Skull Island in the original version of King Kong.

There is also, to its detriment, similarities to how this story is told and say how the TV series Batman told theirs. Anytime Batman or Robin was in danger, Batman always was prepared with something in his utility belt. Sharks are circling say the Batboat, well Batman happens to have thought ahead and packed Batman Shark Repellent. Well, in this film, say when Franky has to jettison out of her plane underwater, she just happens to be wearing a jetpack on her back that takes her up to her airship carrier.

That doesn’t address all the obvious plot holes in the story. The biggest head-scratcher is at the end of the film, wherein after defeating the Mysterious Woman robot Joe and Polly barely squeeze through the port to get into the rocket ship; that’s with like zero seconds to go. But later, at a crucial moment, she happens to have made it on to the Rocket. Huh? How did that happen?

It’s obvious to me that Conran had a lot of really great ideas but didn’t know how to make them all work together. Shoving them up together whether or not they would work together is one approach and seems to be the one taken here.

And there is a lot that the film introduces but does not bother to explain, like how exactly the retro rockets are going to burn up the Earth’s atmosphere. Or how computers and drones built by a now dead man manage to not only carry on their work but also carry on attacks and steal specific items needed. That’s some pretty great programming there that is.

The acting doesn’t really make up for shortfalls in the story. Jude Law is a good actor, but his performance is pretty much one-note throughout. He’s done better work. The Sky Captain character has a smack of 30’s serial all over it. A private Army that is somehow fully funded by the occasional need whenever robots take over New York City seems like an odd business plan but that’s looking too hard to succeed.

My opinion of Gwyneth Paltrow has gone down over the years. I know you’re supposed to separate the artist from their lives, but the whole Goop thing and the pretentiousness of her life choices have left me cold. She didn’t get divorced but rather had a conscious uncoupling from Cold Play frontman Chris Martin. What? With that in my head, it’s hard to, on a second viewing find her character likable. Maybe it’s just me.

But what the film needs to make the romance believable is a sense of chemistry between Joe and Polly and I really never felt the heat between them.

Like Law, Angelina Jolie’s Franky character is pretty one-dimensional. Her only backstory is that she and Joe had an affair and that she lost an eye somewhere. And you might wonder about her leadership qualities as she risks and loses the lives of several of her men in an effort to help an ex-lover’s quest. It may be to save the world, but it still comes off as a little reckless.

Keeping with the one-dimensional theme, Dex is simply a know-it-all that the story needs. He’s everywhere he needs to be and with the answer to whatever the question of the moment might be. He gets kidnapped but manages to have escaped from his confines in time for Joe and Polly to arrive and knows how everything works.

But the biggest detriment to the film is that it is surprisingly boring, especially on a second viewing.

Having seen it in a theater when it was first released left a better impression than seeing it again. The film, unfortunately, doesn’t age well and when you’re no longer impressed by the visuals, then you start to pick the story apart and that’s not a good thing.

If you’d asked me fifteen years ago, I would have probably recommended the film. There were shortcomings even then, but the film was worth watching for its inventiveness. But things have changed and the answer today would be no.

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