We're in love-it-or-hate-it territory here, folks. Kerry Conran's delirious fever dream homage to movie serials of old, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, is such a silly, light-hearted lark of a film that I almost can't believe how much it polarizes most viewers. Nonetheless, it seems to be the type of movie that people either "get", or they really, really don't. I am unapologetically in the former camp. The movie is flawed, certainly, but it's a total blast to watch.
Using the latest in digital filmmaking tools, Conran has assembled a loving tribute that perfectly captures the retro-futuristic tone and style of those Saturday matinee classics with titles like Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Radar Men from the Moon, or Zombies of the Stratosphere. Set in an alternate-universe 1939 straight out of comic books, the story finds intrepid girl reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) investigating the disappearance of several prominent scientists. Just as she catches her first good lead, hordes of gigantic robots invade New York City, stomping the futile police resistance and blasting Manhattan to pieces with their powerful death rays! The city's only hope is dashing ace pilot (and Polly's former flame) Sky Captain (Jude Law, doing his best Errol Flynn). With his flying legion of high-tech aerial mercenaries and support from nerdy gadget master Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), the Cap' must rescue the damsel in distress, battle the robots away from the city streets, and trace this dastardly scheme back to mad scientist Dr. Totenkopf in his secret Himalayan fortress. On the way he'll encounter spies, traitors, android assassins, dinosaurs, and fantastical technology beyond imagining!
The plot: ridiculous and irrelevant. The dialogue: deliberately corny. The performances: appropriately stilted (have you ever seen an actual Buster Crabbe serial?). Sky Captain is a movie about and in love with movies, and those expecting traditional suspension-of-disbelief sci-fi action adventure will probably leave disappointed. The whole movie is disbelief piled upon greater disbelief, intentionally so. The picture is more art film than summer blockbuster fare, not that the studio's marketing department wanted anyone to know that. Shot in "digital backlot" style, whereby the actors themselves are pretty much the only live-action part of the production, with everything else (sets, props, even lighting) animated in by computer later, the footage was initially rendered in glorious black & white and then subtly colorized with diffuse tones and mostly monochromatic tinting. The effect gives the film an otherworldly quality, like a dreamy reminiscence of old movies filtered through modern technology.
Gleefully crafted by and for film geeks, the movie is overloaded with cinematic references to everything from early classics like A Trip to the Moon to modern B-picture garbage such as Freddy vs. Jason. Practically every frame contains overt or hidden references spanning the entire history of filmmaking and 20th Century pop culture: King Kong, Godzilla, Fleischer's Superman cartoons, Star Wars, Leni Riefenstahl, Battleship Potemkin, War of the Worlds, Lost Horizon, various WWI and WWII pictures, Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, Lost in Space, and countless pulp novels and comic books. You name it, it's probably in there somewhere. Conran meticulously recreated Skull Island before Peter Jackson did. Just trying to pick out all of the allusions is a game that will require many viewings. It also has, in Dex's ray gun, the coolest movie image in years (one that makes a hilarious reappearance near the end).
What Sky Captain lacks, unfortunately, are a strong narrative and compelling characters. It was never meant to be that type of movie, of course, but a modern viewer still longs for them. Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, similarly paid studious homage to adventure serials but also transcended them to make a true modern classic. Sky Captain's ambitions aren't that high, and truth be told its pacing drags a bit in the middle. It's a fun movie, perhaps even visionary in style and execution, but just doesn't have that spark of greatness. Still, not every movie needs to be a masterpiece. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is breezy, lightweight entertainment, and a real treat for movie buffs.
The HD DVD:
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow debuts on the HD DVD as one of the premiere launch titles from Paramount Home Entertainment.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Sky Captain HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly opened up to fill a 16:9 frame, with negligible impact to the composition.
Perhaps my expectations were just misplaced, but I wanted more from this video transfer. The movie is quite a visual feast for the eyes, and I really hoped it would shine in High Definition glory, but in direct comparison the HD DVD is virtually indistinguishable from the standard DVD edition. The movie has a deliberately soft and desaturated photographic style that's the major limiting factor here. There's only so much detail available in the original image, and most of it was captured pretty well in the DVD. If you really strain to look for it, there is slightly better clarity to things like the stubble on Jude Law's face or the textures of the few physical props, but the difference is so miniscule as to be usually unnoticeable. Don't get me wrong, the movie is beautiful in its way; it just doesn't look like High Definition.
The live action parts of the movie were shot on HD video and every single shot was digitally processed with extensive computer animation and color timing manipulation. I expect that the master used for this disc was likely a direct-digital transfer from the final data files. Somehow it looks too dark, though, with detail lost in the shadows. I don't remember that being an issue theatrically. Whites are also a little clipped, which may or may not be intentional. Being an all-digital production, there's no film grain anywhere in sight, nor are there any edge enhancement or compression artifacts. The last few scenes look the sharpest, and make the best case for improvement over the DVD. The disc looks fine for what it is and represents the intended style of the movie well, but isn't the HD eye candy you might hope for.
The Sky Captain HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 or DTS-HD 5.1 formats. Note that the "DTS-HD" track is not the "DTS-HD Master Audio" lossless format that HD DVD will some day be able to deliver. Regular "DTS-HD" is just a rebranding for standard DTS audio as found on DVD (the 1509 kb/s full bit-rate variety). I compared the DD+ and DTS tracks and they sounded mostly the same to my ears. The DTS track was perhaps slightly smoother and matrixes well into a rear center channel in a 6.1 audio system.
The movie has a terrific sound mix with lots of buzzing airplanes flying from speaker to speaker, crystal clear dialogue during even the noisiest of scenes, and an ungodly amount of deep, house-shaking bass. Lossless or not, the action scenes make excellent audio demo material.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French DD+ 5.1 or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. Almost all of the supplements from the DVD edition have been carried over, plus a couple of new ones exclusive to this HD DVD. All features are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression, except the trailers which are encoded in High Definition using VC-1.
Taken from the DVD are:
The only thing that seems to be missing from the DVD is the very funny easter egg behind-the-scenes clip. If that's hidden somewhere on the HD DVD, I wasn't able to find it (the clip can be found on the Blu-ray edition, but I still don't see it on the HD DVD). New to the High-Def formats are:
- Audio Commentary by producer Jon Avnet - A very intelligent, interesting discussion of the production aspects of making this movie, from the casting and financing to the logistics of shooting.
- Audio Commentary by writer/director Kerry Conran and the VFX Crew - A surprisingly dull track that's meant to be highly technical but amounts to a lot of repetitive comments like, "All of this was shot in front of a blue screen" and "That set didn't really exist". There's little mention of the story or the references and influences that drive the film.
- Brave New World: Chapter 1 (28 min.) – An excellent making-of documentary about the "digital backlot" process and the development phases that the film went through. This is a serious, sober examination of the hard labor that goes into filmmaking, not the usual promotional nonsense we get on most DVDs.
- Brave New World: Chapter 2 (23 min.) – The second half of the above.
- The Art of the World of Tomorrow (8 min.) – A look at the art deco comic book style of the film, both in its production design and costumes.
- The Original Six Minute Short - The no-dialogue short film that convinced producers and the studio to back the feature version. The short is presented in its original black & white, but in non-anamorphic letterbox format.
- Deleted Scenes (5 min.) – Two short scenes, one mostly finished and the other largely not. Dialogue from both scenes was later incorporated into other parts of the movie, so neither was much needed.
- Gag Reel (2 min.) – A combination of bloopers and some animated silliness.
What this disc desperately needs but doesn't have is a pop-up trivia track to point out all the cinematic references in the movie.
- Anatomy of a Virtual Scene (8 min.) – An interesting breakdown of the visual effects compositing process.
- Theatrical Trailers - Three trailers are provided in High-Def. The last two are nearly identical. None of them sells the film particularly well. Only the first one comes close to capturing its kitschy retro appeal. The others try to promote it as a straightforward summer sci-fi blockbuster, which the movie clearly is not.
No interactive features have been included.
I'm in the "Love it" camp on Sky Captain, but am disappointed to find that the HD DVD isn't much of an upgrade over the standard DVD. The picture quality is (somewhat understandably) nearly identical and the sound is likewise only a modest improvement. The disc has a couple of new bonus features, but none that compel a repurchase in and of themselves. Because I like the movie so much I'll recommend it, with the disclaimer that the picture doesn't work for everyone and some audiences expecting traditional sci-fi thrills really dislike it. You have to be in the right frame of mind, and you'll have to decide that for yourself.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Blu-ray)
Flash Gordon (Region 2 DVD)
HD Review Index
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player
Toshiba HD DVD Product Introduction Event