Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow


We just spent a week in North Bend, Oregon, looking after Lee’s mom, who suffered a small stroke a while ago. I didn’t have a lot to do, so I did something I don’t do a lot of these days: went to see two movies in actual movie theaters. The first was De-Lovely, because I like musicals on the big screen. This was the second, and we caught the very first showing at the old Egyptian Theatre in Coos Bay, a genuine movie palace built in 1924, complete with $30,000 pipe organ (in 1924 dollars!) which is seldom played these days, and were given a tour backstage by the manager when he saw Lee taking pictures of the interior. The old Vaudevillian flyloft was still intact, with painted backgrounds hanging high in the air, no longer usable because the movie screen is fixed in place. The only change they’ve made to the place is to enclose the balcony to make two small theaters upstairs, as has been done to just about all the old movie houses these days. It doesn’t really affect the look of the place much, and everything is still in amazingly good shape.

Sky Captain is the perfect film to see in these surroundings. Talk about retro! Famously, the entirely film was shot against blue screens and the scenery was dubbed in later, by computer, possibly the first film to use this technique for every scene, though increasingly SFX films use it for up to half of a film these days. (Carrie Fisher remarked way back when the first Star Wars was released that it was weird to have to react to something George Lucas told her would be happening when he morphed it in, and I heard Gwyneth Paltrow say the same thing a few days ago. I had thought most actors would be used to it by now.) I assume there were a few props here and there, and they probably had a mock-up of a P-40 fuselage and wing for Sky Captain Joe to walk around on. But the rest was all CGI.

Right from the very first, a scene of the Hindenburg III docking with the Empire State Building in some alternate 1939, you know you’re in for something different. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow deliberately sets out to get the look of those old science fiction covers from the 1930s, right down to the fading that has happened to all but the most well-preserved copies. Much of the movie is almost black-and-white, sepia-toned, infinite shades of brown—except for Gwyneth Paltrow’s luscious red lips. That is combined with the story sense of the movie serials of that era and later, with scenes that you will remember, in a much more primitive version, from feature-length movies of that time. Here you’ll see it all. Giant robots in a dozen varieties. Zeppelins, propeller-driven giant aircraft carriers hovering at 10,000 feet. Gleaming spaceships and ray guns and just about everything but bug-eyed monsters and half-clad screaming women. Also, of course, a clichéd plot and dialogue that is strictly B-movie, but with some sly digs here and there. The very last line is a great one.

It worked wonderfully for me, visually. I am not sure how it will be received by those who didn’t grow up with the pulps and the movie serials. It is all very dark and sometimes fuzzy and impressionistic, almost a whole new look for a movie. The director re-created New York City of 1939; now I’d like to see the same sensibility brought to a wholly imagined city, as in Things to Come, or The Triplets of Belleville.