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Sky Captain and the World of Poo-poo Ca-ca
by Lucius Shepard
October 1, 2004

Kerry Conran, Time Magazine’s recent cover boy, is a 30s nerd. He loves gigantic robots (in fact, he loves everything gigantic), radio serials, decoder rings, Shangri-La legends, all that radio serial golly-gosh whizbang. He loves it so much he wrote a computer program that enabled him to create his world, a vision of the future as it might have been portrayed in a 30s edition of Popular Mechanics, and used it as backdrop for his movie, the first movie—ta-ra, ta-ra—to be shot entirely in front of blue-screen. A revolutionary breakthrough, we are told. Paramount was so enamored of this program that they gave Conran 70 million dollars to film his movie. The pity is that they didn’t give him an extra twenty bucks or so with which to purchase Ten Easy Steps to Directing Your Own Movie, because he might have utilized principles gleaned from a quick reading to good effect. He might, for instance, have trotted to the edge of the avant garde and given the movie a decent story; he might have acquired some basic information about editing, pacing, and building suspense; and, armed with this knowledge, he might have given us something other than the weightless, affectless cartoon entitled Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Sky Captain is obviously intended to impact an audience in the way of the Indiana Jones pictures, but by contrast to Jude Law’s Joe (Sky Captain), Harrison Ford’s Indy has the gravitas of Shakespearean tragedy. Sky comes off as kind of a Smiling Jack figure who buzzes around in a P-40 that doubles as a submersible and is painted to look like a shark; he has a private army, a nifty base, a genius pal named Dex (Giovanni Rbisi, who was better suited for his role as a “special person” in The Other Sister), and an ex-girlfriend by the name of Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a Lois Lane type who works for a great metropolitan newspaper and looks like Jean Harlow after a bout of anemia. They live in an Art Deco version of Manhattan where blimps dock at the top of skyscrapers. As the movie opens, the city comes under attack from an army of giant robots that resemble mobile gas pumps crossed with vacuum cleaners. Shortly thereafter, Sky’s base is attacked by winged mechanicals and smaller robots with whip arms that kidnap the faithful Dex . . .but not before he isolates a transmission coming from somewhere in the Himalayas (from a Tibetan uranium mine, as it turns out). Off go Sky and Polly to virtual Shangri La, a secret kingdom in the heart of the mountains where things blow up, etc., and then the plucky pair are off to King Kong’s island (complete with dinosaurs) to deal with Dr. Totenkopf (Death’s Head), who’s been kidnapping scientists and building a doomsday machine and like that . . .but first, they make a stop at an aerial base to refuel and pick up RAF Captain Franky Cook (an eye-patch-wearing Angelina Jolie), who is also an ex-girlfriend of Sky’s, the same who broke up Sky and Polly. Meow. With Franky’s help, using Sky’s P-40 in submersible mode, they penetrate to the interior of the island and discover that Totenkopf has built a spaceship ark—his robots are busy loading the animals two-by-two. Once the rocket reaches an altitude of 100 miles, the earth will be destroyed. How, we are not told, but according to the fragile logic of Conran’s script, it would probably go Poof!, like a bubble. Naturally Sky sets out to thwart this plan and, after battling an evil robot in the guise of an Asiatic woman, after finding that Totenkopf is long since dead, surviving as the televized image of Lawrence Olivier, he does.

So much for the plot.

We’re apparently supposed to forgive Conran for his woefully thin, sublimely stupid story because it’s an homage; but Indiana Jones was an homage, a successful one, whereas Sky Captain comes across as a too-precious form of nostalgia and an homage to bad scripts.

Perhaps we’re supposed to overlook the absence of story because of Conran’s revolutionary breakthrough. Well, the first shadowy scenes of the movie are pretty enough, but the sepia tones and soft focus necessary to mask the blue-screen superimpositions rapidly become tedious and are not always successful, often leaving the actors each with discernable aura. The question we have to ask ourselves, in relation to this revolutionary breakthrough, is do we need a better means of making a living comic book than we already have? Do we really want American theater screens to become more thickly populated with Scooby Doos and Spidermen, with features that reflect high production values and an utter lack of substance? If Sky Captain were the only film of its kind, or one among few, it might expect a more favorable reception, but it is merely another in an unending line of undistinguished entertainments that constitute an assault by the legions of Mammon upon our intelligence and our culture, that—if successful—will reduce our children and their children’s children to idiot proles with the average IQ of stuffed animals, who, after centuries of bumbling about and bungling even the simplest tasks, will produce generations of devolved humanity who gradually will lose the ability to stand erect, giving birth in turn to a final generation of tiny beetle-like creatures with the semblance of human faces imprinted on their carapaces who will crawl over the immense trash heap beneath which civilization lies buried, rubbing their mandibles so as to create drones lamenting some basic fact or condition of life to which they are no longer privy and of which only this pitiful reflex remains. But this is of no matter. All flesh is grass. The passing of our civilization, some three or four centuries distant, need not concern us.

On to the next movie.