Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, March 15, 2010

Prepare the amphibious squadron!

A heady compendium of fanboy history and Weird Tales cover tunes, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (2004) seems retro-actively retro-futuristic again after the art deco zeppelin action of Pixar's UP divided by AVATAR's use of CGI live action combo plattering. Kudos galore should be paid to SKY's writer-director Kevin Konran--a CGI art director by trade who got to make this feature after wowing the brass with a 12 minute short version.  He's a great collage maker, is what it boils down to, but he's no Brad Bird or Joss Whedon. In fact, he's more a Tim Burton with less box office mojo.

For SKY CAPTAIN, Konran melds lots of post-modern image collages into his rather non-existent story, about a crazy Nazi scientist who's plotting to blow up the earth, or something, and has armies of giant robots that fly and stuff, to get 'er done. This would all be well and good, except then in comes our hero, Sky Captain (Jude Law) to save the (yester)day. This bloke's a sort of David Manners pretending he's Clark Gable in TOO HOT TO HANDLE and smarmy. Law can do smarmy without being too offensive, you don't send a gigolo robot (in AI, below) to do a man's job, unless you forgot what a 1930s ubermensch is all about.

Now, I admire Jude Law as an actor, not cuz he's pretty and dates (dated?) Sienna Miller, but because he's fearless in the face of his acknowledged limitations--he's trapped in a room full of mirrors. Annette Bening is the same way, for example, and it doesn't make her a bad actress, because she too can be aware enough of it to bring some existential reflection as to her inability to existentially reflect into the mix. And like Bening going full harridan in AMERICAN BEAUTY, Law's not afraid to dig deep into his inner creep (he was the best thing in Mendes' BEAUTY-follow-up, ROAD TO PERDITION, below).  Thus we'd believe him as the villain (or as an ambiguous nebula of audience alienation/identification, as in ALFIE and CLOSER), but when Law wearily informs his bitchy reporter girlfriend Polly (Gwenyth Paltrow): "I spent six months in a Manchurian labor camp thanks to you!" we don't believe him, because his nails are too perfect.  This is not a Captain Midnight-esque hero whose flown against robots and almost died a thousand times; this is a man speaking to a blue screen.  His voice is too silky and full of breathing exercise-nuance to have the forceful "I could give a shit"-ativeness that comes with tru gravitas (check out the way Clive Owen outguns him in their dueling douchebag dialogue in CLOSER). For starters, this guy should be smoking a cigar at all times.

I blame Law's miscasting for the film's lagging stretches, since he just doesn't have that John Wayne / Bogart quality where you feel kind of in the thrall of their competence. If he had it, then maybe his leading lady wouldn't have grown so obnoxious and curt (Paltrow was pregnant during filming which may explain that as well) in his presence. Before Law shows up (about 15 minutes in) she's doing all right. Although a scene where she's running down Broadway chased by giant robots is soooo unconvincing. There's a cutaway shot to Paltrow ripping her skirt so she can run that seems spliced in from a different movie, but before that she intones lines from Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast like she's listened to that broadcast as many times as I have, which is a lot, and so she's a "hell of an actor." She and Michael Gambon (her paternal newspaper editor) get off some shadowy underplaying before the fireworks begin.

And then proving the movie could work with some gravitas, you have Angelina Jolie show up halfway through or so as "Freddie", a one-eyed hottie version of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. A small part perhaps, but informs us that "In preparation for her role, Angelina Jolie met with and interviewed dozens of British WWII veterans and pilots in order to adapt the proper mannerisms of her character. She also tweaked the script by adding bits of slang that were used during the era."

Hey Jude, why didn't you do that!? Jolie knows it's the little things mean a lot, Sky Captain. When she delivers a line like "Prepare the amphibious squadron!" you know what's up. You want to go prepare the amphibious squadron just for her, on your knees!

The music score is a bombastic piece of ripoffery, of course, and the sound effects and layered imagery are so over the top that at times it feels like there's an almost Brechtian disconnect, with nothing ever matching up. Still, the fractured nature of it all works to make us unable to focus on the actual story, which depending on the environment in which you see the film (it would be perfect at Radio City Music Hall or some Art Deco facsimile) can give it a meta-textual sense of breathing room. The result is like some Brechtian playwright being forced to write pulp fiction, or Godard reading smutty spy novels over the (non) action in SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL. Heavy use of words onscreen, oceans come with esoteric compasses layered above the waves, everything crashing around like a "Why We Fight" entry replete with Churchill-esque radio broadcasts about how only Sky Captain can get to the bottom of this "series of events."

The heavy (cost-effective?) use of black and blurry edge recalls the pages of Heavy Metal and the old Marvel rip-off of that title, Epic! Not that I didn't love both. Epic was a kind of tweener version, the last stop before the unapologetic R Rating of Heavy Metal. But it lacks the minimalist angst of the Frank Miller SIN CITY adaptation, or the comic book boisterousness of Peter Jackson's KING KONG remake.

But it's got the light and dark thing down pat. If you keep your expectations low it can be like reading Weird Tales while hiding from your parents in a dank basement, with two once-cool friends who are now a couple and just bicker all the time and think they're being amusing though you just want to give them both a bitch-slap. But then Angelina Jolie comes along and you forgive stuff, like how it all reminds you of having an interesting movie interrupted by a daft date going "Who? What? What remote island? What? Why" as you're trying to get lost in the narrative.  But it's a great movie to watch while your doing other things and though Konran is not quite as hilarious as Bruce McCall (below) when it comes to seeing through the cracks of rose-tinted nostalgia to the big emptiness of the Adobe photoshop real, I'd rather watch this again anytime than return to the smug wordiness of Pynchon's Against the Day. 


  1. That line is pure magic. I felt the same way when Eric Bana said "Prepare the red matter!" in the new Star Trek film. Not the preparing-it-on-my-knees thing; just that, flaws and all, it was my kind of movie.

  2. This was a great write up.

    But sorry dude, no one fucks with Against The Day!

  3. Bryce I applaud your apparent enthusiasm, since it indicates you've actually read the thing all the way through; I imagine it must be better if you actually read it. I gave up at 30 pages, suddenly painfully aware that all fiction is just made up and that the hipster steampulp thing is especially hard to "disappear" into, the same problem SKY CAP has.

    And thanx you Samuel, I'm trying to remember the "red matter" scene from Star Trek, and getting it mixed up with ALIAS which had red matter too, and was also by J.J. Abrams, and therefore must be the same red matter. Someone must have put too many maraschino cherries in my manhattan cocktails last night, as WC once said.

  4. Pynchon's latest book, a extended riff on THE BIG LEBOWSKI is much better, IMO... not as impenetrable either.

    I really love this film on purely a visual level. I really can't disagree with your criticisms but love the film in spite of them.

    Good call on the miscasting of Law. I still can't believe he wasn't cast as Ozymandias in the WATCHMEN film, a role he would have been perfect for. But as far as SKY CAPTAIN goes, I would've loved to have seen Nathan Fillion cast. He would've brought some of that Han Solo-smarminess that made watching SERENITY such a delight.

  5. Well i certainly can't fault you for that. Pynchon is definitely an acquired taste.


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