Viv and I caught Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (link advisory: flash, loud SFX) this afternoon. Following the film we ate at the lovely Le Pichet, a tiny French bistro on First, next to the Virginia Inn. The meal was quite pricey but the food was very good.

Sky Captain, as you must know by now, is interesting formally for other reasons than its’ simple cinematic existence. First, the great majority of what you see on screen is wholly rendered via computer; and second, it’s intended as a kind of retro-cinema, not unlike the initial Indiana Jones film, or The Rocketeer. Both Sky Captain and The Rocketeer are fascinated by that long-vanished dinosaur of the sky, the dirigible, and provide contemporary audiences with the closest thing we’ll ever have to seeing the faceted, fragile leviathans slide by our wondering eyes.

Unlike Indy or The Rocketeer, however, Sky Captain is also trying to recreate the cinematic experience of watching a film shot between 1925 and 1940, and goes to great lengths to emulate the visual experience of the older films. This is mostly via post-production desaturation and a gauzy glow that is perfectly recognizable as a sort of filmic seme for High Hollywood. Viv turned to me as we were watching and wanted to know if the film had originally been shot in black-and-white and then colored, a reasonable question based solely on the look of the film.

The good news for retro-tech geeks is that the CGI is fantastic. Thanks to strategic framing, there is nearly no “grounding” problem (seen when computer-rendered elements appear to ‘float’). Unfortunate for everybody is the combination of hyper-realistic detailing in the CGI with the flattening, overall, blended look of the post-processing filters. In non-character-oriented shots, we’re presented with a flurry of edits intended to convey the richly detailed environment. Sadly, the glowing, washed-out look overwhelms the CGI detail, and leaves the viewer wondering if a plot-point just sailed by there in that 10-frame sniplet.

The real bad news is that the dialog and performances are queerly flat, lacking a sense of investment and urgency. This stems partially from the frantic pace of the non-character shots. Mind you, this is nitpicking; none of the leads appear to be sleepwalking. But Gwyneth Paltrow’s Polly Perkins, a reporter, is clearly an homage to Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson from the 1940 His Girl Friday. That’s all to the good. Yet, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Amy Archer, another Russell homage (from The Hudsucker Proxy) captures the stacatto vocal rythms that are crucial to the thirties mise-en-scene. Alas, Paltrow’s dialog and interplay with Jude Law’s mercenary aviator, while lazily amusing, has nowhere near the verbal power of her character’s forebears.

Much of the relative slow pace of the dialog, oddly, appears to be an artifact of editing. Where the film clips and snips to the detriment of plot in the sequences that include no identifiable human, adding a well-known actor to the frame guarantees a sixfold drop in the cutting rate, and the consequence is that fat remains between the lines. When the DVD for this is released, some enterprising wannabe will trim a solid forty minutes of silent facial tics from the ins and outs of each headshot cut-to and cutaway. I, for one, welcome our volunteer editors, and despite my harsh words here, will anxiously await the DVD of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. With IMDB estimating that the film cost $70m, and with the film making $17m on opening weekend, Box Office Guru [not a permalink] notes that the film saw revenue drop from Monday to Tuesday of next week, and projects $8m for this weekend. Judging by the nearly empty theater at our showing, that seems possible. Alas, that bodes ill for the movie to break even on a six week-run.

It seems probable, however, that the specialized visual content and production processes of Sky Captain open additional revenue possibilities for the film, and the sheer visual and referential density of the piece will lend itself well to DVD (and, one hopes, to video game).

Outside the boundaries of the sketchy review here offered, some notes are in order. I am happy to report that beginning Monday I will be presenting the first sequential series of Blimp Week entries in a couple of years.

A post on Monkeyfilter has inspired this, and consequently I shall address specific information requests from that thread first; I will be providing mirrored links with drastically shorter entries on Monkeyfilter as well. Here’s one geeky tidbit: the dirigibles seen at Joe Sullivan’s base exhibit an “X” control surface configuration which was only ever widely deployed on postwar U. S. Navy blimps, to my imperfect knowledge. Most historical dirigibles (both the German Zeppelins and the rigid airships designed and built elsewhere) used control surfaces arrayed in a vertical and horizontal cross configuration. Contemporary blimps more frequently employ the cross.

Last weekend, as the film opened, a flurry of referrals came to this website for a variety of topics, including "Sky Captain zeppelin" and "Sky Captain Moorcock." Regarding these referrals from Google that imply some people are wondering about Michael Moorcock’s association with, influence on, or input to the story of Sky Captain: I’m making an uninformed guess that while Moorcock probably had no direct input on the story, some of his retro-pulp fictions directly inspired the film-maker. He wrote a terrific neo-pulp trilogy, The Warlord of the Air, which envisions things not that unlike Angelina Jolie’s airborne aircraft carriers.

Mr. Moorcock himself appears concerned about this. I’m not sure I’d say that he should be, but he’s certainly justified in his desire to learn more.

Despite this, the whole point of The Warlord of the Air is the romantic rehabilitation of discredited and abandoned technologies and ideologies. Moorcock’s central historical figure is the obscure Russian revolutionary Nestor Mahkno, who (as I understand these matters) sought to invoke modernist anarchism as the native, culturally-determined ideology of the Russian revolution, in parallel with the Barcelona-based anarchists of the CNT during the Spanish Civil War. Where anarchism took root in the twentieth century, it always reflected long-standing cultural traditions. Moorcock’s resurrection and celebration of early twentieth-century technology, fantasy, and ideology could not be more at odds with the cultural attitudes displayed by the filmmakers of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Instead of a band of revolutionaries, Jude Law’s Joe Sullivan leads a military corporation explicitly identified as a "mercenary" "army-for-hire" in the film’s voice-over. The Hindenburg III is seen to dock at the legendarily-unused mooring-post atop the Empire State Building. Joe Sullivan’s base is clearly home to multiple zeppelins, something which no nation of the thirties accomplished without the willing assistance of the German state. Among the many lovingly recreated montages is a sequence in which the smoking remains of the Reichstag are shown. The implication is that the giant robots did it. (Historically, a Dutch Communist was swiftly executed for the fire, and it’s been argued that the Nazis themselves set the fire, to justify the wholesale suspension of civil liberties that followed.) A newspaper winks in and out of existence in a parade of front pages, spinning by; the Nazi eagle is clearly shown, but the swastika it grasps is obscured. Is it too far-fetched to imagine that in a few years Col. Lindbergh will become the president of this alternative America?

I do not intend to imply that Sky Captain is a Nazi film. In fact, aviation adventure fantasy as a whole frequently exhibits similar attitudes and tropes. The best example is, of course, the comic-book aviator Blackhawk, a Polish nobleman disenfranchised by the Nazis themselves but partial to black uniforms, peaked caps, and cool aerotech just the same. In the late eighties, the terrific Howard Chaykin took an explicit crack at this aspect of the character and by extension, the whole presence of extreme rightist politics within the aviation-adventure fantasy genre. Like Moorcock’s work, however, Chaykin’s revisionist take simply can’t ever be regarded as mainstream within the genre.

The credited works of real-life pilots such as famed German combat aviators Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron) and Oswald Boelcke (Richthofen’s predecessor as commandant of Jagdstaffel 11) helped to create the genre itself. Richthofen’s autobiography was in itself a heavily romanticized work intended for public consumption in Germany during the war, and released as an explicit propaganda device by the state. Events such as Lindbergh’s personal embrace of the Nazi state on the eve of World War II and the development of the military doctrine of bombing civilian populations helped cement a set of genre assumptions that must be viewed as right-leaning.

It’s most typical of postwar works in this revival genre to combat the preceding critique by positing that the hero of the piece is primarily occupied by the challenges of fighting Nazis, even on the eve of World War II (see all the Indy films, for example; The Rocketeer, of course, and, yes, Blackhawk). Perhaps it’s only made notable in Sky Captain by its’ absence.

The mainstream pulp works of the time, like Sky Captain, simply disregard the political milieu of the motivating technology. This disregard, in the end, undermines the appeal of the fantasy world. While we are clearly informed that Joe Sullivan was in Nanjing helping cover the Allied retreat from Shanghai, another conflict is conspicuously not mentioned. I find myself shifting uncorfortably, wondering how much fun would it be to live in a world with giant robots and the Hindenburg III when it’s easy to picture Joe flying for Franco in Spain.

Of course, in the case of a sequel, I could easily be proved wrong. Surely the film’s creators don’t wish for such an interpretation. Choosing to struggle with the conflicting obligations of the twentieth century in ways that reflect on our current predicament might conceivably be profitably explored in a film that mixes Franco’s war with the fantasy world of Sky Captain. Here’s hoping.

2 thoughts on “Sky Captain and the Blimp Week of Tomorrow

  1. I’m most impressed by the fact that you can articulate all this mere hours after viewing. You should know that I saw the film eight days ago, on the strength if your review of the NY Times’ review, and I still don’t have much to say beyond “looked cool.”

  2. Well, you know, the film is clearly the work of someone who shares some of my obsessions – the thirties, aviation technology and pulp fiction, lighter-than-air aviation, the cinema of the thirties…

    AlI I had to do was remember a few of the things that went through my head while watching, write them down, and add some flavorful links to support or refute my assumptions.

Comments are now closed.