The Addendum of Tomorrow

Wednesday, 22 September 2004 — 7:45pm | Film, Full reviews

Most of what I wanted to say about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow didn’t make it into the Gateway piece under my name, some of which was going into more detail than I could fit in the space I was given, others of which were removed or rewritten in the editorial process. (Regular blog-readers accustomed to my writing style should be able to pick out what’s what.)

Most of it has to do with its relation to other films that come before it, seminal works that almost necessitate a mention in a proper appraisal of Sky Captain lest the analysis feel woefully incomplete. I’ve already mentioned its tribute to the Star Wars Trilogy, which I watched in its entirety on DVD yesterday. (More on that in another post.) This is the kind of thing I want to discuss, but I would like to emphasize not so much like references themselves but rather the use thereof.

I’m not going to dwell on specific things that were excised from my original review or comment on some of the changes themselves, due to matters of staff policy and good taste, with one exception. I make this exception because it is of critical import. In the last line of the published review, I call Sky Captain “a special effects showpiece where Adobe After Effects and Final Cut Pro have taken the place of older techniques.” What I originally did was call it a modern Harryhausen where said movie editing software has taken the place of Claymation.

Maybe it was changed to be more accessible to the kind of layperson who has never watched a film produced before the date of his own birth, but given Ray Harryhausen’s distinctive contributions to animation in mixed-media cinema, my one-sentence capsule of Sky Captain was fully intended to be a very specific reference to the man behind Jason and the Argonauts. I am not going to whine about the omission itself, but allow me to explain something that I think is key to grasping the spirit of Kerry Conran’s killer robot movie.

See, Sky Captain‘s detractors – current, would-be and otherwise – have and will continue to focus their efforts largely around the syllogism that it is by its very nature a special effects film, special effects are bad for you, and therefore the movie is also bad for you. Take David Sterrit’s review in The Christian Science Monitor, for instance:

But, uh, what’s wrong with real images of reality, captured with a movie camera? It’s one thing to use computer-generated imagery as a way of “drawing” things a camera couldn’t photograph – the cartoon characters of the Shrek movies, say. It’s another thing to use computer wizardry as a way of bypassing real things in the real world.

“Look how industrious and ingenious we are!” coo wired-up moviemakers as they mimic things so convincingly on their high-definition screens. In fact they’re a lazy and disingenuous lot, so in love with their own daydreams that they see no need to do something radical – like going outside and filming things that might take them by surprise.

Yes, Sky Captain is unquestionably an effects piece where the live action supplements the animation, not the other way around. Yes, some people will absolutely despise it for being what it is. In some cases (but not all), their reasoning will quite openly reveal a prejudice against animation, and computer animation in particular – or, as in the review I just cited, a thinly-veiled pro-realist prejudice against all visual forms of mimesis. You will hear familiar yarns about how the special effects take undue precedence over the human element – which, when applied to many of the summer-season tentpoles nowadays, is a valid assessment. I still don’t know what everybody sees in X-Men or The Matrix Reloaded, and I despised that other comic book film that opened with a zeppelin. To varying degrees, those three movies (and many others) had light and noise at the forefront, and suffered for the lack of an underlying narrative propulsion.

The difference is that for some reason, in Sky Captain it’s okay. The characters are broad archetypes (“Sky Captain,” for a convenient and obvious example), the plot is in the pulp tradition of hopping from one set piece to the next through a series of escalating conflicts, and the killer robots are the stars of the show. Conran gets away with this because the art design is a pastiche of Golden Age wonders, and the way the shots are composed and edited drives the story at the micro level – not from scene to scene, but from shot to shot. In film, shot flow is as much a part of what we call “story” as what we know as “plot,” which is story on the macro scale.

But Sky Captain still remains an effects movie, and realists need not apply. If you want contemporary character-driven cinema where technical trickery plays no role, go experience the joyous delights of Garden State, though I dare you to keep waving the “realist” flag when you encounter the scene at the ark.

And that brings us to Ray Harryhausen, whom we look upon today as one of the men so thoroughly canonized as the stop-motion legend that he is, he has become no less than a saint of the church of animation. He came from a special effects background and made special effects movies, but ones so legendary that his expression of what we call “movie magic” is still revered today. Heck, the world of Monsters, Inc. even names a sushi restaurant after the guy.

If we can appreciate Harryhausen for his feature films where live actors battle fantastic monsters of all shapes and sizes, I see no reason to discredit Kerry Conran for doing the exact same thing with leading-edge computer animation in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Looking at the social response to motion pictures, which is itself a comprehensive field of study, it still baffles me that computer animation gets such a bad rap for doing exactly what stop-motion figures and matte paintings once did with relative impunity. In Sky Captain‘s case, it’s even very much the same kind of film. It is flatly impossible for anyone who is familiar with the original 1933 King Kong to miss the similarities between Skull Island and the quasi-prehistoric wonderland that Sky Captain and Polly Perkins stumble into late in Conran’s piece.

And while on the subject of stumbling into wonderlands, let’s talk about The World of Tomorrow‘s closest connection to the World of Today, the rickety suspension bridge that hangs between our world and the fantasy world. It comes in the form of a movie with which you may be familiar.

After the opening scene in the Hindenburg III, we are introduced to reporter Polly Perkins as she receives a tip from one Walter Jennings (Trevor Baxter), who claims knowledge as to who is next in the line of scientists that have mysteriously disappeared. They arrange to meet for a film at Radio City Music Hall. Given that the entire film was shot over bluescreen and the backgrounds were later inserted, I wonder if Gwyneth Paltrow was ever told while shooting the scene exactly what scene from which movie would be playing.

That movie is The Wizard of Oz, and it provides one of the simplest, yet most outstanding applications of Sky Captain‘s compositing process. In this scene, Jennings reveals his hidden secrets to an attentive Polly and passes her two metallic vials for safekeeping, objects sought by the enemy throughout the movie. The two are shot directly from the side in profile, framing the picture – while between them, Glinda the Good Witch floats onscreen in that pink bubble of hers. That, of course, is the scene where Dorothy has just dropped into Munchkinland, and Glinda appears to first tell our heroine of the Land of Oz, then bestow upon her a whole other pair of objects coveted by the enemy: the ruby slippers. It’s a superimposition of the beginning of the journey in both stories, what Joseph Campbell calls “the crossing of the threshold.”

Come for killer robots. Stay for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the end credits.

I leave you with required reading this week: a superb Apple feature on the technical aspects of how Sky Captain was made, which should erase any doubt about just what kind of movie to expect, for those of you who have yet to see it.

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