Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Modern Makings of a Retro Revival

Sometimes, a major landmark can arise from humble beginnings. Such is the case for filmmaker Kerry Conran and what he managed to achieve. Growing up, Kerry developed a strong affinity for the films and comic books from the ’30s and ’40s. Those influences would continue on as he attended college at CalArts to study animation. As he did, he realized something: some of the techniques used in animation could be applied to a live-action film. However, he felt that no studio would take a gamble on his idea, so he decided to make it independently. Using blue-screens set up in his living room, he shot a teaser trailer for a film about a skilled pilot that harkened back to the pulp adventures he so loved. That initial teaser caught people’s attention, inspiring them to join the project based upon the singular vision at play.  This project would grow, with production unfolding in front of blue screens at a digital effects studio and made with independent money. Little did anyone know the impact that would be made by Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which is not only a fun throwback to two-fisted tales but also one of the first-ever films to be shot entirely in front of blue- and green-screens.

In 1930s New York City, reporter Polly Perkins is hot on the trail of a bizarre case: a select group of scientists seem to be disappearing, one by one. Receiving a message from a scientist named Walter Jennings, she learns that he is next and that the mastermind behind these abductions is a man known as Totenkopf. However, before she can get much farther, New York City is beseiged by a bizarre sight: an army of giant mechanical men. With the police’s weapons proving ineffective against these giant robots, one hero is called into battle: Joe Sullivan, an ace pilot also known as Sky Captain. Though Sky Captain and his team of pilots and researchers have been tracking these giant robots around the globe, it is Polly who has the info that offers a real clue as to their nature and mission. The one hurdle to this, however, is that Joe and Polly have broken up and are still somewhat bitter with each other. Still, they have to work together if they want to get to the bottom of this mystery and find out just what is the nefarious plan that Totenkopf has been scheming.

First of all, the movie is a delight. It relishes the sort of old-school action and theatrics that used to fill the silver screen in weekly serials. The cast is also game for this sort of tale as well, from Jude Law as the smug and confident Sky Captain to Gwyneth Paltrow as intrepid reporter Polly Perkins. There is even a nice turn from Giovanni Ribisi as Dex, Sky Captain’s go-to gadgeteer genius. They all embrace these classic pulp archetypes, breathing life into them with a modern sensibility even as their performances recall styles of old. The film’s story also brings together a nice mixture of various pulp elements. Mad scientists, old-fashioned robots and ray guns, and even a dash of rumored mysticism all come together with a modern craftsmanship. Even Sky Captain himself, being an ace pilot with a whole squadron that serves under him, comes from a pulp adventure archetype that is not as in vogue anymore. The mixture of these elements come together in a way that almost makes the movie feel like a two-fisted tale that had fallen through the cracks and slipped into obscurity. However, it is not only the writing that harkens back to this style. It is also the visual element, one of the most stand out parts of this film.

For Kerry Conran’s vision, he wanted to make something that really felt like the old adventure serials and pulp comic books from the ’30s and ’40s. As such, the design aesthetic for the film offers a heavy influence from the time. For instance, two major influences were architects Norman Bel Geddes and Hugh Ferriss, both of whom had designed exhibits for the 1939 World’s Fair. New York City has the sort of Art Deco skyscraper architecture that Hugh Ferriss worked with, while Bel Geddes’s sleek and streamlined design styles present themselves in the futuristic machines used by Totenkopf. More than just those elements, the film itself feels like a previously forgotten work through the application of color. For much of the first part of the film, the color scheme has an almost black-and-white approach. Though there is the occasional dab of bright color, most of it is faded out. As the adventure ramps up, it shifts into a sepia tone-esque feel. Once Sky Captain and Polly Perkins reach the lair of Totenkopf, the color scheme is bright and almost recalls a softened version of Technicolor. It is a fascinating visual choice, one that not only recalls the look of cinema from years past but also serves as a subtle method of pulling the viewer in and grabbing their attention. It is a clever idea, and one that is well-realized by Conran’s choice to film the entire film in front of blue-screens. All of these components, from the Art Deco designs to the shifting color scheme, would have been an incredible challenge for an independent film production to pull off. Instead, Conran went with an inspired idea of shooting the whole movie in front of blue-screens. He showed the power of using a technical method not as a gimmick, but as a way of realizing a visual style and maintaining it. In short, he made a modern mark in cinema by trying to recapture a retro glory.

The idea of making an entire movie in front of green-screen or blue-screen is not as suprising these days. After all, when used properly, it can result in a distinctive and impressive visual style that might be hard to realize otherwise. As it stands here, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow uses that approach as part of a fun throwback to the two-fisted tales of the ’30s and ’40s.


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