There’s a certain retro-futuristic aesthetic that sets neo-noir visuals to a sci-fi context that I definitely have a soft spot for, but I don’t know exactly what to call by name. Captain America: The First Avenger & Batman: The Animated Series are the only titles that fit in this particular genre that were especially successful financially, as most examples I’d group in with them were notoriously disastrous flops: The Rocketeer, Tomorrowland, Predestination, The Phantom, etc. Although I don’t know exactly what to call this subgrene (future noir? fart deco?), its tropes are as clear as day to me. It’s a pure style over substance formula that intentionally matches the exquisite art deco architecture & fashion of the 1930s with the hammy swashbuckling of old comic strips & radio serials; extra points are awarded if the plot involves robots, aliens, or time travel. Imagine the pulpy dime store version of Metropolis and you have a decent idea of what I’m getting at.
True to form, the 2004 visual feast Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow flopped hard at the box office, but stands as an immaculate example of the future noir/fart deco aesthetic I’m vaguely describing here. One of the first Hollywood productions filmed almost entirely against a CGI backdrop (which is more or less the current industry standard for summertime blockbusters), the film masks its almost instantly-dated visuals with the soft focus haze of the era it intentionally evokes. The film has a falseness to it that it emphatically embraces instead of shying away from. Its absurd use of lighting & extreme Dutch angles gives the film the same surreal comic book context that recently wowed me when I first watched Sam Raimi’s goofily masterful Darkman. This “live action” cartoon landscape is thoroughly impressive, from its gorgeous/impossible architecture to its chintzy, child’s toy ray guns. It feels simultaneously old fashioned and newfangled and that exact air of self-contradiction is specifically what wins me over in this subgenre every damn time.
The film’s plot is set in an alternate universe version of the late 1930’s where an invading Nazi-esque threat invades US soil with gigantic laser-shooting robots & mechanical warbirds. Bold dame news reporter Polly Perkins (Gwenyth Paltrow, who has recently been growing on me thanks to her turn as the similarly-named Pepper Potts) follows this story down the proverbial rabbit hole, where she discovers a vast, world-threatening conspiracy that involves, among other things, dinosaurs, miniature elephants, and a gigantic Noah’s arc-type rocket ship. Her partner in this journey is a maverick airplane pilot (played by Jude Law in a goofy version of his Gattaca mode) hell bent on taking out our foreign invaders single-handedly like a true American. Will our two leads find love despite their stubborn, self-serving quests for independence? Does their potential romantic connection matter any more or less than saving the world? Do these questions matter at all in the face of the film’s towering attention paid to over-the-top visuals? Even if you haven’t seen the film I’m confident you can answer those questions yourself. The two leads are remarkably charming here, with a chemistry that only gets more potent as the plot rolls along, but they’re not at all what makes the movie a unique treat.
Critics were mostly kind to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow upon initial release, but audiences’ wallets were not. Even so, it seems almost criminal that the film stands as the only feature credit of director Kerry Conran. Kerry Conran is a fully functional auteur here, building a gorgeous, amusing world from scratch and it’s a shame to think we didn’t get to see how his work would’ve evolved along with CGI technology were it given the chance. I’ve tried to pigeonhole his sole film here into a hyper-specific subgenre, but that’s honestly selling the film’s idiosyncrasy a little short. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow might pull its visual references from long-gone eras of cinematic sci-fi, but I think its goals and accomplishments are much loftier than pure pastiche. At one point the film intentionally evokes comparison to the innovation of The Wizard of Oz, but that connection essentially stops at the novelty of its CGI backdrop. I actually think a better comparison point would be a more fartsy, less artsy version of what Guy Madden does. Just like with Madden, Conran’s visuals & ideas can be a little overwhelming to endure at feature length, but in isolation they each land with surprising success. I just wish there were more Conran-helmed visual feasts to go around, whether or not he continued to work in the fart deco subgenre I grew to love so much. Even those who don’t fall in love with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow as a finished product are bound to recognize potential in its individual moving parts. Sadly, that particular world of tomorrow hasn’t yet arrived.