“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (2004) is a film about a 1939 that never was. I loved it but others say it was terrible. At IMDb.com it gets a rating of 6.4 – good enough to watch if it comes on television, but not something you would want to pay to see.
It stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Angelina Jolie. It even brings Laurence Olivier back from the dead thanks to computers magic.
Jude Law called the film “‘The African Queen’ meets Buck Rogers.”
Paltrow, a newspaper reporter for the Chronicle, finds out that top scientists are disappearing. She and Jude Law go across the world to find out what is going on. They are brought face to face with the evil Dr Totenkopf (played by the dead Olivier). Angelina Jolie does her bit as commander of a British flying fort.
On paper it seems like a wonderful film - it has good actors and used what was then state of the art film-making. But it did not do well. At the box office it made back only half of what it cost to make.
It was one of the first films to use a digital back lot: creating the backgrounds by computer – the buildings, aircraft, attacking robots, all of it. The actors acted on an empty blue set, the computers filled in the rest later. It has become common now, but back then it was ground-breaking.
It starts out in New York in a 1939 that never was. One where ray guns, King Kong and Shangri-La are real, where Hitler and the Second World War never happened but instead New York is attacked by giant robots; where the design principles of Norman Bel Geddes and Hugh Feriss become the reigning fashion.
A past that never was but is painstakingly created for two hours.
For example, the RP or British English of Jolie’s character is no longer heard these days but it was common among the rich of Britain the 1940s. The way people act is how they did back then – at least according to the films of the period, like “The Thin Man” (1934).
But then again everyone calls Nanjing “Nanjing” and not “Nanking”, as it was known in the English-speaking world in those days.
It was the first film of Kerry Conran and so far his last. He spent four years on his Macintosh computer creating a six minute short for it. It was incredible and persuaded some of the top people of Hollywood to make it into a full two-hour film.
Conran copied many of the elements of the old 20-minute serials that ran in the 1930s and 1940s. But he forgot to copy one thing: the length. What works in 20 minutes does not necessarily work when stretched to two hours.
Most reviewers liked it and it even won some awards. Cinema-goers did not agree: Paramount, which put out the film, lost a fortune on it – even though Conran cut costs by using computers to make it.