Giant robots are marching down New York City's streets. Plucky newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is trapped in their path. But she doesn't panic. Instead, even though the robots are terribly close, she calmly pauses—and takes a moment to reach down and slightly rip her long skirt so she can run better. Then, she goes into action.

From trailers and word-of-mouth, everyone knows Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is modeled on 1930 adventure serials—not only by capturing a stark Technicolor look but also by approaching sci-fi the way a writer in the early 1900s would have viewed the future: with bulky trash-can robots, a tough-as-nails hero, and stainless-steel rockets. However, first-time writer and director Kerry Conran hasn't just mimicked his favorite serials and comic books. Instead, by spending ten years on the most minute details—like showing and not telling his heroine's pluckiness—he's written a love letter to the full scope of 1930s and '40s films by basically making one. In everything from the opening credits to scene transitions to matte-painting backgrounds, movie viewers in 50 years may not recognize that Sky Captain was made in an era any different than 1929's Metropolis.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law, in search of answers

Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law, in search of answers

Of course, there is one big difference. Metropolis had no computers, and Conran used computer graphics to create everything in his film—except the actors. It's the first-ever movie with an all-CGI background and live actors, who were filmed entirely against a blue screen; everything else was added later with computers.

The CG here is impressive, but isn't perfect. Like in the Star Wars prequels and I, Robot, objects can lack real weight or feel cartoony. But since Conran's goal was to make a movie that looks like an era of films that had very limited special effects, his technique mostly works. Some stop-motion model work could have made the robots seem more tangible and striking. But in most instances, Conran knew what he was doing. If certain backgrounds look like big matte paintings, it's because backgrounds back then were matte paintings.

Most of the movie was made in front of a blue screen

Most of the movie was made in front of a blue screen

This is not the only way in which Conran seems deliberate in making his film look as 1930s and '40s as possible. His direction is squarely rooted in the styles of the time—and not just geeky serials. In fact, the lighting, camera angles, and story devices often recall the trendsetters of early film history like Citizen Kane (1941). And the storytelling isn't only influenced by sci-fi but by King Kong, Tarzan-type adventures and, most noticeably, the era's popular film-noir style and Humphrey Bogart attitude. Most surprisingly, the movie is not held together as much by fights and adventure as it is by a "rosebud-like" mystery centering on the question, "Who is Totenkopf?" Yes, Sky Captain is surely indebted to Buck Rogers, Superman and Flash Gordon serials but surprisingly plays more like Maltese Falcon (1941) meets Metropolis.

Article continues below

Of course, this sort of movie is not everyone's cup of tea. For sci-fi fans, film junkies and adventure geeks like me (full disclosure: I've had Sky Captain wallpaper on my computer for about seven months), it's a blast. But it might not be for moviegoers who wouldn't rent a movie made earlier than 1960 or who don't buy a world with ray guns.

Polly looks out of Sky Captain's window

Polly looks out of Sky Captain's window

But because it is done well, most audiences will appreciate Sky Captain as a unique, imaginative, and family-friendly adventure story. It all begins with Polly Perkins' take-no-prisoners investigation of six missing scientists. Soon, she gets a big lead: A scientist who says he will be the next to disappear drops the name "Totenkopf" and a blueprint for what looks like a giant robot. When these same menacing machines attack, there's only one hero who can help: a man's man who downs Milk of Magnesia in a shot glass, Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Jude Law). A bickering pair of ex-lovers, Joe and Polly begrudgingly join forces to solve the mystery that takes them across the world and back.

What makes the movie's plot work is genuinely witty dialogue, a cast of well-written characters, and surprises that keep the story from being predictable. The truth is, once the whole plot is revealed, it is a pretty typical mad scientist plot. And the movie could have been improved with a villain as strong as its hero. Oh, and don't expect a lot of thought-provoking depth here—there are some basic thoughts on loyalty, playing God, and heroism, but hey, this is a movie about GIANT ROBOTS. And the film's real appeal is the journey you take with Sky Captain. And when that journey includes mysterious women with laser-sticks, jet packs, and P-40 Warhawks fitted to go underwater, it's just plain fun.

Robots … lots of cool, really big robots

Robots … lots of cool, really big robots

But as George Lucas has proven, even fun vision can be ruined by wooden characters and uninspired acting. This is Sky Captain's secret weapon. You can tell that Paltrow, Law and Angelina Jolie had fun becoming these archetypal characters and that they bought into the 1940s style of acting—especially in portraying Polly and Sky Captain's Bacall-Bogart chemistry. Giovanni Ribisi is also exceptional as the lovable, "Shazam"-exclaiming sidekick, Dex. Best of all, there is a real sense that characters actually have long-standing relationships, as if they've been living life together off screen somewhere.

Article continues below

And that somewhere would be a cool place to hang out—or see again in a Sky Captain sequel. Heck, I'm already just excited for Conran's next film because of its geekily-cool sci-fi name, A Princess of Mars. Now, where can I find that screensaver?

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What makes Joe Sullivan a hero? Is he a hero you can really respect?

  2. A severely ill character asks Joe to kill him in return for a favor. What do you think he did? Why? What would you have done?

  3. Does Totenkopf have anything right about the nature of man? What? And where does he go too far? With his strong convictions about where the world was headed, what could he have done differently?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Rated PG for sequences of stylized sci-fi violence and brief mild language. The violence is largely battle scenes between aircraft and robots. There are a few fistfights, some gunplay and use of ray guns. The mild language includes taking the Lord's name in vain and one subtitled comment on female anatomy.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 09/23/04

Fall may have just arrived, but summer movies are still here! Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow soared to the top of the box office last weekend as it gave audiences one last dose of breezy, action-packed entertainment. The film is a nostalgic thrill ride inspired by 1930s comic books, film noir, pulpy adventure stories and the like, but in its own way, it also looks to the future. Director Kerry Conran has gone further than even George Lucas has ever done in creating a world in which everything but the actors has been generated on a computer. The film stars Jude Law as Joe Sullivan, a mercenary flyboy who battles skyscraper-sized robots and mighty metal flying machines, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Polly Perkins, a reporter hot on the trail of the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf, an evil German scientist whose equally mysterious caped henchwoman is killing scientists one by one.

Christian movie critics, many of whom honed their faith-based appreciation of film on earlier Saturday-matinee revivals such as Star Wars and the Indiana Jones films, have generally welcomed Sky Captain as a fun return to the innocent entertainment of a bygone age.

Article continues below

Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) admits the film may appeal more to "film junkies and adventure geeks" than to moviegoers who don't share his affection for movies with ray guns. "But because it is done well, most audiences will appreciate Sky Captain as a unique, imaginative, and family-friendly adventure story. … What makes the movie's plot work is genuinely witty dialogue, a cast of well-written characters, and surprises that keep the story from being predictable."

Jeffrey Overstreet (Looking Closer) appreciates the way Conran has stayed in touch with his inner child, and he praises the film for its "guilt-free fun." "How many filmmakers are capable of delivering such a harmlessly satisfying and thrilling treat? How many can so powerfully remind a theatre full of grownups of what it was like before we were burdened with the pressure of 'cool' when we were teens or the practical demands of adulthood? … It's the best cinematic antidote for a lamentable and dirty election year—something that's pure enjoyment start to finish, set in a world where right is right and wrong is wrong."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) also praises the film for its sheer enjoyment factor: "There's no deep intellectual motif, but Sky Captain has all the elements missing in this summer's popcorn-munching blockbuster supposed-to-bes (Catwoman, Thunderbirds, Scooby Doo 2, Spider-Man 2). Part tribute to the adventures of yesteryear and a satisfying exercise in the use of digital art direction, Sky Captain is a lot of fun."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) is impressed by the look of the film, and by its obviously artificial style. He says "the visuals don't dazzle so much as they rest easy on the eyes. This reveals an oft-overlooked fact in today's Hollywood: It can actually be an advantage to have a movie—something that's make-believe—actually feel a bit make-believe. There's nothing wrong with realism, but it's just as delightful to have the hint of pretend ring your imagination as surely as the soft white light around Gwyneth's gold locks."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) is especially impressed by the acting, all of which was done in front of blue screens. She writes, "The acting is superb, which is astonishing, given the lack of setting and props they had to deal with. All the characters hark back to yesteryear, but are infused with just the right amount of modern-day sensibility. They take their roles seriously, resisting the urge to throw us a conspiratorial wink."

Article continues below

Sheri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) notes the film's biblical references and Christian themes. "The hero is gallant and above any kind of unrighteous act. He treats women with awe and respect. The friendships go beyond helping each other out to willing to give their lives for one another. There is a definite difference between evil and good, which is refreshing in this day of super heros who are just as evil as the bad guy, blurring the line between good and bad. I was just thrilled to see a hero that can be used as a modern day role model for young and old alike."

Other critics are not quite as smitten. Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says Sky Captain fails to live up to the standard of earlier nostalgic throwbacks such as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. "It entertains and impresses without ever becoming truly engaging. It's certainly a lot more fun than Final Fantasy [in which everything, including the characters, were computer-generated], in good part because it works not only as spectacle, but also as nostalgia and homage. Even so, it never quite comes to life in its own right." Greydanus also questions whether the film is appropriate for children, asking why filmmakers chose, "in a tame PG-rated film that could easily have been fine family entertainment, to add a few completely gratuitous elements that not only make it unsuitable for kids, but are also glaringly out of place in the film's nostalgic milieu."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service), calling the film "ultimately disappointing," writes, "Though the almost entirely digital set design is an impressive achievement (e.g., the New York scenes, the giant hangar out of which Sky Captain operates, all manner of futuristic aircraft), the camera barely stays still long enough to appreciate it in any detail. And the use of a muted color palette, which evokes a faded print of an old movie, is ultimately as monotonous as it is monochromatic. A lush Technicolor design could have been so much more effective in the long run."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) sums it up in two sentences: "The art is amazing. What the film lacks is heart." He adds that the film "doesn't really seem to build momentum or sustain dramatic tension."

Melinda Ledman (Hollywood Jesus) explores what the villain, Dr. Totenkopf, might represent: "If Totenkopf (literally meaning 'dead head' in German) is supposed to represent God, then the writer's intent is to suggest that there is no God at all. … The alternative is that Totenkopf is supposed to represent man's attempt to play God. In fact, Sky Captain makes the comment at one point in the film, 'He was trying to play God.' This comment implies that man can only pretend at such a game and can never hold the eternal wisdom needed to care for the earth … The implication is that man's attempt to play God ends only in his own destruction, the potential destruction of mankind, and the ruler's exposure as a weak, faulty, dead head."

Article continues below

Mainstream critics had mixed reactions, though generally positive.

from Film Forum, 09/30/04

Andrew Coffin (World) writes, "The strikingly unique Sky Captain … is likely to suffer from muddled audience expectations. Go to the film expecting nothing more than an incredibly elaborate, delightfully retro cartoon, and Sky Captain will offer some real pleasures. Demand more, and you will almost certainly be disappointed."

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for sequences of stylized sci-fi violence and brief mild language)
Directed By
Kerry Conran
Run Time
1 hour 46 minutes
Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie
Theatre Release
September 17, 2004 by Paramount Pictures
Browse All Movie Reviews By: