The Future That Never Happened: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Moonraker meets Transformers: the Movie meets Indiana Jones. Go back in time to World War I, take a sharp U-turn down an alternate time line, and there you are. People either loved or hated this film. I was prepared to overlook a lot in the interests of watching something offbeat, but this film fell flat for me. It managed not to work on so many levels at once. Much of the film was shot using the undersaturated colors typical of old-fashioned hand-tinted photos, which achieved a period look but robbed the film of visual appeal.

The film opens with the Hindenburg III docking at the Empire State Building. Judging from their relative sizes, the H-3 is only about 500 feet long, far short of the 900 feet of some real dirigibles of the 1930’s. This scene is supposed to look impressive, and maybe it does to anyone unfamiliar with the reality of dirigibles. The gangplank lowers and passengers descend an open, snow covered stairway with only a single railing between them and the ground a thousand feet below. It’s a mystery how the staircase got snow covered since it lowered from inside the ship and the weather outside was only light snow flurries. And those are just the inconsistencies in the first five minutes.

A desperate scientist on the ship arranges for a package to be mailed to Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a reporter. Following its instructions, she goes to a film at Radio City Music Hall, having already been provided a ticket. How the scientist arranged all this aboard a dirigible crossing the Atlantic is never explained. She goes to the theater, enters a dark room full of total strangers, and unerringly sits next to the right person. The scientist explains he was part of a secret research group in Germany during World War I under a mysterious Dr. Totenkopf. He slips her two mysterious vials and his briefcase, then air raid sirens go off and everyone flees. Why? There’s no indication the country is at war. Why would people be prepared to respond to air raid sirens?

Outside, Perkins looks up to see gigantic flying machines over New York. These land to transform into gigantic robots which go stomping around before a frantic radio message goes out to Sky Captain (Jude Law), who apparently is the sum total of U.S. air defense. The radio waves, in strict accord with 1930’s movie physics, are visible as expanding circles in the air. He takes on the robots, brings one down and returns to his base. Perkins surprises him at the base – the two have been an on-again off-again Item for years, it seems – then the two of them return to New York.

But wait! Whoever is orchestrating these attacks has more in store. Gigantic aircraft with flapping wings attack, so Sky Captain and Perkins drive back to base and fly to the counterattack. Now Sky Captain’s base is on an island an easy drive from New York, but surrounded by rugged, snow-covered mountains. As well as I know New York, I was racking my brains trying to figure out where there are rugged, snow-covered mountains within a short drive. Flatbush? Coney Island? Flushing? Hoboken? Staten Island? (maybe if you count landfills) Montauk? No, too far. The Catskills? Too far, also not high enough.

During the flight to New York, Perkins looks over some of the scientist’s files. It’s never totally clear when this movie is supposed to be taking place. We hear Dr. Totenkopf hasn’t been seen in “over 30 years,” putting the action in the 1940’s, but a ledger of supply purchases “in the last three years,” bears dates of 1912. We hear references to the American Volunteers, Nanjing (not Nanking, which is how it would have been pronounced in the 1930’s) and the evacuation of Shanghai, so there’s war between China and Japan. On the other hand, we never hear whether this world will have a World War II or not.

In New York, Sky Captain takes on the enemy aircraft and is soon fleeing through the midtown canyons in a fast-moving but remarkably unexciting chase that is essentially a car chase with wings. The aerodynamics is so preposterous (banking 90 degrees to fly through a narrow slot, or cornering 90 degrees in the width of an intersection at 200 miles an hour) that it’s hard to get enthusiastic. Sky Captain’s plane is outfitted with cables, apparently salvaged from one of Bruce Wayne’s Batplanes, that he can fire to anchor into buildings to make especially tight turns. After bludgeoning my disbelief into a coma assuming the cables will hold at either end, it’s superfluous to wonder how he stays conscious through the g-forces. And where do they send the bills for repairing the masonry?

But it gets worse. Sky Captain’s plane is riddled with bullets and catches fire. He dives toward the ocean, but we see the propellers retract and know something is in store. Yes! His plane is also a submarine. Not like that sissy Bruce Wayne, who has to slow down and enter the ocean at a grazing angle. No, Sky Captain can hit the ocean at full speed from a vertical dive and not shear the wings off, or be killed by the impact.

The attack on New York was aimed at digging up and removing the city’s generators. We see a montage of newspaper headlines and hear radio reports of strange burrowing machines robbing the world’s coal and oil reserves? Why? Where does it all go? Details, details.

While Sky Captain is in New York, his base is overrun and robots carry off Dax, the loyal Second Banana. However, before being captured, Dax locates the source of the signals directing the attack and manages to leave a map. The source turns out to be somewhere in Tibet.

There’s a certain logic in having films of this sort set in the 1930’s. The technology and mannerisms are modern enough that audiences can relate to them. You can get around the world rapidly by airplane, communicate by radio and telephone, and so on. At the same time large areas were still little enough visited and poorly mapped that it was possible to imagine undiscovered islands, hidden strongholds, and lost worlds where ancient life still lived. And with the cataclysm of World War II looming, it’s plausible to imagine all sorts of exciting might-have-been plots like Indiana Jones rescuing the lost Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis.

This film makes absolutely no attempt to tie up loose ends or achieve even rudimentary consistency. While in Tibet, Sky Captain comes upon a mining complex. In one scene we see vast structures towering above the peaks. Yet there’s no indication from the dialog or action that these structures have any significance. He meets the last survivor of some diabolical experiments performed by Totenkopf on a tribe, yet the final Doomsday Device has no connection whatever to biology. The survivor gives Sky Captain a staff that can supposedly guide him to Totenkopf’s hideout (how the tribesman knew this is a mystery). Yet, apart from giving Sky Captain the name of a star that he uses as a clue, the staff plays no further role in the movie. Sky Captain’s plane turns into a submarine and navigates through a submarine tunnel running the entire length of Totenkopf’s island (every island has one, you know). Then it emerges from a swamp, Minutes later, without even breathing hard from the climb, Sky Captain and Polly are crossing chasms thousands of feet deep. They eventually reach Totenkopf’s lair, where they discover he’s planning to launch an ark into space to create a new earth. Where he plans to go, we never find out. Sky Captain and Polly are cornered by Totenkopf’s robots, only to be rescued by the resourceful Dax, who has rescued a few of Totenkopf’s captive scientists and escaped. They make their way to Totenkopf’s lair, only to discover that the professor died in 1918, but his mind lives on in the machines of his complex.

Totenkopf’s spaceship is in its final countdown. When Sky Captain suggests they simply let him go, Dax and the scientists warn that when the rocket reaches 100 kilometers altitude, the booster will ignite and “incinerate the earth.” How or why? Your guess is as good as mine. Sky Captain and Polly sneak aboard to discover that from the outside the ship is a couple of hundred feet tall and twenty or thirty feet in diameter, but inside it’s hundreds of feet in diameter and thousands of feet high. They disable the booster – you’ll never guess – just before it fires, destroy the spacecraft, and parachute safely to earth.

While en route to Totenkopf’s lair, Sky Captain realized he would run out of fuel and radioed for an old friend, Frankie, to rendezvous with him. Frankie turns out to be Francesca (Angelina Jolie), the one-eyed commander of a huge British flying aircraft carrier. “It’s a bit of a secret,” Sky Captain tells Polly. I’m not sure what’s harder to believe: that you can keep something that big airborne or that you can fly it around and still keep it a secret. But a bigger mystery to me is what Sky Captain sees in Polly. She’s lied to him repeatedly throughout the film, gotten him into one danger after another, and fouled up everything that’s crossed her path. Francesca and Sky Captain have also been romantically involved, and not only is Francesca, well, Angelina Jolie, she’s courageous, competent, and honest. Attractive as Gwyneth Paltrow is, it’s no contest at all.

After the world has been saved, Polly, down to her last frame of film, passes up shots of all the events around her and takes a photo of Sky Captain. He says “Two words: lens cap,” and we see Polly’s dismayed face as the film fades out. Well, why not go out on an absurdity? If you take a picture with the lens cap on, you don’t expose the film. So just cock the camera (on cameras of that vintage the film advance and shutter were often separate) and shoot again. (By the way, the “lens cap” gag in Crocodile Dundee II doesn’t work either. In that film the photographer was using a single-lens reflex camera, which means she’d notice the lens cap as soon as she looked through the viewfinder.)

If they’re pulled off adroitly enough, really over the top stunts can be fun precisely because they’re so outrageous. James Bond free-falling to catch up with a diving plane in Goldeneye is one example that come to mind. But the effects in Sky Captain aren’t remotely convincing. Instead they make a strong dramatic statement: “Hey, we have a special effects budget!”

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Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 24 May, 2020

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