Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Too Close To The Reference Sinks The Attempt At Nostalgia That Is Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow!

The Good: I like the title
The Bad: Characters and plot is canned, Effects, Acting
The Basics: When writer-director Kerry Conran created a parody or recreation of the 1930s sci-fi serials, like Flash Gordon, he fell short of either.

There is an episode of The Simpsons that I have loathed for quite some time. Quite early in the series, The Simpsons did an episode where they showed clips from upcoming spin-off series', the last of which was "The Simpson Smiletime Variety Hour." It was a parody of the Sonny and Cher or Lawrence Welk style shows. The reason I loathe the episode is because that act so closely imitates what it is parodying, it becomes it. That is, instead of being an effective gag on the concept, it becomes all the worst parts of that type of show. Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow is essentially the same thing, with the campy serialized sci-fi movies of the 30s as its subject.

When New York City is invaded by giant robots that steal a power generator, it appears the world is under attack by a force quite unlike anything the world has seen. In desperation, the military calls in the Sky Captain to fight off the robots and learn the truth behind them. With intrepid reporter Polly Perkins, technical sidekick Dex and his British counterpart Franky along, Joe - the Sky Captain - journeys from high in the sky to under the sea almost to outer space to discover the truth.

And it's not worth it.

Like that episode of The Simpsons, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow creates something that exposes all the weaknesses of what it is calling back to by imitating them. And because the story needs to work, the writer/director Kerry Conran becomes trapped in the conventions of the story he is telling with the characters he is telling. The problem here is that the choice Conran is force to make is either to defy the conventions of the serialized hero movies and basically mortgage the audience on the idea that the first half of the movie was a parody or stick with the conventions and recreate a cinematic experience that is neither suspenseful nor unpredictable and basically subject the audience to an ultimately droll experience.

Conran seems unsure which way to go, in that on the story and character front, Conran takes the latter option. Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow is a modern-day 1930s serial. It's silly, it's campy, it's predictable. It is laced with cliches and the actors are forced to play within them in order to tell the story as it is written. It feels inorganic, none of the characters pop out of their molds and this is truly unspectacular. Add to that, the annoyance of the music (which, admittedly should be in the "effects" column). It is soaring and completely telegraphs the emotions the movie is trying to evoke (that is to say on its own, the story and characters are not creating an emotional resonance, so the music tells the viewer how they ought to be feeling). Down to the punchline ending of the movie, this film is a predictable, faithful recreation of a style of storytelling that we are well beyond. In short, our society (surprisingly) has become sophisticated enough where we can handle stories that are more intelligent, character driven, realistic and genuinely adventurous than what the '30s audiences seemed to go for in this genre.

The problem is that while Conran remains faithful in the story and characters to the genre, his attempts with the effects that the route of mortgaging the faithfulness of the look and feel of the serials. The movie opens with a wonderful grainy quality, as if the movie were a black and white film that had been colorized. There is a washed out quality to the lighting that instantly transforms recognizable actors and actresses into heroes from days of yore. The problem is that while the lighting and grain quality is generally consistent, the mold gets broken in some of the battle sequences with clearly current special effect techniques. Those moments wrench the viewer out of the experience and beg the question, if you were trying to update the 30s serials, why didn't you go all the way? That is, what is the point of recreating the look and feel (through effects) of the old serial movies when you're just going to throw in a clearly computer-generated skeleton of a scientist who was just electrocuted? Moreover, the final sequences are ludicrously current in look and feel, which then makes the hammy overacting of the principles troubling.

There is not much to say on the character front. The Sky Captain is the Hero, Polly Perkins is the independent woman who still needs the hero to matter, and Dex and Franky are just types that play off those two archetypes. Unfortunately, this also means that there is little to say on this movie on the acting front. Perhaps it would have worked better if the bit part Angelina Jolie had had been credited as a surprise cameo as opposed to one of the three top-billed actors in the movie. She is barely in the film. Jude Law plays Joe and the truth is, I'm just realizing I can't remember ever liking a part he's played. Here he plays the role, but it is not an excessive challenge, it's an extended schtick.

Gwyneth Paltrow just made me sad for taking this role. There are moments she seems to be having fun and perhaps that's a good enough reason to take the part; it's fun. I suppose when you're rich, you can take a couple of months to shoot a movie essentially as play. The problem is, this film makes no real use of her talents.

There's a moment midway through this catastrophe that Paltrow as Perkins glares at Joe in an annoyed fashion. That exact expression mirrored how I felt about the movie at that point.

For other works with Bai Ling, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Angel - Season 1
Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith
Southland Tales
Lost - Season 3


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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