This year, four science fiction-loving booksellers will delve into Fantastic Planets, Forbidden Zones, and Lost Continents: The 100 Greatest Science-Fiction Films, the new book by film historian Douglas Brode. They’ll watch the movies, read Brode’s take, and tell you – point blank – how they feel about all of it.
#93 on Douglas Brode’s list of 100 Greatest Sci-Fi Films is the 2004 pulp/noir homage
When I was first thumbing through Brode’s list, I thought Sky Captain was an odd choice. But re-watching this movie, I can see now why it rests at #93. What strikes me the most is that this is a movie made in 2004 and sure, there’s some color floating around, but for the most part this movie is sepia toned until near the end, and then you almost don’t even notice. It feels like a movie made in the 30s or 40s and I love every minute of it!
The other thing that sets this apart technically, is that it was one of the first movies filmed on a completely digital background and, while you can tell at times, it actually does a pretty good job of seeming like real places, which is a neat trick when one of your locations is a dinosaur-filled paradise island. There’s also some very good chemistry between the two leads, so I totally bought the ex-lover repartee that flies back and forth between Paltrow and Law. When I first thought about this movie I couldn’t think of any standout thing that would cause it to end up on the list, but the more I thought about it the more I realized I didn’t need to. Sure, there isn’t one thing that stands out as “genius”, this is just a solid all around pulp adventure sci-fi film that got a raw deal from both the critics and the fans.
I remember thinking, when I saw this film in theaters for the first and only time, that it was good, but flawed. Flawed enough that I never bothered to watch it again, apparently. And while there are flaws, mostly in the form of some fairly large plot holes, watching this film twelve years later has made me reevaluate my feelings about it. Having deepened my exposure to both the sci-fi and pulp/noir genres over the last twelve years I now have a much greater appreciation for the homage that this film was clearly meant to be. The references in this film couldn’t be more clear. Among them, The 1939 New York World’s Fair (whose theme was, unequivocally, The World of Tomorrow), the pulp/noir cinematography, lighting, and overall artistic design, the narrative influence of HG Wells, the “mechanical monsters” of early Superman cartoons, and the stylistic influence of Fritz Lang. How lucky I just watched Metropolis so the similarities would be just that much more obvious to me.
Director Kerry Conran absolutely captured, as Brode states, “not only a vision of the past, or even the past itself, but also the past as immortalized by what was once considered the fleeting popular culture of that era.” Yes, absolutely, 100% yes.
But it’s still curious to me that it made Brode’s list of top 100 sci-fi films. I can only imagine it’s because it was one of the first three films to ever be done entirely on a digital backlot (the others being the 2004 Japanese live action adaptation of Casshern, and the future dystopian sci-fi film Immortal). For my money, of these three films, Immortal is the best in narrative, vision, style, and originality. But the level of homage in Sky Captain cannot be denied. In fact, that is where most of the value of this film lies. And I have to admit, when taken for this value, it is incredibly entertaining.
If you have yet to pick up your copy of Douglas Brode’s
it is available in hardcover in our UT Press section.