Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a retro tribute to the old sci-fi serials by first time helmer Kerry Conran. The film was totally filmed in blue screen stages with minimal set pieces and props. Overall VFX Supervisors Darin Hollings and Scott E. Anderson, a former ILM member, were charged in creating a complete retro-futurist 1930s world full of mechanical wonders and rampaging robots with the help of an army of VFX facilities, which included ILM under the supervision of Tim Alexander.
The movie is a tribute to old serials and sci-fi films and tries to depict how the future was depicted in the early 20th century, it can be considered an alternate history film. Gwyneth Paltrow portrays star reporter Polly Perkins who researches the disappearance of the world's top scientists soon after huge robots attach the largest cities in the world. He is assisted by old flame "Sky Captain", portrayed by Jude Law, an adventurer and all around "hero". Rounding out the cast we have Giovanni Ribisi as a mechanic and Sky Captain's best friend, Angelina Jolie as Capt. "Franky" Cook of the British Navy, Michael Gambon as Polly's boss, Bai Ling as the right hand man, or rather woman of the mysterious villain, and Omid Djalili as a sidekick. As with pulps from previous time the characters are quite a bit stereotypical and melodramatic at time. There is not much depth to them but serve their purpose well. In particular the relationship between Sky Captain and Polly is very reminiscent of the Han Solo/Leia relationship in Star Wars: he is an adventurer, witty and daring while she is smart and feisty which brings some fun interplay between the characters.
The highlight of the film is in capturing the feel of those older movies. The film was originally slated to be black and white but later changed to be in color. In a bold move the elements were all first worked in B/W and then colorized, like much of the despised colorization efforts by Ted Turner. It actually does help in getting the right feel for the movie, though since quite a bit is film noirish, the muddled colors and dark environments sometimes makes it difficult to make out what we are looking. At least Conran was wise enough to keep the whole film in this retro style (story, acting, look, etc) which makes it worth enjoying it.
The one big problem with the film is that the story spirals out of control. New gimmicks and rules are tacked on top of the one established early on. Initially the world established is very similar to the 1930s of our world. But soon enough both heroes and villains start getting features which just conveniently advance the story. Sky Captain's plane can go underwater at full speed, which the more advanced robots can't do. You get ray guns, force fields, hover vehicles, holograms, genetically modified creatures and on and on. There seems to always be a new gadget when the characters get in a tight spot. The story as well is riddled with these deux ex machinas. Kidnapped scientists escape at the most convenient moment (though not really shown how) and the like. Near the end the film is like a giant house deck of cards which eventually tumbles down. You actually wonder why all that happened was necessary including why the robots needed to rampage the cities. It actually mimics Polly's situation. Halfway through the film she loses most of her film so she spares the few remaining shots. She keeps on not using them wondering if something more fantastic will show up with Sky Captain chiding her one. In the end the audience might feel the same way, the conclusion might not be entirely satisfying but the ride was worth it.
The facilities involved included Café FX, EFilm, Engine Room, Gray Matter, Hybride Technologies, ILM, Luma Pictures, The Orphanage, Pacific Title Digital, Pixel Liberation Front, Ring of Fire, R!OT, Rising Sun Pictures and Stan Winston Digital among others. The project originally started with an in-house VFX crew but after Paramount threw a ton of money to make the film bigger, better and a potential franchise, the work exploded exponentially.
One of the interesting aspects is that Conran shot the film all blue screen, including very conceptually simple shots as offices and city streets. This actually created and interesting duality in the film. The more invisible effects like the CG sets of, say an office, are incredibly detailed as to pass for the real thing you would be hard pressed to find any telling sign. This somewhat contrasts with the of the more fantastical nature like the immense robots and some of the creatures and locales shown later in the film. They are so over the top that they may contrast a bit too much with the subtleness of the other work. I wonder sometimes if either making those more realistic or more apparently CG (so as to evoke the more primitive effects of the era, say a high tech version of ships on wires) would have worked better. If anything brings the film together is Darin Hollings' work as he was in charge in making sure all the film had a consistent look. It also has the added feature that it helps integrate all the disparate elements of the film.
Such a massive undertaking was possible thanks to the work of Scott E. Anderson, a veteran of T2, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man. Many of the shots in the film contains elements from different studios, with background element from one, hero creatures from other, while composting might have been done by a third one. When more and more often projects are done with this extreme multi-house approach it satisfying to see that the logistical nightmare was conquered, because it's impossible to tell which elements came from different places and that they don't contrast with those that were self contained or mostly done by one house.
The Final Verdict
For those that appreciate the old B-movies, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a high-tech throwback to that era. While the films falls into some of the old traps and weaknesses of those films it also shares some of the same strengths, mainly that the voyage is a lot of fun and worth taking. The VFX might not be the most innovative in the year it's certainly one of the most memorable undertakings, with it bold visual style and complexity, something that sometimes is seriously lacking in many other efforts.