Classics never die, but they seldom get replaced. Cinema is populated with enduring, venerated works of art that deservedly adorn list after list, but those lists are rarely updated, and less often expanded to include new, equally worthy entries. Organizations that give out annual awards are constrained not only by the limitations of formatting, but perspective - they can’t anticipate which film will survive the buzz of its initial acclaim or success and become part of the cultural firmament. And then there are just certain films or even genres that too infrequently receive the critical attention they deserve, are too obscure to break through to bigger audiences, or just aren’t taken seriously enough to merit consideration alongside the ones we “all” already know we love or respect. A Case For Greatness, this series, tries to argue for, and to champion, forgotten or underappreciated films in a variety of genres that may be worthy of being called “classics.”
There’s always something exciting about discovery, especially in art; whether or not a new voice, or performer, or technique is instantly used “properly” or to (subjectively) maximize its potential, its arrival heralds a shift, and occasionally, a profound change that has the potential to monumentally affect the way art is either produced or digested, or both. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was such a breakthrough, a technological marvel that ushered in the era of the “digital backlot” and, for better or worse, introduced the mainstream to “-punk” suffixes after words like “diesel” and “steam.” But the scrappy origin story that became a big selling point for distributor Paramount Pictures largely overshadowed its most important introduction, to writer-director Kerry Conran, who combined his technical know-how with great story instincts and an incredible attention to detail to create a film that may qualify as the closest thing we’ve gotten to a proper (and genuinely good) Indiana Jones adventure in decades.
The fact that its story takes place in a similar era as Raiders of the Lost Ark is perhaps less important to its relationship to Indy-style adventure than its brisk, jaunty tone and its shared fealty to the early movie serials. Joe Sullivan (Jude Law) is the “Sky Captain” of the title, more formally trained as an adventurer than Dr. Jones but no less roguish as a result; Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is his intrepid, mischievous foil, an investigative reporter who never lets personal loyalty - or romantic attraction - get in the way of a good story. When legions of flying robots initiate a series of attacks on New York, the two of them quickly find themselves entangled again, after Polly rendezvous with a scientist who believes he’s the next in line to be kidnapped by the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf, and the responsibility falls to Joe not just to save him, but to figure out why. A love triangle soon unfolds after Joe and Polly are rescued by Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie), a possible former flame of Joe’s who proves as capable of handling herself as she seems to be with Joe.
The little touches of the relationship between Joe and Polly - such as his plane number being an inverse of her name - amplify their bickering chemistry and alleviate the potential for that to become grating. Though she wasn’t yet the kind of ass-kicker we’ve embraced in more contemporary action movies, she doesn’t lack her own agency, her skill set is complementary to his - importantly, one that he does not possess - and at the same time, when called upon, she is capable of throwing a good punch. In fact, the one obstacle from this really being a sort of true Indiana Jones film is that Joe himself isn’t especially tough as anything other than a pilot; where in Spielberg’s franchise, Jones encounters car chases and bar brawls and all sorts of showdowns, much of Conran’s takes place inside the cockpit of Joe’s plane, which he maneuvers expertly but that sort of reduces the variety of the set pieces. That said, there is something sort of great about a leading man character who isn’t capable of literally anything for which he’s needed, and there’s also something great about when, during his climactic fight with Bai Ling’s Mysterious Woman, he basically gets his clock cleaned before Polly comes to his rescue.
Conran’s film also shares in common with the Indiana Jones franchise a limitless imagination where its influences are points of inspiration rather than opportunities for imitation. He dexterously combines a palpable love for so many different artistic, architectural and conceptual points of reference but weaves them into a completely new tapestry that feels believable no matter how unreal it actually is. That The Wizard of Oz is not just included in an early scene but integrated into the movie’s search for Totenkopf gives it a magical quality, and its own importance as an early color film serves as an important echo for what Conran was then actually doing to the moviemaking industry with his virtual soundstages; that he uses the visual language of German expressionism to create a retro-futuristic New York of the 1930s makes it feel authentically old - the articulation of a style that reverberates in our cultural memory - while conjuring a time and place that also exists out of time.
Cinephiles can revel in its little easter eggs - Godzilla and Kong both make appearances - while those uninterested in its aesthetics are swept along by the story. Law and Paltrow have a terrific chemistry enhanced by their willingness to pitch their performances like the ones from a bygone era that inspired both Conran and them, and a wonderful supporting cast - including Giovanni Ribisi as Dex, Joe’s scrappy, science-obsessed sidekick, and Jolie, fiercely appealing as the eye patch-wielding commander of a breathtaking flying aircraft carrier - give the whole experience not just a cohesion but an emotionality that one might not expect from so much digital trickery. The action is both intense and fun, while the romance is sweeping and understated; in short it’s a rousing adventure that will make you laugh, cry, and think.
Sadly, Conran’s vision met with underwhelming success at the box office, but it absolutely was prophetic for the industry, as James Cameron dubbed that digital backlot “the Volume” and made Avatar a commercial smash, and many others (including Robert Rodriguez with his two Sin City films) went on to use his techniques as a necessary or even automatic part of the filmmaking process. Conran has since made a couple of short films and another proof of concept like the one that attracted attention for Sky Captain, but it’s unclear how prolific a filmmaker he could or would have been had the film immediately resonated with audiences. Regardless it doesn’t feel inappropriate to compare him to another amazing artist who cut his teeth at Disney, struggled with the powers that be (and audiences that weren’t) before hitting the big time: Brad Bird. Both have a retro sensibility but ooze respect for the modern technology used to make films - in which case, Conran’s debut technically qualifies as his Iron Giant. But in lieu of making such grandiose comparisons, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was then and remains today a giant introduction - if you will, a discovery - of both a wonderful world to explore, and an incredible talent still waiting to be unleashed.