Although this film looks wonderful, I suggest that you don’t see it at the cinema. Instead, wait until it comes out on DVD, buy it, and then every Saturday morning, allow yourself to watch about 20–30 minutes of it. If you want to watch a homage to ’30s pulp SF serials, then you really should do it properly.
The film-makers could have done this themselves; I wonder if it ever crossed their minds, to just release 20 minutes every week to be watched before other, full-length films. It could easily be sliced up in such a way; most of the film is made up of a series of vignettes, as Joe ‘Sky Captain’ Sullivan and reporter Polly Perkins run from Max Fleischer-style giant robots to King Kong-style lost worlds, to Flash Gordon-style rocketships, with small cliffhangers all the way.
As I said, this film looks wonderful. Shot in just 26 days, entirely against blue screen on High-Definition digital cameras, everything you see is computer-generated and it all looks stunning. Every scene has it’s own highly-stylised look and feel; the warm, flickering browns and gold of Radio City Music Hall, the gunship–grey-blue of New York, the verdant jungle of Shangri-la — you could take any frame of the film and, well, frame it. It’s not just the landscapes, either — the fleet of giant robots that attack New York look magnificent, as do the smaller versions with snake-like limbs that appear later.
There are a lot of nice touches as well, such as a spotlight focus on important scraps of paper, and visible radio waves. The Sky Captain himself appears to be part of a ’30s International Rescue operation—even appears to have himself his own Tracy Island. There’s a single mention of “Sky Captain and his Army for Hire” which I thought was a nice, cute way to refer to mercenaries. Sadly, as I was hoping for a lot of hot Spitfire Vs. Giant Robot action, we don’t get to see this army doing much more than exploding, while parked.
The plot is about as deep as you’d expect it to be — missing scientists, a roving reporter, a pilot, a rescue. Casting is a little dubious. While Giovanni Ribisi is fine as the geeky technician Dex Dearborn, and Michael Gambon is underused as the newspaper editor Morris Paley, Jude Law’s Joe Sullivan doesn’t make a huge impact, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Polly Perkins does her best but appears to be a bit lost on occasion. If director Kerry Conran was aiming for another Harrison Ford/Karen Allen (or even a Brendan Fraser/Rachel Weisz) pairing, then he missed the mark. Law is no chisel-jawed American hero, and Paltrow is more film noir than pulp SF.
Omid Djalili provides the obligatory ‘Comedy Ethnic Minority’ performance, and Angelina Jolie’s lips also star briefly. Laurence Olivier is resurrected with archive footage for the part of Dr. Totenkopf, which is either inspired or tacky. I’m undecided. Still, Angelina Jolie, eh? Mmm.
References to other SF classics abound. Not only do the small robots use the same sound as the death beam in the 1953 cinematic War of the Worlds, but when the large robots invade New York, Perkins is reporting to Paley, and her line is “They’ve reached Sixth Avenue… they’ve reached Fifth Avenue… they’re a hundred yards away…” — this is a line from Orson Welles’ 1938 radio version of War of the Worlds, spoken by Ray Collins as he reports the advance of the Martian tripods. There’s a quick reference to Godzilla, and several references to King Kong (the 1933 original, of course). Conran is a man who knows his sci-fi.
Ultimately, this is a film that lacks the sparkling script and stars of an early George Lucas or Steven Spielberg matineé, but it comes with looks so good you’ll want to lick them.