Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Honoring the Past, Changing the Future
Between 1938 and 1954, comics dominated the pop culture realm in what has become known as the Golden Age of comic books. Caped crusaders and determined detectives were everywhere battling villains in classic tales of good vs evil. Justice, freedom, and patriotism reigned thematically, and readers were inspired to be just like their favorite heroes. Although it's been decades since this era of pop culture was in the spotlight, its aesthetic and ideals live on in modern stories such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Directed by Kerry Conran, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a 2004 science fiction adventure set in an alternate version of the 1930s. When an army of massive robots attack New York City, it’s up to reporter Polly Perkins, (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her ex-boyfriend and Sky Captain himself, Joseph Sullivan (Jude Law) to try to uncover Dr. Totenkopf’s sinister plot that has resulted in the disappearances of the world’s greatest scientists. Upon its initial release, the film bombed at the box office and received mixed reviews - described as a “$70 million novelty item” and a cheap parlor trick that was quickly forgotten about (Hunter, S.). Despite this, Sky Captain beautifully honored the history of pop culture, while also steering Hollywood towards the future of filmmaking.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a beautiful fusion of the past and the future. Its 1930s setting creates an atmosphere that is reflective of the films of the German expressionist movement like Metropolis and Waxworks. However, from the very second we see the Hindenburg III, a modified blimp, crawling into frame, we know that we’re in a completely different reality from our own. This sense of retro-futurism presented in Sky Captain is known as Dieselpunk: a science fiction subgenre that combines the aesthetic of technology from World War II era with the futuristic ideologies of the 1950s and 1960s. The futuristic technology present in the story is cemented into a time much older than its logical existence through the use of the sepia coloring. This golden and brown coloring gives the film an aged and distant feel, as if it's an old photograph you recently discovered in your grandparent’s attic.
“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.”
- Kerry Conran
The world of Sky Captain seems to not only be pulled straight out of the comics of ages past, but the characters themselves are your classic page turning action heroes and villains. Sky Captain is your archetypal hero. He's a mysterious and handsome ace pilot with the courage of Flash Gordon and the charisma of Han Solo who’s always got a trick up his sleeve. Accompanying him is the determined reporter, Polly Perkins, who acts as the Robin to Sky Captain’s Batman. Of course, no comic book story would be complete without an evil mastermind who’s plotting the destruction of the world, that being Dr. Totenkopf. If the minions from Minions: The Rise of Gru served a master in this universe, it would’ve been this despicable genius. These archetypal characters are not only utilized to pay tribute to the characters of comic book past, but more importantly, they inspire people to be heroes themselves. When people read about heroes in comic books, they want to be just like them. They admire their courage or their bravery, or anything else about them, and thus, they strive to be more like them. These simple yet compelling characters, like Sky Captain and Dr. Totenkopf are teachers who help people identify good from bad and the importance of ethical morality.
Just like the characters, Sky Captain’s script is reflective of the stories from the Golden Age of Comics. Its quick pacing keeps the action zooming from scene to scene just like a comic speeds from page to page, and problems are solved deus ex machina style with the introductions of wacky gadgets and coincidences. The dialogue is a bit cheesy and cliche, and it features an endless supply of banter between Sky Captain and Polly. But the script is purposely written this way to reflect the simple and enjoyable writing style of classic comics. In a way, it's refreshing to have writing that's not so concerned with being super intelligent or quirky for quirkiness sake. The story is meant to be fun just like a comic book, and because of that, it's easy to enjoy and accessible to everyone.
Even the music of Sky Captain is reminiscent of the glorious times gone by. Through the use of a big, brass, band orchestra, composer Edward Shearmur invites the audience back to the Golden Age of heroes. His theme for the character Sky Captain was heavily inspired by the original John Williams theme for Superman, and features over-the-top musical clashes and crescendos to create a very heroic mood. There are many motifs reprised throughout the film and many of the characters have themes that play them into a scene, much like superhero themes. Because this is a movie about an action hero, much of the score was composed to be loud and energetic to match the action sequences and to immerse the audience in the world of Sky Captain. Its score translates the epicness and extremity of a typical superhero comic book onto the screen and heightens the present moods and emotions more than the average movie would. When there is a romantic moment between Sky Captain and Polly, the music becomes filled with strings and sweeping beauty of the highest degree, and when there’s a villain scene, minor keys and clashes are heavily utilized. The music is purposely on-the-nose and over the top because the film’s comic book nature demands it to be so.
But Sky Captain not only honored the past of the pop culture industry, it also simultaneously created the future of filmmaking with its use of computer generated imagery (CGI), which had just been recently introduced into moviemaking. If a film utilized CGI back then, it would’ve only done so in small quantities, which sounds hard to believe with Hollywood’s heavy reliance on CGI today. Nobody had ever dreamt of making a movie on a digital backlot in the early 2000s. And yet, that’s exactly what Conran did with Sky Captain. Using over 2,000 effect shots, his film became the first major production to feature live actors in digitally created scenes, blending the filming of the past with the ways of the future. The final product may be considered dated among today’s standards, but at the time they were breathtaking, and in a way, their campiness added to the film’s retro-futurism aesthetic.
While Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow has become mostly forgotten, it most certainly was a groundbreaking film. Conran created a comic book world unlike anything we had ever seen before while simultaneously paying homage to the comics that came before. He also pushed the envelope for what could be done digitally in a film, and because of it, films like Avatar and Avengers: Endgame were able to become a reality. We have even taken his work to the next level with the creation of XR stages, which allow for the digital backgrounds to be utilized live with the actors. Conran brought the characters, music, and aesthetics from the past and fused it with the filmmaking techniques of the future in true dieselpunk fashion. In a way, Sky Captain is like a long lost artifact from a bygone era outside of known time. And like many lost artifacts, it is truly a great treasure.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is streaming on Hulu
Avatar is streaming on Disney+
Avengers: Endgame is streaming on Disney+
Burt, Kayti. “What the Marvel Cinematic Universe Owes Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow.” Den of Geek, 17 Sept. 2019, https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/what-the-marvel-cinematic-universe-owes-sky-captain-the-world-of-tomorrow/#:~:text=For%20the%20mainstream%20viewers%20who,visual%20effects%20and%20one%20that.
“Golden Age of Comic Books.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Aug. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Age_of_Comic_Books.
Hunter, Stephen. “'Sky Captain': A Virtual Bomb.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Sept. 2004, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2004/09/17/sky-captain-a-virtual-bomb/fe31010c-9f98-4428-b91d-2fe2b992524d/.
Robertson, Annabelle. “Technology and Classic Filmmaking Work Well in ‘Sky Captain.’” Crosswalk.com, Crosswalk.com, 17 Sept. 2004, https://www.crosswalk.com/culture/features/technology-and-classic-filmmaking-work-well-in-sky-captain-1285307.html.
“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” Edward Shearmur: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, http://www.maintitles.net/reviews/sky-captain-and-the-world-of-tomorrow/.