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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Special Collector's Edition

Paramount // PG // January 25, 2005
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted January 23, 2005 | E-mail the Author

The Movie

Picture this: an action-adventure film using state-of-the-art technology to produce some of the most striking visuals ever committed to film. Utilizing powerful computers, blue screens, and minimalist stages and sets, an entire virtual world is created in which live-action actors perform, having to rely on their intrinsic acting talents to imagine a universe available only within the digital realm. There is a story here, but it's certainly dominated by striking visuals and dazzling special effects which bring a wholly imaginative and brightly detailed universe to life. The film is shot but the visuals take months to render, while the marketing machine begins to ramp up interest by promising audiences a world they've never seen before. Finally the film is released to theaters, and critical reaction is mild while audiences are mostly indifferent. The most common criticisms include the all-too-common complaint that there's simply not enough engaging story and solidly defined characters to complement the impressive visual effects and lush virtual environments. The movie ends up with lukewarm box-office receipts, and is relegated to the historical position of "ambitious disappointment" or "flawed experiment", although a small but vocal group remains enchanted by the film and continues to espouse its various positive elements.

The movie I am referring to, of course, is Tron, Disney's 1982 sci-fi/action movie which failed to reach a mass audience but remained entrenched in the heart of popular culture for decades. Perhaps such a similar fate awaits 2004's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a gorgeous-looking, ground-breaking, but puzzlingly mild action-adventure flick that thrills and dazzles with its impressive look and feel, but as an action film seems a little less freewheeling and engaging than it should.

The movie was shot entirely on blue-screen sets, with environments, set pieces, and backgrounds rendered entirely via computer animation. The end result certainly presents the audience with something that, quite frankly, they have never seen before on screen. Aping the atmosphere of 1930s serials, pulp legends, just a dash of the late Will Eisner's sense of layout, and replete with boatloads of superheroic derring-do, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow certainly aspires to be a fun and lavish throwback to the great action flicks of yesteryear. The action scenes certainly deliver: the film begins with a slambang giant robot invasion, and then continues with a slambang flying robot invasion, and then the action shifts to... well, let's not give the whole store away. The black-and-white feel of the opening scene suddenly opens up into a whole world of color and environments. Snow, jungles, secret bases... the works. We've got dogfights, fistfights, rockets, daring escapes, life-or-death cliffhanger struggles, laser guns, underwater escapades, evil geniuses and their various henchmen, and every other charming and exciting plot/action device you can imagine.

But we don't have any real characters to cheer behind and root for. As the title character, Jude Law certainly looks the part and retains the charisma of the dashing Golden-Age hero, but he's nothing more than an empty page. He's ostensibly the "good guy"... and that's pretty much it. Not much can be said about Gwyneth Paltrow, who, as the plucky reporter/love interest Polly Perkins, seems to be slightly bored with the film. Paltrow is certainly a talented actress, but she's never quite endearing or believable in her role. In fact, she's quite lifeless. There is little chemistry between her and Law; they're going through the motions of portraying a dynamic duo wrought with romantic tension and competitive one-upmanship, but their snappy repartee is never entirely believable or entertaining. Only Angelina Jolie, as the cool, austere Captain Franky Cook, provides some serious spunk and life to her role (the fact that she looks so amazingly hot in black leather doesn't hurt either), but her participation in the film, although memorable, is all too brief.

The plot itself is fairly rote. Set sometime around the 1930s/40s, the story begins with reporter Polly Perkins investigating the disappearance of several leading scientists around the world. Soon afterwards, New York City is invaded by a host of giant robots, heading towards the city's generators and destroying everything in their path. Flying ace Sky Captain is sent to do battle against the evil automatons, and the plucky duo is soon dispatched to find out why these robots have been attacking and stealing various resources around the world, determine the location of the mission scientists, and pretty much save the world from despair and destruction.

That's... basically it. First-time writer/director Kerry Conran based Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow on a 6-minute short which took 4 years to create on a Macintosh computer in his garage, which lends the film a sort of scrappy, home-brewed charm. Unfortunately, his technical and creative skills dwarf his directorial flair. There's a bit too much flatness to much of the characters and pacing; while the actions scenes clearly excite, the "down time" is just that – the movie skids to a halt. There's nothing inherent to this film which anchors you to its characters or situations, although you still end up enjoying the spectacle of the entire ordeal. This is an adventure film that looks like nothing you've ever seen before, but it's somewhat lifeless characters and perfunctory storyline sink the film into ho-hummery. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is worth seeing for its visuals, action scenes, and stylish inventiveness, but the lack of clearly engaging story and character content severely drag the film down.



Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and has been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen-viewing enjoyment. This is a magical looking transfer that clearly shows off the film's dazzling sense of visual wonderment. One must first get past the obvious aesthetic choices made in the film's presentation. Most (if not all) scenes have been digitally rendered and graded, filtered, and highly contrasted to provide a stylish and distinctive look. The film switches between black-and-white, brown-and-white, and color schemes that display vastly different hues and palettes, and all of them look magnificent. I detected no noticeable edge-enhancement, line noise, haloing, or blocking. Blacks were rich and solid, with fine shadow delineation (when needed!) and a strong film-like appearance (which, for a digital production, is quite a feat.) This is, overall, a fantastic transfer, and does tremendous justice to the beautiful visuals showcased in this film.


The audio impresses even more than the video. While the transfer retains a highly stylized, overly contrasted and thoroughly retro-futuristic look, the audio is pure Twenty-First Century. The Dolby Digital 5.1 transfer is nothing short of incredible, a rollicking, immersive, and thunderous experience that will impress even the most hardened of DVD critics who have had to sit through DVD after DVD and struggle to come up with new adjectives to describe mediocrity… which, thankfully, is not the case here. The soundfield is rich and immersive, balancing the aggressive immersion of the powerful action scenes with the sweeping lilts of the orchestral score and the quiet, ambient moments scattered throughout the picture. Directionality is pinpoint sharp, with copious amounts of balanced yet discrete imaging throughout. Surrounds and LFE are used often and used well to enhance the depth of the stage; the seamless integration of disparate channels is exceedingly impressive. Dialog is crisp and bright, demonstrating clarity and strength even while surrounded by the loud, engaging activity of the other channels. This is a knockout mix throughout, and will definitely be a contender for audio presentation of the year... does DVD Talk even have such a category? Curious...


AlthoughSky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is only a single-disc release, it comes with a host of extras. There are not one but two audio commentaries. The first features producer Jon Avnet, who details his involvement in the film, starting from his initial exposure to Avnet's six minute short and his determination to see this creation brought to life on the big screen. His commentary is mostly centered around the development of the project, covering such issues as the casting, securing financing, its filming, and post-production. Avnet is fairly low-key but talks animatedly and engagingly throughout the commentary. The same cannot be said for the second commentary, which features writer/director Kerry Conran, Production Designer Kevin Conran, animation supervisor Steve Yamamoto, and visual effects supervisor Darin Hollings. There are a lot of slow spots in this track, and the commentary itself, although containing some moderately interesting information, seems a little dry. Still, those who are extremely interested in the technical creation of this film will probably get much out of it.

Next up is Brave New World , a fifty-one minute video feature which is inexplicably divided up into two chapters. The feature is fairly engaging and interesting throughout, as a project of this magnitude is really screaming for a comprehensive "behind-the-scenes/how'd they do that" documentary. All of the main players involved with the film are featured, in which they share their thoughts and experiences behind the development of the project. The documentary is fairly exhaustive and provides a fascinating look at the film's unique development and creation.

The Art of World of Tomorrowruns just over eight minutes, and details the film's artistic design and development. Production designer Kevin Conran takes the center stage here, as he discusses his approach to the film's visual look, the influences on his design, and how he integrated his vivid imagination with a sense of functional design. Short but sweet, this is an enjoyable feature that felt like it could (and perhaps should) have continued for much longer.

Next up is the aptly-named The Original Six Minute Short, Kerry Conran's project that initiated the development of the feature film. It's almost a shot-for-shot recreation of the film's opening sequence, and the short itself is amazing in that it was the result of one man's many years worth of endeavors. Rounding up the supplements are two deleted scenes, running five minutes in length, entitled Totenkopf's Torture Room and The Conveyor Belt, a two-and-a-half minute gag reel, and preview trailers for Alfie, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Without A Paddle. Sadly enough, there is no trailer for the Sky Captain.

Final Thoughts:

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is, overall, a worthwhile film in the sense that it provides some fine action sequences and an inimitable sense of visual wonderment. Yet I just can't get past the flat characters and minimal plot. If even a fraction of the care and craft that went into designing the film's visual flair went into beefing up the script, dialogue, and direction, the movie would have, at the very least, gone down as one of the classic action/adventure films of the decade. Instead it remains a somewhat flat but still generally watchable movie.

Although I am slightly indifferent towards the film, the DVD itself is an absolute winner. The presentation is positively stellar, with a great transfer and a reference quality soundtrack. The amount of extras - two commentaries, an hour of documentary footage, the original short, and more - is staggering, and more than a little value-adding for fans of the movie. This is a terrific DVD which easily earns its Recommendation.

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