I was always such a big fan of movie serials and pulp superheroes even before my initiation in to comic books. I loved characters like Superman and The X-Men, but I also loved The Shadow, Commander Cody, and the Green Hornet. Some of those heroes made up some of my most entertaining fantasies, and it wasn’t a big adjustment considering most of the nineties’ superhero movies were mainly adaptations of pulp heroes like “The Phantom” and “The Rocketeer.” Kerry Conran remains one of the most prophetic filmmakers of all time.
He predicted a period of filmmaking where the filmmakers would be almost always and sometimes completely dependent on the art of CGI and virtual landscapes. Even during his development of “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” in 2004, Conran was ostracized, and analyzed by many skeptics for his choice of making a pet project almost completely from CGI. He even drew groans for visually reviving movie icon Laurence Olivier in CGI for the sake of his own film. Fifteen years later, Conran is no longer the pariah and now has been sadly left in the dust as Hollywood has spent so many dollars building massive blockbusters from CGI.
Everything from “Avatar,” and “Tron Legacy’s” CGI terrain, to the popularity of de-aging technology, to reviving classic movie stars, all owe a debt to Conran, who paved the way with the under-appreciated gem “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” The original black and white teaser for the movie took Conran four years with a bluescreen set up in his living room and with the use of a Macintosh IIci. It took almost 100 digital artists, modelers, animators, and compositors created the multi-layered 2D and 3D backgrounds for the live-action footage, while the entire film was sketched out via hand-drawn storyboards and then re-created as CG animatics.
This was for a project that apparently no other studio wanted to finance for, perhaps, the immense undertaking it was. And yet, here we are fifteen minutes later with folks like Robert Rodriguez and Zack Snyder basically taking the credit for the method with films like “Sin City” and “300.” Where’s the big dedication to Conran, fellas? Conran seemed like he was attempting to build a movie series that could aspire to be “Indiana Jones” for a new generation while also turning them on to the classic serials. While “Indiana Jones” took so much from classic films from the thirties and serials with its various chapters and colorful enemies, “Sky Captain” seemed to aim for the stars. In 1903 New York City, famous scientists around the world have mysteriously disappeared and “Chronicle” reporters Polly Perkins, and ace aviator Sky Captain, are both on the investigation.
Risking their lives as they travel to exotic places around the world, can the fearless duo stop Dr. Totenkopf, the evil mastermind behind a plot to destroy the earth? Aided by Franky Cook, commander of an all-female amphibious squadron, and technical genius Dex, Polly and Sky Captain may be our planet’s only hope. “Sky Captain” took so much influence and aesthetics from Steampunk, the Fleischer Brothers, Will Eisner’s Blackhawk, Captain Midnight, “The Wizard of Oz,” Commander Cody, and even Hayao Miyazaki.
In an age where audiences are so much more welcoming of films that pay homage to classic cinema and pop culture, “Sky Captain” sadly arrived ten years too early. Who’s to say what would have been its success story?
But when Indiana Jones still holds big clout among movie buffs and superhero movies are big tickets, perhaps “Sky Captain” might have had a fighting chance. No studios were willing to take it on and bring the property in to full franchise mode at the time, which is a shame considering Disney keeps trying to revive “Tron” over and over and over ad nauseum. There’s so much potential here and Kerry Conran embraces everything great about old pulp novels and serials. The cities are massive metropolis’ good guys wear bright colors, bad guys wear dark colors, and the Nazis are nasty bastards. Despite a tough process, Conran brings on board an incredible cast like Jude Law, Giovanni Ribisi, Angelina Jolie, Michael Gambon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Bai Ling.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” aims for nothing more than a very entertaining and whimsical journey in to a whole other world brought together by big machines, giant robots and flying commandos, all of whom inevitably find their way to the villainous Dr. Totenkopf aka The Wizard. Jude Law is dashing as the heroic Sky Captain who works alongside plucky Polly Perkins, an obvious stand in for heroines like Lois Lane. Conran even paves the way ahead of its time diversity interesting heroines like the enigmatic Franky who has her own past with Sky Captain, as well as “Mysterious Woman,” the villainous agent played by Bai Ling.
The big gag around “Sky Captain” is that Polly is a reporter with a camera that has only one shot left in its roll. Throughout the entire movie she’s looking for the perfect shot to end the roll on, and Conran graces us with a great twist in the final scene that still inspires a big guffaw from me to this day. In a perfect world, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” would probably be on a Deluxe Edition with the third film “Sky Captain and the Flying Saucers” hitting theaters to much fan fare. Sadly, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” remains that fascinating gem tucked in to the fantasy genre in the early aughts, lost in the haze of “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars.”
Fifteen years later, it’s a marvel of CGI filmmaking, creative filmmaking, and just downright excellent fantasy based storytelling all around. I wish the film world would catch up to it and give it its due. Hopefully someday, someone will rediscover the groundwork Kerry Conran laid for a whole industry of filmmaking and blockbusters, and appreciate the ambitious, exciting, and wholesome genre masterpiece he gave to audiences once upon a time.