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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Entry updated 2 April 2021. Tagged: Film.

Film (2004). Paramount Pictures, Brooklyn Films II, Riff Raff Film Productions. Directed by Kerry Conran. Written by Kerry Conran. Cast includes Trevor Baxter, Omid Djalili, Michael Gambon, Angelina Jolie, Jude Law, Bai Ling, Gwyneth Paltrow and Giovanni Ribisi. 106 minutes. Colour.

1939. Arriving from Europe in an Alternate World New York as dusk deepens, the great Airship Zeppelin III fixes its proboscis to the top of the Empire State Building; among the disembarking passengers is a Scientist in terror-stricken flight from the mysterious Dr Totenkopf (literally Dr Death's Head). Before his almost immediate disappearance and presumed death, the scientist arranges to send two metal vials to Dr Jennings (Baxter), currently being interviewed by newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow) in Radio City Music Hall during a showing of The Wizard of Oz (1939) (see L Frank Baum). Jennings tells her his life is in danger from Totenkopf. The fate of the world is in the balance.

Outside, it is not Kansas any more. All hell is breaking loose. Giant Robots, who may either be autonomous or Mecha, are devastating Manhattan while stealing the great city's power generators. Perkins, who may be modeled on Diana Farnsworth in The Crimson Ghost (1946) directed by Fred C Brannon and William Witney, recklessly photographs the ongoing scene (a vision of King Kong can be glimpsed briefly). The overwhelmed authorities have meanwhile put a call in to Joe ("Sky Captain") Sullivan (Law), a slim-line Hero, combining features of Doc Savage and Operator #5 (see Operator #5) among others, who is on contract to protect Gotham. He soon arrives in his Curtiss P-40 Warhawk with augmented Weapons, and drives off the robots singlehanded, saving Perkins's life en passant; and sends a disabled robot back to his nearby armoured base (see Keep) so his techie sidekick Dex (Ribisi) can examine it. Sky Captain and Perkins, who used to be lovers, then quarrelsomely visit Dr Jennings, who has already been mortally wounded by an Mysterious Woman (Ling) proficient in martial arts; but she has time to give Perkins two metal vials, on which the fate of the world depends. Perkins pockets the vials without telling Sky Captain she has done so. They continue to spat cute.

She accompanies him back to his base, which is under attack by armoured ornithopters, though Sky Captain escapes the aerial horde by diving his plane, which is a submersible, into the ocean. Before he is captured, Dex has managed to trace to Nepal the radio signals controlling the assault. Sky Captain and Perkins take off for Nepal, where his brave and faithful old companion Kaji (Djalili) guides them toward a hidden valley described in the film as resembling Shangri-La; but first, in a mine shaft, Totenkopf's spies capture the heroes, take the vials from Perkins, who had deliberately not told Sky Captain she possessed them, and leave them to certain death, from which they are rescued, though they lose consciousness and awaken naked in a large bed in Shangri-La, a venue rendered through visuals directly reminiscent of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937) (see also James Hilton); Perkins's noisy pudeur at being found undressed under blankets next to her lover may homage the Hays Code.

After deciphering clues to the location of Totenkopf's inner Asian headquarters, Sky Captain and Perkins take off with only enough fuel to reach a British floating aircraft carrier, which resembles similar Macrostructures in the films of Hayao Miyazaki; its Commander, Francesca Cook (Jolie), is also an ex-lover of Sky's. Perkins is furiously jealous. Cook and her squadron guide the quarreling heroes to an underwater entrance to Totenkopf's Island redoubt, most of it Underground and guarded by surgically modified creatures whose presence evokes H G Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896). Sidekick Dex had been brought here with some surviving scientists, but has now escaped and tells them they have invaded what Totenkopf calls "the World of Tomorrow"; the scientists add that the departure of Totenkopf's Spaceship will cause the End of the World. They then inform the protagonists that he had been awaiting the arrival of the two vials, which contain seed to repopulate the stars with human stock, before he could initiate countdown. The vials are now on the ship, and countdown has commenced. At this news Perkins expresses a garish modicum of modest chagrin at causing the end of civilization. Dex guides them to the inner chamber, the great door to which is boobytrapped by the enormous projected countenance of Totenkopf himself (a digital fabrication from images of Sir Laurence Olivier), whose first words directly invoke the first appearance of the Wizard of Oz in the film (see above): "Who dares come before me?" he thunders, and goes on to make it clear that he is an Antihero who needs to be stopped, achieving this not so much by what he says but by talking more than anyone else in the film (Villains in American film and Television can usually be identified by the fact they are articulate):

The time for this world is over. I have been witness to a world consumed by hatred and bent on self-destruction. We have taken what was a paradise and failed in our responsibilities as its steward. I know now that the course the human race has set for itself cannot be changed.

I am the last desperate chance for a doomed planet. Now, leave this place or die!

At this point, Dex unplugs the projection, Totenkopf flickers out like an exposed charlatan, the cast shrugs off his unAmerican bluster, and passes safely inside where they find the corpse of Totenkopf (Totenkopf also refers to the SS-Totenkopfverbände, the SS division responsible for running Nazi concentration camps a few years later); its hand holds a note saying "Forgive me". Totenkopf has in fact been dead for twenty years, and his message to the world reflects a mood typical of survivors of World War One; it is also clear that his whole conspiracy has been executed according to prior instructions (see Psychohistory). The Spaceship built under his instructions, now entirely filled with animals two by two, is ready to take off for a better place. But if its booster stage is allowed to release, Earth's atmosphere will ignite in a chain reaction, killing all life. There is no time to waste. After Sky Captain and Perkins dispose of Mysterious Woman, who turns out to be an extremely advanced Android, they board the ship a second before it takes off, and clamber up through its enormous sculpture-bedecked interior, which closely resembles the soaring inner vault of the 1913 Völkerschlachtdenkmal ["Monument to the Battle of the Nations"] war memorial in Leipzig, which had been designed by angst-filled Modernist architects whose apprehensions of the future plausibly resembled those Totenkopf expresses before being switched off by the heroes of a film set in 1939 which does not mention World War Two. Finally, Sky Captain manages to blow the ark up; Perkins has in the meantime activated a command to parachute all the animals to safety. They all float into the benign Pacific, under the guardian gaze of Commander Cook.

A lengthy synopsis allows room to register some of the remarkable number of cultural, pop-fiction and filmic references embedded into Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (only a sample of these are noted above), though any time spent on its ostensible plot embarrassingly uncovers how boneheaded it is, and how false to its roots. Perhaps Kerry Conran, who wrote and directed, should not be too extensively excoriated for his seeming ignorance of the fact that, though 1930s Pulp storylines almost always seem fatuous when synopsized, they were in fact stories meant to be told. But by treating every action point as a stasis point, as a gearless tableau vivant, he has in fact obliterated the grammar and urgency of pulp narrative, directly betraying the sources he ostensibly wished to honour. After the setting-up dazzle of its early sequences (synopsized above at length), the film increasingly sinks under its new layers of untold story, which may explain its failure at the box office, as it is hard to think of so inert an experience getting good word-of-mouth.

But there are further reasons to focus on what does not actually happen in the film. Critics have noted the mucusy claustrophobia of Sky Captain's mise en scene, but it seems clear that this airlessness is not generated solely by the film's lack of a grounded tale to tell. At its heart the airlessness of Sky Captain is a kind of Amnesia, a blanking out of history that it is arguably a central task and opportunity of sf (see Fantastika) to combat. Conran's apparent ignorance of context is as clearly falsified as his refusal to honour pulp storytelling genius, for he has amply borrowed from sources focused on the world outside: Operator #5 spends dozens of issues frantically attempting to prepare America for Invasion and World War Two; and Stephen Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), which mounts an utterly clear (if cartoonish) assault on the new Nazi Reich aborning, is a film whose influence, stripped of meaning, can be detected throughout Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, whose full title itself hints broadly that a point is being made.

The slogan of the New York World's Fair, which opened in early 1939, was "Building the World of Tomorrow", but Sky Captain's ample provision of images based on its Iconic architecture in general, and on the General Motors Futurama pavilion designed by Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) in particular, do little to heal the decontextualizing absence of any reference to the fair at all, or to its defiant advocacy of an American future in the face of World War Two, which began four months after opening day. When the Zeppelin III docks in New York, there is no there there. The total cultural/historical silence of Sky Captain, set on the cusp of a planetary crisis it feasts upon without saying a word, is not ironical; it is a nullity.

It is very well known that every scene but one of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – the exception being a newspaper office shot in the style of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) – was shot using what has become known as a digital backlot: with live actors using animatics as cue cards, and performing against a bluescreen backdrop. The crazed deracination of the film's usually competent cast may be attributable to its having to perform within a contextless frame.

The early sequences are probably the most stunning. The first twenty minutes of Sky Captain are an extraordinary visual and iconological homage to New York, utilizing a bleached sepia palette shot through with art deco lightning bolts and the firefly glimmer of human beings passing. Intermittently, German Expressionist perspectives intervene, chiaroscuro glimpses of Manhattan based on the architectural visions of the New York-based Hugh Ferriss (1889-1962) in The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929), but also cousin to Albert Speer's vision of a monumentalized back-lit Berlin, which entranced Hitler (see Ruins and Futurity); echoes of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) can also be perceived. The British aerial aircraft carrier is depicted with shot-silk desiderium. But always the grace and terror of context is lacking, that sense essential to all great art that we are witnessing some profound beat about to change the world, or stop it. As pure visual experience, Sky Captain is so breathtaking the lungs ache for oxygen. But it gives us no world to change.

The novelization is Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) by Kevin J Anderson writing as K J Anderson. [JC]


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