Looking Back at ‘Sky Captain’

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow title screen
Art Deco typeface and ominous clouds? I’m in.

I was rummaging around in my old files, and ran across a post I wrote in 2004, a rumination on the then-current movie, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which I quite liked, and which the entire world decided to shrug at and forget about. Fourteen years later, I think it’s worth reconsidering. So let’s take a look at some excerpts from my old post….

Sky Captain is very much like Star Wars; where Star Wars was a love letter to Flash Gordon, Captain Blood and Jack Kirby’s entire career, Sky Captain hearkens back to the older Buck Rogers, Blackhawk, the Fleischer Superman cartoons, and a big serving of Steranko’s “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” with passing references to King Kong and The Land That Time Forgot.

I fervently hope and pray that the creators of this film have heeded the lesson of Star Wars. They don’t need to go back and tell us the origins of all these things, they don’t have to make a sequel that takes us through the next decade. If they have a brain in their heads, they will leave well enough alone. It’s a fun movie; it doesn’t need to become a religion. Make a sequel if you must. Heck, make two. But whatever you do, don’t ever start referring to your wacky little alternate history as a “mythology.” That way lies madness.

So why do I care about this? Because I like the movie. Like Star Wars before it, this is a movie that intellectuals and artistic poseurs are going to flat-out hate. Those guys live for deconstruction. They want a movie they can dissect, full of subtext and hidden meanings. Sky Captain will disappoint those people. But anyone with a bit of joy, fun, wide-eyed wonder and optimism left will enjoy this movie. It has no sermon to deliver, no message to impart. Its goal is simply to entertain you for a while, and at that it succeeds admirably, if you’re the type of person who can be entertained by giant robots, laser guns, dinosaurs, a plucky reporter, or the occasional amphibious airplane. There’s nothing to deconstruct here. The late Lawrence Olivier appears here because it’s a nifty idea, not because somebody’s got some point to make. What I like about it is, there isn’t one single moment where the filmmakers smirk and wink and remind you how silly and childish all this is. They don’t apologize for the outlandish notions they toss out like popcorn. Rather, they embrace the nutty ideas and celebrate them, hauling ideas out and shouting “isn’t this COOL?” and making you want to shout a big “yes” in response. It is cool. It’s optimistic and fun, and I hope somebody has the good sense to not suck all that fun out for the sake of turning it into a safe and politically-fashionable cog in the marketing machinery.

Sky Captain and the ornithopters in flight.
Sky Captain and the ornithopters in flight.

Looking back, it’s disappointing that Sky Captain was a flop, but it’s probably for the best; if it had been a blockbuster hit, the sixth installment would be coming out now, the actors looking tired as they dutifully trudge through the obligatory toy commercial sequences, winking at references to previous episodes, mouthing their catch-phrases, while the CGI staff cranks up the effects sequences to try and top what came before. What started as a labor of love would have become a cynical machine grinding out content to promote the tie-in merchandise.

Instead, after languishing for over a decade, in recent years Sky Captain has begun getting recognized as the trailblazing film that it was; the first movie made with entirely CGI sets, it laid the groundwork for the modern eye-candy films that followed, from Sin City to Guardians of the Galaxy. Give it another five years and it’ll be regarded as a pioneering cult classic.

robots attack New York in 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow'.

A couple of acquaintances of mine worked on Sky Captain, one of whom is CG Lighting Designer Michael Sean Foley. When I told Michael Sean that I was working on this post, he immediately offered to put me in contact with Kevin Conran, the art director on the film, who is also director-creator Kerry Conran’s brother. Naturally we had to talk.

As it happens, Kevin has been putting together a book about the movie, and it’s coming out any minute now (you can pre-order it), so this inquiry of mine came at just the right time. Before we met in person, Kevin pointed me toward his Instagram account, which includes a number of cool images related to Sky Captain, including a photo of Franky’s cool bubble-helmet. (Rumor has it the helmet is for sale.) I also checked out his website, which has a great collection of concept drawings from Sky Captain and a bunch of other projects, including a demo reel for an aborted version of John Carter of Mars for Paramount, done several years before both the Disney version and the James Cameron version that was cleverly retitled Avatar.

And so it was that we pulled up stools at an Irish pub in South Pasadena and had a long conversation about Sky Captain, its influences, the process of getting it made, its impact, and the somewhat-remote-but-nonetheless-real possibility of a sequel or adaptation to other media. Because this was such a long and meandering conversation and this post is already getting too long, we’re going to have to extend it into a two- or three-part series. Here we go…

Android on bridge in 'Sky Captain'.
A callback to Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ with a creepy android.

Jim: I guess the big question is, I really thought the movie was going to be a big hit, but apparently you made it for me and twelve other people; what do you think is the reason why it wasn’t the next Star Wars?

Kevin Conran: Oh, I don’t think my brother and I ever thought it was going to be like Star Wars. We felt like it was very specific, and it would find the crowd it found, and I still think, maybe it had a better box office, but expectations changed early on. We were, in all honesty, we were just kind of making this thing, you know, in his apartment. It was just a very small idea that we thought we could pull off. So we never thought we’d get A-list stars or a big huge budget or fly to England to make it or anything; it was supposed to be a little quirky black & white movie with unknown people, and that’s all we really cared about.

Michael Sean Foley: But a big idea.

Conran: But when it became a much bigger thing, people didn’t understand that that’s still what it was, but now they wanted to call it a tent-pole movie, and they wanted to put it up against Spider-Man and stuff like that. That was never really fair. We weren’t competing at the same level. And it was never intended to be a tent-pole movie competing with Spider-Man. It was a movie that we told John Avnet we could make for three million dollars. Total. Not our fees, the entire production budget. And we could have, but for us to have done that, it would have had to remain a quirky little black & white movie with no-name people, and I think we would have been perfectly happy with that, and I think, frankly, had we done that, the whole thing might have rolled out differently. Because then that’s the kind of movie that some studio would have seen and said “oh, we gotta have you guys to do the next Spider-Man!” So, why people didn’t go in the numbers that people hoped, I don’t have a good answer for that, but I think I don’t care. I think a lot of people do appreciate the love and work we put into it. Just, it was positioned wrong. We weren’t a Marvel movie.

Angelina Jolie in 'Sky Captain'.
Angelina Jolie as Nick Fury — sorry, Franky Cook.

Jim: And that was just at the beginning of the big eye-candy tent-pole movie being a thing; there were only a few before that. The thing I’m interested in are the influences. 
The things that I saw… when I saw the movie, I said to my friends, “you gotta see this, this is ‘what if Lois Lane and Blackhawk teamed up with SHIELD to fight Fleischer’s giant robots in the Land That Time Forgot’?” and they would go, “I have to see that.” But the people who said “I have to see that” was about 10% of my friends. And a lot of people said “you said what to who now?”

Conran: Yeah. Well, all those things you mentioned were obviously things we did draw upon, ’cause we’re…

Jim: Nerdy as hell.

Conran: Nerdy as hell, yeah, for sure, but we didn’t feel like it was a kind of a thing that people had to know all the references to get the film. It was really more about the feeling. You know, I think that feeling came from… so when Kerry and I were growing up as little kids in Michigan, there was Channel 50 out of Detroit; it was an independent station, and they were the ones that showed the Three Stooges, or Laurel & Hardy Meet Whoever, and Flash Gordon. They would show these Flash Gordon serials; we’d run down and watch ’em before we’d go off to church. They were just fascinating. You could see the damn rocketship on the string….

Jim: With the sparks falling…

Conran: We didn’t care. It was incredible! I believed it. And we just loved that stuff. We were inspired by all that stuff. But it wasn’t really about being dyed-in-the-wool geeks where you could name chapter and verse of the comic book that Gwen Stacy died in or something like that. It was just the feeling, and we loved that feeling, and how it made us feel. I think that time is interesting to me because it felt like endless possibility. The time we played with in the movie was sort of coming out of World War II, cusp of it, somewhere int here, but I think it was an optimism maybe, coming out of that war, that doesn’t exist now.

Jim: We won. We won the good fight, we beat the bad guys, we’re the heroes of the world.

Conran: Yeah. Sure. And movies are, I think through most of my youth, high school, college, post college, a lot of cynicism to them. And we weren’t trying to make a cynical movie, obviously, it was a very light thing, but there was real affection for all the stuff, we weren’t just swiping things. They were things we actually cared about.

Jim: Oh no, I wouldn’t say that, I’m not meaning to say that it’s a collection of stuff all cobbled together, file the numbers off and call it original, like certain James Camerons I could name, but…

Conran: Yeah, we’ll talk about that in a minute too.

Jim: It was a genuine affection. If you knew this stuff, there was kind of a secondary “oh hey, that’s cool” y’know, easter egg factor, but even if you’ve never heard of any of these things, the things that made those things popular and successful in the first place still carry over, and you go “that is so cool!” Speaking of cool, aesthetically, it’s post-war, but most of the design feels pre-war; a lot of Art Deco, a lot of Raymond Loewy, and World’s Fair kind of…

Raymond Loewy, the man who designed the future.
Raymond Loewy, the man who designed the future.

Conran: Yeah, I looked at Loewy, I looked at everybody, but for me, what I really wanted to do with the design, because really, you could make the case that in a way that film had yet to do to that point in time, we were really building a world. Everybody throws that phrase around now when they make a Marvel movie, “world builders”; well, sorta, I guess. Kinda. It’s in New York City and you got a buncha Norse gods and radioactive teenagers and whatever ya got, but our world, we literally had to build. We weren’t going to go shoot it. It all had to work. And so we put a lot of attention to the idea that — for me anyway, I always talk about it as, like, what’s a real world look and feel like? So yes, we had planes flying underwater, and ray guns, and we have all kinds of stuff, but I want it to feel real, I want the world that it lives in the feel real. So the way I went about designing it was to think about how the real world functions, and that is to say, the past never really goes away, and the future never really gets here. You’re only here in that moment. So they’re all sort of blending. So I didn’t want to constrain myself to, like, this is strictly Art Deco, or if I saw some cool Art Nouveau shit I wanted to use, I used that. If I saw something from 1958, in Forbidden Planet or something that I wanted to use, I used that. I put ’em all together, because I could stretch into the future a little bit, knowing that we were leaning that way, but you can’t fully dismiss the past. I don’t think a lot of people think design through that way, and I did.

Jim: I that’s a mistake a lot of movie designers make with science fiction, is, the futuristic… if we’re seeing a movie set a hundred years in the future, it looks like at some point in the recent past, somebody bulldozed everything and built all new buildings.

Conran: Exactly right.

Jim: And if you go two miles up here to Colorado Blvd…

MS: I see buildings from two hundred years ago.

Conran: I’ll say it again, the past never really goes away and the future never really gets here. We’re just here now, but it’s an amalgamation of all those things. I was sort of on an island for a while, designing this thing, because it was just Kerry and myself for a long time, and then eventually we got into the studio, and we began to hire people, I got Michael Sean, and other people around that had a great creative imprint on this thing going forward, and we talked about all these things, and I know that none of us knew each other going into it, but I think, if I’m proud of one thing that I personally did, it was that. It was recognizing the abilities of other people, where they could contribute and fit into what I knew had to be sort of bigger driving themes, visually. And that did work. Listen, for whatever money the movie did or did not make, however it was promoted, or any of that stuff, I don’t really lose a lot of sleep over any of that. Because everywhere I’ve gone since that movie’s come out, in the artistic community, I’ve never had a negative word. In fact, I know there are a lot of people that are big fans of it, and from that standpoint, I take a lot of pride in that.

TO BE CONTINUED.
Meanwhile, go order Kevin Conran’s book! And yeah, I’ll get a commission on it. But it’s so freakin’ cool.

7 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Count me as one of the 12. I was on this thing the moment I read a little blurb about something called The World of Tomorrow. I came across two magazine articles (remember those?) about the film, with Kevin’s designs and was obsessed with every little tidbit I could find. Airships, P-40 Warhawks, robot monsters, flying aircraft carriers, eye patch-wearing military types, mercenary heroes? I’m there!

    Watching the film, I enjoyed the heck out of the visuals and (mostly) the plot; but, I did have a few problems. Mainly, the acting of the two leads. Gwyneth Paltrow was rather bland for a Lois Lane type. Her Pepper Potts was more what I was expecting for the character and didn’t really feel I got. Jude Law was okay as the square jawed hero; but, he lacked a certain twinkle in the eye, like Harrison Ford as Han. I kind of expected that in a Blackhawk type. I think that was the part that Kerry Conran struggled with; getting the performance out of the actors. I thought Angelina Jolie and Giovanni Ribisi nailed it and Omid Djalili is always great. They captured that larger-than-life, rapid tone you expect in an adventure serial, without sounding as stilted as many of the real serials were. They brought personality to it.

    If memory serves, the art book was supposed to come out after the film; but, the box office performance killed interest in publishing it, or something. Glad to see my hopes that it would eventually come out are being fulfilled.

    The film was actually one of three films, internationally, from around the same time, that were experimenting with CGI sets, the others being Enki Bilal’s Immortel (ad vitam) aka Immortal (based on his Nikopol Trilogy); and the Japanese film Casshern (based on the tv series). Of the three, I think Sky Captain was the most successful at telling its story and making it accessible to a wider audience.

    If Warner/DC ever gets off its collective butts and greenlights a Blackhawk movie, I hope they consult with these guys.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    I’ve seen the last half-hour/20 minutes of this film about three times late at night while channel surfing – and every time I think to myself, ‘this looks awesome, I really need to see the whole thing.’ I really do…

  3. jccalhoun

    It really is a shame that Kerry Conran hasn’t got to direct anything else. I remember when he was going to direct a John Carter movie. That could have been amazing. I liked the movie that we got but something more Sky Captain-like could have been really great.

  4. Mark Hopper

    Thanks for this article. I remember at the time the movie came out, it was kind of competing for attention in the SF fan community with the Firefly movie SERENITY which was released two weeks later. I think in the end SKY CAPTAIN made slightly more money but I think both suffered from being released so close together. They cannibalized each others’ audience to a degree. Today that likely wouldn’t be a problem.

    I’ve loved the movie since I saw it in the theater, and I’m glad you linked Conran’s upcoming book, I went ahead and preordered that and will be glad to get it.

    At the end of the day I have to admit the movie does have some problems, the pace is a bit sluggish and as mentioned by others Jude Law was a bit too muted for the role. In other respects it’s grown in my estimation, and it’s always a fun watch.

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