Before watching the movie:
This is such a bizarre movie on the face of it. It ostensibly takes its influences from pulp adventure and German Expressionism, but it comes off like it’s part of a franchise that doesn’t exist (which may be part of the artistic intent of imitating pulp serials), and the audacious scope has a hint of Anime plotting to me (as well as the man being called “Sky Captain” sounding like a translation beating out the subtlety of it).
The origins remind me of how Lucas created Star Wars because he wanted to do a Buck Rodgers movie, only this looks more successful at that idea in some ways. This seems like more of an update of the pulp feel than Star Wars achieved. (Perhaps it’s because I’ve always lived in a world where it existed, but that franchise has always seemed more like its own thing of its own time than something that could screen next to Buck Rodgers, but I’ve already digressed too much.)
After watching the movie:
In a 1939 in which the Hindenburg III moors itself atop the Empire State Building regularly, Dr. Jorge Vargas manages to get a package to his colleague Dr. Walter Jennings just before becoming the latest of their old work group to be mysteriously abducted. Dr. Jennings contacts reporter Polly Perkins and tells her that he will be the next that the shadowy Totenkopf will come for. Suddenly, the city is attacked by an army of nearly invulnerable giant robots, and ace commander of the Flying Legion, Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan, is called in to fight them off, because his one customized fighter plane can do more than New York City’s entire public defense apparatus, apparently. Joe and Polly have a dysfunctional history, but her lead on the story of the missing scientists is also his lead on the source of the robot army, so he begrudgingly takes her along on the quest to find Totenkopf and stop whatever he’s planning.
Almost the entire movie takes place in virtual sets, but I only remembered that in the most stylized moments that borrow storytelling elements from classical animation. The cinematic look of the movie is such that anything that might be off about the background is hidden by the lighting, color grading, and lens choices. The foreground is also kept so visually interesting I rarely looked at the sets. The only obvious CG is the fantastical tech that would never be done practically anyway, and it’s also of a style that looks like the kind of thing the adventure illustrators of the 30s and 40s would have made in a movie if they’d been able to. The VFX altogether are more successful to me than some movies made ten years later.
The most modern part of the movie’s tone comes from the dialogue at times. Of course hostile banter between once-and-future lovers was a staple of the golden age of cinema, but sometimes it goes in directions that wouldn’t have happened back then, mainly because social dynamics have changed. Modern verbal sparring is very different from what it was in the 40s.
Were Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow not big enough draws in 2004? Within the serial-inspired episodic structure, Angelina Jolie only features in one sequence, but she was front and center in all the promotional media. I also note that Joe only gets called “Sky Captain” like it’s his nickname once that I noticed, and while his subordinates call him “Captain”, it comes off like a rank, and people who are not with military and paramilitary organizations generally call him Joe. Moreover, “The World of Tomorrow” is only mentioned very late and nothing is learned about the idea until the full reveal of Totenkopf’s plans. The total sales pitch of the movie is even more fake than the sets, which have the decency to seem real on close inspection.
This is a movie made for the sake of art. It’s bringing classic media to the modern day in a way that Star Wars missed the target on and Indiana Jones sometimes comes close to. The best comparison I can think of is The Artist, which was clearly much less expensive and by nature destined to be awardbait, while this was made at colossal expense and plays within a genre that’s difficult to connect to even for moviegoers who enjoy genre. It’s easy to look at it after the fact and see why it was a commercial disaster, but I’m glad it was made. Remakes of movies bring the stories to modern audiences where they are, and this genre pastiche brought the genre to audiences where they might be if they care to look.