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.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
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 Blu-ray and HD DVD are 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 Blu-ray is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray 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 Blu-ray picture quality.
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. The DTS track is perhaps slightly smoother, but the action scenes make excellent audio demo material on either track.
Subs & Dubs:
Taken from the DVD are:
In choosing which High-Def format to purchase, the only noticeable difference between the Blu-ray and the HD DVD is that the Blu-ray includes an amusing but insubstantial easter egg clip that I don't believe is present on the HD DVD. The picture, sound, and extras are otherwise indistinguishable, so feel free to pick it up on whichever format you prefer.