Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a 2004 American pulp adventure, science fiction film written and directed by Kerry Conran in his directorial debut. The film is set in an alternative 1939 and follows the adventures of Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a newspaper reporter for The Chronicle, and H. Joseph "Joe" Sullivan (Jude Law), known as "Sky Captain", as they try to track down and stop the mysterious "Dr. Totenkopf".
Conran spent four years making a black and white teaser trailer with a bluescreen set up in his living room and using a Macintosh IIci personal computer. He was able to get producer Jon Avnet to see it, who was so impressed that he spent two years working with the aspiring filmmaker on his screenplay. None of the major studios were interested in financing such an unusual film with a first-time director. Avnet convinced Aurelio De Laurentiis to finance Sky Captain without a distribution deal.
Almost 100 digital artists, modelers, animators and compositors created the multi-layered 2D and 3D backgrounds for the live-action footage while the entire movie was sketched out via hand-drawn storyboards and then re-created as computer-generated 3D animatics. Ten months before Conran made the movie with his actors, he shot it entirely with stand-ins in Los Angeles and then created the whole movie in animatics so that the actors had an idea of what the film would look like and where to move on the soundstage.
Sky Captain grossed USD $37.7 million in North America, below its estimated $40 million budget. However, it managed to gross $20.1 million in the rest of the world, making its final worldwide tally $57.9 million. Critical reviews were largely positive and it is notable as being one of the first major films (along with Sin City, Able Edwards, Casshern and Immortal) to be shot entirely on a "digital backlot", blending live actors with computer generated surroundings.
The film opens with the arrival of the zeppelin Hindenburg III in New York City, mooring at the Empire State Building. Before he vanishes, a frightened scientist named Dr. Jorge Vargas (Julian Curry) makes arrangements for a package containing two vials to be delivered to a Dr. Walter Jennings (Trevor Baxter).
Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a newspaper reporter for The Chronicle, is looking into the mysterious disappearances of Vargas and five other renowned scientists. She receives a cryptic message, telling her to go to the Radio City Music Hall movie theater that night. She ignores the warning of her editor, Mr. Paley (Michael Gambon), not to go, and meets Dr. Jennings during a showing of The Wizard of Oz. He tells her that Dr. Totenkopf (German: literally "death's head" or "skull") is coming for him.
Suddenly, air raid sirens go off, heralding the arrival of numerous towering robots that prove all but unstoppable. In desperation, the police call for H. Joseph "Joe" Sullivan (Jude Law), who is known as "Sky Captain" and commands a private air force, the Flying Legion. While Polly photographs the action from the street, Sullivan knocks out one of the robots and the rest leave. News reports show similar attacks taking place around the globe.
The wreckage of the robot is taken back to the Legion's airstrip so that an expert, Dexter "Dex" Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi), can examine it. Polly follows, hoping to get information for her story. She and Joe are ex-lovers, who broke up three years earlier in China where Polly was reporting the events and Joe serving with the Flying Tigers. Since Polly has some useful information, Joe agrees to let her in on the investigation.
Her information takes them to the ransacked laboratory of Dr. Jennings, with the scientist himself near death. The killer, a mysterious woman (Bai Ling), escapes in spite of Joe's efforts. The mortally wounded Jennings gives Polly two vials, which he says are crucial to Dr. Totenkopf's plans. Polly withholds this information from Joe. They return to the Legion's base which comes under attack from squadrons of ornithopter drones. In the ensuing battle, Dex manages to track the origin of the robot control signal but is captured. However, he leaves behind a part of a map marking the location of Totenkopf's base.
Joe and Polly find it and head to Nepal. Venturing into the Himalayas, they discover a long abandoned mining outpost. Two of their guides turn out to be working for Totenkopf, forcing Polly to turn over the vials and then locking them both in a room full of explosives which they light. Joe and Polly escape but are knocked unconscious by the explosion in the mine. They wake up together in the mythical Shangri-La. The monks who live there tell of Totenkopf's enslavement of their people, forcing them to work in the uranium mines. Most of them were killed by the radiation, but the final survivor provides another clue to where Totenkopf is hiding.
This leads them to rendezvous with Joe's other ex-flame, Commander Francesca "Franky" Cook (Angelina Jolie), who commands a Royal Navy flying aircraft carrier with amphibious submarine aircraft. Franky clears the way while Joe and Polly make it through.
Joe and Polly find themselves inside the mountainous island, which contains numerous strange creatures, many of which appear to be variations of dinosaurs. They travel to the mountain at the very center of the island and penetrate a secret facility located within. There, they discover that it has been hollowed out into a large silo where robots are seen loading animals, as well as the contents of the mysterious vials onto a large "Noah's Ark" rocket.
Joe and Polly are detected and nearly killed, but Dex, piloting a floating barge, arrives in the nick of time with three of the missing scientists. Escaping together, Dex explains that Totenkopf has given up on humanity and seeks to end the world to begin a new one: the "World of Tomorrow". The group goes to Totenkopf's lair only to discover that he has, in fact, been dead for two decades; his machines have carried on his work.
The only way to sabotage the rocket is from the inside. Polly tries to tag along, but Joe knocks her out with a punch. He then goes to sacrifice himself while the others escape. Polly recovers and follows after Joe, arriving just in time to save him from the mysterious woman who turns out to be a robot. The two then board the rocket just before it launches. Before it reaches an altitude of 100 km, Polly pushes an emergency release button that ejects all the animals in escape pods. Joe tries to disable the rocket only to be interrupted by the revived female robot. He jolts her with her own electric weapon and then uses it on the controls, disabling the rocket. They use another pod to save themselves after successfully sabotaging the rocket, causing it to explode. Joe and Polly watch the animal pods float down to earth from their escape pod.
Polly then uses the last shot on her camera to take a picture of Joe. Joe is touched, but sadly tells her that the lens cap was still on the camera. Polly's look of joy turns to a little light-hearted sadness and disappointment.
Peter Law, who plays Dr. Aler Kessler, is the father of Jude Law. The full names for Dex and Editor Paley were revealed in the novelization written by Kevin J. Anderson.
Conran was influenced by the designs of Norman Bel Geddes, an industrial designer who did work for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and designed exhibits for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Geddes also designed an airship that was to fly from Chicago to London.
Another key influence was Hugh Ferriss, one of the designers for the 1939 World’s Fair and who designed bridges and huge housing complexes. He was an American delineator (one who creates perspective drawings of buildings) and architect. In 1922, skyscraper architect Harvey Wiley Corbett commissioned Ferriss to draw a series of four step-by-step perspectives demonstrating the architectural consequences of the zoning law. These four drawings would later be used in his 1929 book The Metropolis of Tomorrow (Dover Publications, 2005, ISBN 0-486-43727-2).
Regarding the 1939 New York World’s Fair itself and its futuristic theme of the World of Tomorrow, Conran noted: "...obviously the title refers to the World Expo and the spirit of that was looking at the future with a sense of optimism and a sense of the whimsical, you know, something that we've lost a lot in our fantasies. We're more cynical, more practical... I think what this film attempts to do is to take that enthusiasm and innocence and celebrate it-to not get mired in the practicality that we're fixated upon today."
Conran also acknowledged his debt to German Expressionism, which was particularly evident in the opening scenes in New York City: "Early German cinema was born of just a completely different aesthetic than what we see nowadays. One of the last things I watched before starting this project was the Dr. Mabuse series that Lang had done - terribly inspirational, the use of art and propaganda even."
Conran summed up what influenced him in making Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: "We tried to approach it almost as though we lived in that era and were just another group of artists trying to make a work out of those pieces and inspirations. We wanted the film to feel like a lost film of that era. If we're a footnote in the history of pulp art and Golden Age comics, that'd be enough, that'd be great. If we even just inspire some people to go back and investigate some of that stuff, we'd have done enough."
Sky Captain has a number of commonalities with the famous Hayao Miyazaki animation Laputa: Castle in the Sky. The sky pirates, focus on primitive mechanics, large airships, and military cultures are similar. Of particular note are the robots in both films with the slinky arms and one eyes that are identical. Both stories center on an evil madman with control over an island of high technology and the search for that island. Laputa has the evil madman searching for the island while Sky Captain has the island as the base of the madman from the beginning. Sky Captain is also different in its message which is largely about the film genre while Laputa has strong anti-war & anti-technology themes found in most of Miyazaki's work.
Avnet went to Aurelio De Laurentiis and convinced him to finance the film without a distribution deal. Nine months before filming, Avnet had Conran meet the actors and begin rehearsals in an attempt to get the shy filmmaker out of his shell. Avnet set up a custom digital effects studio with a blue screen soundstage in an abandoned building in Van Nuys, California. A group of almost 100 digital artists, modelers, animators and compositors created multi-layered 2D and 3D backgrounds for the live action footage yet to be filmed.
The entire movie was sketched out via hand-drawn storyboards and then re-created as computer-generated 3D animatics with all of the 2D background photographs digitally painted to resemble the 1939 setting. With the animatics as a guide, grids were created to map camera and actor movements with digital characters standing in for the real actors. The grids were made into actual maps on the blue screen stage floor to help the actors move around invisible scenery.
Ten months before Conran made the movie with his actors, he shot it entirely with stand-ins in Los Angeles and then created the whole movie in animatics so that the actors had an idea of what the film would look like and where to move on the soundstage. To prepare for the film, Conran had his cast watch old movies, like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944) for Paltrow's performance and The Thin Man (1934) for the relationship between Nick and Nora that was to be echoed in the one between Joe and Polly. Avnet constantly pushed for room in this meticulously designed movie for the kind of freedom the actors needed, like being able to move around on the soundstage.
Director of Photography, Eric Adkins, was ahead of his time with his work on this ambitious movie. Conran and Avnet were able to cut costs considerably by shooting the entire movie in 26 days (not the usual three to four months that this kind of movie normally takes) on high-definition video using a Sony HDW-F900 and working entirely on three different blue screen soundstages in London, England with one notable exception. Conran wrote a scene that was added later on where Polly talks to her editor in his office that was shot on a physical set because there was no time to shoot it on a blue screen soundstage. The footage from the HD camera was run through a switcher and then through a Macintosh computer running Final Cut Pro that allowed the filmmakers to line up the animatics with the live onstage footage. Conran said, "I don't know how we would have made this movie. It's really what allowed us to line up everything, given there was nothing there." After each day of shooting, footage was edited and sent overnight to editors in L.A. who added CGI and sent it back.
After filming ended, they put together a 24-minute presentation and took it to every studio in June of 2002. There was a lot of interest and Avnet selected the studio that gave Conran the most creative control. They needed studio backing to finish the film's ambitious visuals. At one point, the producer remembers that Conran was "working 18 to 20 hours a day for a long period of time. It's 2,000 some odd CGI shots done in one year, and we literally had to write code to figure out how to do this stuff!" Most of the post-production work was done on Mac workstations using After Effects for compositing and Final Cut Pro for editing (seven workstations were dedicated to visual effects and production editing). The distinctive look of the film was achieved by running footage through a diffusion filter and then tinting it in black and white before color was blended, balanced and added back in.
Sir Laurence Olivier also posthumously appears as the villain and mad scientist Dr. Totenkopf. His likeness was produced using digitally manipulated archival BBC footage of the actor and thus adding one more film to his repertoire. A similar move was made two years later in the 2006 Superman Returns film with Marlon Brando. Avnet cultivated a calculated release for the movie by first moving its release date from the summer (it was supposed to open a week before Spider-Man 2) to September, then courting the Internet press and finally making an appearance at the San Diego Comic Con with key cast members in an attempt to generate some advance buzz.
Composer Edward Shearmur (The Wings of the Dove, Charlie's Angels) wrote the film's lavish orchestral score in the style of Hollywood's golden-age composers, and the film's end-title sequence featured a new recording of the Oscar-winning standard "Over the Rainbow" sung by the acclaimed young American jazz singer Jane Monheit, which were all featured on Sony Classical's original motion picture soundtrack recording.
Critical reviews were largely positive. The film currently has a 73% rating (with a 70% for their "Cream of the Crop" designation) on Rotten Tomatoes. Noted film critic Roger Ebert was among those who strongly supported the film, giving it a 4-star review and praising it for "its heedless energy and joy, it reminded me of how I felt the first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's like a film that escaped from the imagination directly onto the screen, without having to pass through reality along the way". Stephen Holden of The New York Times lauded its visuals and its evocation of a bygone era but felt that "the monochromatic variations on sepia keep the actors and their adventures at a refined aesthetic distance... At times the film is hard to see. And as the action accelerates, the wonder of its visual concept starts giving way to sci-fi clichés". In his review for the Chicago Reader, J.R. Jones wrote, "This debut feature by Kerry Conran is a triumph not only for its technical mastery but for its good taste". Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A-" rating, saying, "The investment is optimistic and wise; Sky Captain is a gorgeous, funny, and welcome novelty". USA Today said that the film was "all style over substance, a clever parlor trick but a dull movie". Stephen Hunter, of the Washington Post, called it, "a $70 million novelty item".
The Flying Legion is a homage to pulp-comic book heroes such as G-8, Captain Midnight, and Blackhawk, as well as real-life private paramilitary organizations such as the Flying Tigers and the British Legion of Frontiersmen. Also, production designer Kevin Conran, the brother of director Kerry Conran, based the design of the flying humanoid robots, in part, on the helmet worn by the DC Comics superhero Adam Strange and controls on Commando Cody's rocket-pack (see image, right).