RECAP: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004): Kerry Conran

In the pre-Superman era, popular culture was dominated by pulp fictions, stories printed on the cheapest paper made and consumer by children. When they weren’t reading about the exploits of Dick Tracy or The Shadow, they were listening to them on the radio.

Kerry Conran loved those pulp serials growing up, and he worked hard to make his own. Nearly all of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was filmed on a green screen. Unlike many CGI spectacles, Sky Captain eschewed realism in its sets and backgrounds.

Many locations appear like mattes on canvas, adding terrific style. Also adding to style are the art deco pastiche. These are the biggest draws of the film. Come for the style, stay for the action.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Joe Sullivan, Sky Captain, and Polly Perkins, intrepid reporter, chase a mad scientist across the globe to foil his world-beating plans. 

Hero (5/10)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow introduces us to co-heroes. Jude Law plays the titular hero, his birth name Joseph “Joe” Sullivan. Gwyneth Paltrow plays intrepid Chronicle reporter Polly Perkins.

Polly is the first of the pair to appear. Writing headlines that appear on the window behind her, Polly traces the story of world-class scientists gone missing. Someone sends her a book, in which a note asks her to attend a showing of The Wizard of Oz at Radio City Music Hall.

Polly Perkins pertly pouting
Polly Perkins pertly pouting

Her editor doesn’t want her to go. She claims to be a “careful girl” but will get into trouble in nearly every locale. Every locale save Radio City, where she meets Dr. Jennings, the last surviving member of a secret scientific research team called Unit 11. The other scientists, turns out, are dead.

An air raid siren sounds, and the theater clears just as Oz’s Glenda shows up. Polly plucks a piece of paper from the floor: blueprints to a robot.

What could these robots be? How about looking up in the sky, because a thousand of them are flying over and attacking New York City right now.

Calling all sky captains. From afar flies Sky Captain. At first we only see his eyes, behind goggles, and his flying skill, which is great.

That Jude Law sure is handsome, ain't he?
That Jude Law sure is handsome, ain’t he?

A column of robots march two abreast down a Manhattan avenue. Joe avoids the laser bolts shooting from their glowing, featureless faces.

Polly, at street level, dodges their car-sized feet. She drops her camera in the sewer and nearly dies trying to retrieve it. She repeats this clumsiness throughout the film. Joe uses the advanced tech on his Mustang fighter plane to destroy several robots and save Polly.

These two have a history. They sniff out trouble, instincts that once took them to Nanjing. What happened there remains up in the air (no pun intended) for much of the film.

Joe believes Polly sabotaged his plane, and Polly believes Joe cheated on her. Each denies the other’s charge. “Let’s do it again in 10 years,” Joe says after they’ve had their first encounter in three years.

The story of the robots is the biggest in centuries. Polly won’t divulge everything she knows unless she joins the hunt. Joe won’t allow her to do anything until he says OK. Polly immediately snaps a picture after agreeing.

This contention threads the film together. Polly backseat flies Joe’s plane. Joe lies about not having an affair in Nanjing, and later he flirts with the woman he wasn’t having an affair with. “I can take anything you can dish out,” Polly says, barely meaning it.

Polly brings with her two metal vials, the only objects preventing Dr. Totenkopf, the man behind Unit 11 and the robots attacking Manhattan, from starting his doomsday countdown. Where does she carry those? In her hip pocket. Very safe.

These two bicker as in-love-and-not knowing-it couples do. Late in the film, Polly cries because she accidentally uses one of her final two photos to photograph the ground, and Joe laughs.

At film’s end, Polly uses her final shot on Joe. Joe, dense as London fog, tells her she forgot to take the lens cap off.

Law is game to play a dashing cad. Being a dashing cad is his life’s work, so denigrating Polly ain’t hard. However, Joe’s numbered his plane after her, though–h-11-od–which is “polly” upside-down and reflected.

Paltrow is the weak link here. I’d say she phoned in her performance, but she literally phoned it in during the movie. Paltrow never gets into her role, acting as halfheartedly as she can while still cashing a paycheck.

Maybe Paltrow realized mid-shoot that her character was a klutz. She’s falling a lot. She didn’t read the script before signing on. Maybe she can’t make it work acting only in front of a green screen.

Villain (3/10)

Sometimes the actor cast to play a villain is a clue to that villain’s fate. In Sky Captain the villain is Dr. Totenkopf, a genius scientist, who earned his first patent at age 12 and was a doctor twice over at 17.

We never see Totenkopf on screen because he’s played, in archival footage and CGI, by Sir Laurence Olivier. While the robots and drones conquering the world fulfill his will, the actual man is a ghost.

At the turn of the 20th century, Dr. Totenkopf was a young genius with big plans for humankind. He founded a scientific research unit outside Berlin with the perfectly bureaucratic name of Unit 11. Several scientists worked on this top secret project, and, as the film opens, one of them is running (or flying, rather) for his life.

Totenkopf is on the warpath, because his top men have betrayed his vision. What’s his vision? To wipe out human life while sending a rocket to the stars.

Crazy, right? Well, the bad doctor agreed. He died in 1918, more than 20 years before the cataclysms of Sky Captain. That’s the clue Olivier’s footage provides, dude died in 1989, 15 years before this movie came out.

Totenkopf appears in neat holographic imagery, a testament to his scientific genius. And make no mistake, he was a genius. As one scientist mentions, near the film’s end, the entire Atlantic island is an extension of Totenkopf’s will.

Totenkopf generated by a Tesla coil
Totenkopf generated by a Tesla coil

Two decades before the events of the film, Totenkopf died. Since then, his programmed droids, bots, drones, whatever you want to call them, have continued to execute his plan.

Bird planes execute a perfect strike on Sky Captain’s Catskill airbase. A droid “woman” defeats Sky Captain without him landing a single blow. Attacks of 50-foot metal men seize generators in Manhattan, rendering the city a dark void of concrete. Thousands of drones build a towering rocket and load it with two of each kind of animal.

All of these things occur after Totenkopf died. He was so smart that he couldn’t outsmart himself.

There’s much to say about Totenkopf as an AI designer who let his creations run amok. Sky Captain preempts the current, and rising, fears of AI outside our control. Totenkopf is us, only a century early.

Action/Effects (9/10)

Sky Captain is an effects-heavy film that leans on its settings and gadgets to gloss over thin story and characters. The latter part of that sentence is negative criticism, but the first part is not.

The movie is not shy on action scenes. One major scene occurs shortly after Polly takes the vials from Dr. Jennings, the lone survivor of Unit 11. She and Joe hear the air raid sirens blare in New York and speed back to Sky Captain’s base.

The base is under attack. Not by robot infantry this time but by fighter planes. Like all Totenkopf technology, these planes have style. Their wings flap like birds of prey.

Swooping in at 500 knots, the bird planes strafe the air field with dual quad machine guns. Sky Captain’s planes parked across the expansive base explode. The anti-aircraft guns shoot back but seem to strike nothing.

Joe is ready to take off, but Polly demands to come along and gets her wish. Joe streaks his plane through the expansive hangar as it explodes and is the only plane in the air not on Totenkopf’s side.

Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), down in the collapsing base, believes he can trace the signal controlling the enemy fighters. Right after Joe shoots down two bad guys, Dex tells him not to shoot any. They don’t know which is the lead craft.

Joe bails on his base and flies to New York. He’s found the signal craft and follows it and several other fighters. Four craft are flapping their wings above the underground generators they are stealing.

Joe is busy navigating Manhattan’s skyscraper canyon to find the signal carrier. He dodges delivery trucks at ground level and listens to Polly’s backseat driving.

Robots stealing generators beneath Manhattan
Robots stealing generators beneath Manhattan

They bicker about the location of the signal plane and how to find it. It’s funny that she navigates, “knows these streets like the back of my hand,” *** while flying at 300 mph. When a character says, “Turn left,” and the other character asks, “Are you sure?” and the first character answers, “Yes,” it’s too late, you’ve zoomed a thousand yards beyond where you were supposed to turn.

I throw my hands up. This is a pulp action movie, and believability is beside the point. They argue, but the tension necessary to an aerial dogfight is not present. Joe’s wing is shot and leaks gas. Still the pair lack the fear needed in the scene.

Dex is doing trig back at the base, trying to trace that signal. He asks for 30 more seconds, plus or minus, and Joe is like, I’ll be dead in five, so that better be a lot of minus.

“Glad you came?” Joe asks Polly. They fly through a building under construction that’s “not supposed to be there.” Joe shoots a grappling hook into a Coke ad painted on a brick wall and uses the tension to make a tight turn around the building.

The AI planes can’t handle that mess, and they make a mess of their own. Joe heads back toward the base as Dex heat rays some small bots. Above the water Joe puts the plane into a dive. Polly freaks out, rightly. They crash into the water and sink, until Joe puts the plane into submarine mode. Dope move.

“I thought we were going to die,” Polly says. “You should have said something.” Joe responds, “That was nothing.” Uh oh. Turns out he was right. Later, there’s a whole fight scene underwater.

Sky Captain‘s strongest asset is its weird and fantastic technology. Take Joe’s Sky Captain plane. Joe, the Batman of the sky, flies a Mustang to all points of the Earth, seemingly with little need to refuel.

His tech/sound buddy Dex has rigged the plane for many situations. When Sky Captain flies to rescue New York from towering robots, we get to see some of the gadgets on the plane.

Beneath the fuselage are neat trinkets of destruction, including a detachable cable that Joe strings between two buildings. Machine guns are obviously in the wings. He can deploy magnetic bombs, too. And did you know World War II-era planes can also be submarines? Joe’s can.

Sky Captain isn’t the only fighter with advacned tech. In the days before S.H.I.E.L.D. sent heli-carriers into the sky the back up The Avengers, Dex helped the British create airborne carriers. Frankie (Angelina Jolie) commands a whole fleet of them. With an airstrip larger than most landed airfields, the British carriers impose, even at 20,000 or so feet.

These technologies are nice, but Totenkopf is the man with the truly advanced weaponry. His five-story robots can fly, and hundreds of them attack Manhattan. Tommy guns are powerless to stop them and their laser-shooting faces.

Dozens of bird-planes, with flappable wings instead of rigid ones, attack Sky Captain’s base, grounding Joe’s fleet. Perhaps the most imposing bots are the crab-like creatures guarding the exhaust port for Totenkopf’s island fortress. These brutes are red in the face and carry 16-plus torpedoes.

The not-quite-steampunk technology is the best reason to watch Sky Captain. Fantasy in the guise of science fiction can allow the best of each genre, and that’s what happens.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Polly and Joe lead te charge to stop Totenkopf’s robo-mastery of Earth. They can’t do it alone, and plenty of folks are there to help.

First among equals is Dex. The scrawny tech nerd could never make it in the skies, didn’t have the chops, I tells ya. He’s stuck on the ground solving technological riddles. For three years he’s traced the origins of the metallic tornados wreaking havoc on the world’s key resources.

Dex and some scientists
Dex and some scientists

Joe calls Dex “boy” a few times, belying their unequal relationship. Dex might be more capable than the blustery Joe, if only he had a chance. He makes heat rays for fun and traces globe-spanning signals in seconds.

Despite these traits, he’s nothing to Joe compared to Frankie. Angelina Jolie turns in a British performance as the commander of a fleet of airborne aircraft carriers (that Dex helped design).

Frankie was a three-month fling for Joe during the Nanjing days. (Told you he was a cad.) It’s hard to say no to Jolie, harder when she’s wearing an eye patch.

It’s hard not to like Frankie. Again, she wears an eye patch. When she sees the clumsy Polly stumble down the wing of Joe’s plane (after Joe has abandoned her to greet his former paramour), Frankie asks Joe, “What is that?”

Frankie escorts Joe toward the underwater entrance to Totenkopf’s island lair. She and Joe relive the old days over the radio, something about a rabbit run? John Updike? It was cute and personal in the way lovers speak.

Paltrow puts in her best work in these scenes looking the jilted lover. Joe pretends not to hear her berating him, so she tricks him by complimenting him.

The two sidekicks are Joe’s, not Polly’s, but she’s prominent enough to be a co-hero. Dex is a standard backup to swashbucklers, but Frankie could carry her own story, I think.

Henchmen (1/8)

Only one person actually aids Totenkopf. She’s a “mysterious woman” who wears all black. Even her goggles are black. Sky Captain encounters her inside Jennings’s office rifling through some of his things, searching for something, when he interrupts her. Being a red-blooded male, Joe is excited by this powerful woman. At least until she throws him across the room and shoots at him, missing his head by inches.

She’s present in the Himalaya to retrieve the vials Polly took from Jennings. She leads squiggly-armed robots ransacking Sky Captain’s base. And, of course, she’s on Totenkopf’s island to defend his rocket. She never speaks and fights ruthlessly, knocking Joe back without taking any licks.droid

Turns out she’s a “she”, a droid. Being a droid adds to her menacing. I thought she was a super strong human, an uberwench, and Totenkopf’s daughter, one more certain of his ideals than he. Being a droid is pretty cool, though. It makes Totenkopf seem even better at programming. She’s the only entity he created that could have passed the Turing test.

Stunts (0/6)

In a movie filmed almost entirely in front of a green screen, the chance for stunts went out the computer-generated window. About all the stunt work was performed in the effects room. Given Sky Captain‘s advances in imagery, I can forgive it, but I can’t score it.

Climax (2/6)

There’s surprisingly little action in the climax. Once Polly and Joe enter the island’s inner sanctum and see the giant rocket Ark, they know they have 10 minutes remaining until blastoff. Polly knocks some rocks loose to earn the attention of the sinister drones loading the rocket.

They charge at them. Joe knocks one in the face with his elbow, which should have shattered the elbow but instead shatters the drone’s face. More come, but there’s Dex popping up, flying a supply ship. Also, the scientists are there. Everything’s fine. They weren’t dead. “Good boy, Dex,” Joe tells his underling, again. It’s very condescending.

Joe bashes more drones as they fly toward Totenkopf’s creepy office. Huge skeletons populate the marble halls. One gruesome statue depicts a man clutching the brain of another man, the latter with his skull split open.

Dex tells everyone Totenkopf’s plan: the rocket, a new Ark carrying two of every creature, will fly from the Earth, and when it reaches 100km it will incinerate the planet. How? No explanation is given. However, with all the fantastic technology on display so far, we can assume that it will work.

Sky Captain torn between two women
Sky Captain torn between two women, also trying not to die.

A couple of tall bots guard Totenkopf’s office door. Joe pops out and shoots one with Dex’s heat ray. He tries shooting the other one, but the “bullets” run out. “Try shaking it,” Dex says. *** That does the trick and fells the second one.

On comes a hologram image of Totenkopf. “I am the last desperate son of a doomed planet,” it says, among other slogans. An overeager scientist steps onto the metal floor in front of the door and is electrocuted so badly that his skin and organs disintegrate, leaving an instant skeleton. I think I know where those skeletons lining the halls came from.

In the office they find the good doctor. He’s dead. Totenkopf’s desiccated corpse clutches a torn sheet of paper with two words penned in immaculate script: “Forgive me.”

Um, OK Doc, you got it. Just shut down the rocket and–what’s that, it can’t be stopped unless someone goes on the rocket? Got it.

Joe will go. Polly wants to join, too, “Just when things are getting interesting.” She and Joe finally kiss, and Joe hopes she will forgive him. We think he asks forgiveness for past transgressions, but it’s actually for that time he punched her out. What time? Right NOW.

Joe runs along the bridge leading to the rocket’s door. The woman in black is there, guarding it with a lit bow staff, Gandalf style. Joe’s ready for a fight. Instead, he gets a beating. The woman bashes him three times. Joe does nothing except almost falling to his death.

Joe’s best move comes up and finishes the woman. Polly, who regained consciousness quickly, smashes her face in, revealing her to be a droid, Totenkopf’s best. “What took you so long?” Joe asks. Polly answers with a revenge punch.

Now on the rocket, Joe and Polly fly above the Earth. This rocket’s interior is enormous, metallic, and gleaming. A huge statue of a winged swordsman is above the expansive viewing window. Joe and Polly are at a loss. So’s the cow they spot on the way up the rocket.

I’m confused about this entire sequence. Were humans meant to crew this rocket? I don’t think so, yet walkways cross the open spaces. There’s even an emergency release button, which Polly spots, because “dringlichkeitsfreigabe” is her favorite German word.

With her button-pushing fetish, Polly pushes it. The animal pods start to fall away. I can’t imagine what “emergency” would cause Totenkopf to want to abort the mission and start over. Yet, the animals fall away. I’m not the genius.

That statuary sword I mentioned falls onto the walkway, nearly killing Polly and Joe. Let’s ignore the Gs they’re enduring and the lack of atmosphere in the now-bottomless rocket.

They reach a panel with wires. Thousands of wires. All the wires. Joe cuts some. That doesn’t work. The ship nears 100km altitude, the death altitude.

Joe facing down another robot
Joe facing down another robot

Hey, look who’s back. The droid woman! “Why won’t you die?” Joe asks, tossing her aside and taking her electro-Gandalf staff. He jabs that into the wires.

That does it. The rocket starts to explode and the heroes use the escape pod to float back to the saved Earth. Again, why are there escape pods? Dunno.

From the hatch of the floating escape pod, Polly has her final shot. She looks out at the ocean and Totenkopf’s island. Dozens of animal pods continue to parachute to safety. Dinosaurs are walking in the water. Polly aims her camera at the tableau. She turns the camera to the dashing Joe and lovingly snaps her final shot.

“Polly,” Joe says. “Lens cap.”

Roll credits.

Jokes (3/4)

The running gag of Polly’s camera was great. She snaps a bunch of pictures during the initial robot attack and nearly loses the camera and her life trying to retrieve the thing from a sewer that she dropped it into.

She heads to Shangri-La and doesn’t take a picture. She sees a dinosaur and waits it out. A space rocket Ark doesn’t garner a photo. Sweetly, she spends her final photo on her former and future lover, Joe, who tells her she has the lens cap on. That was funny.

That creepy statue I was telling you about
That creepy statue I was telling you about

Joe asks her if she will find something better to photograph than two of every creature being loaded into the first rocket. “I might,” she says.

In the mountains, Joe tells Polly to change. “Your clothes stay behind,” is a great come on that’s not meant to sound like one. Later, they are locked in a room full of dynamite and the fuse is lit. About to die, Joe says he only has one thing to say to Polly. “Did you cut my fuel line?” *** he asks. Polly’s mad. Joe asks, “Can we just for once die without all this bickering?”

There’s plenty of cuteness in Sky Captain to endear it to viewers. I was almost, almost there. Like the pulps and serials of the interbellum period, I think I would have enjoyed Sky Captain best as a child.

Setting (4/4)

A snowy, gray night in Manhattan. A bulbous airship, the Hindenburg III, completes its maiden voyage toward the towering spire of the Empire State Building. Ropes drop from the ship, and the passengers (presumably, it’s not shown) deblimp on the observation deck.


Galant stuff like this happens all the time in Sky Captain. Sky Captain’s base is an island in a lake in the Catskills. The only overland entry to this base is across a towering iron bridge.

Joe and Polly visit the Himalaya and enter Shangri-La, a green escape that resembles Rivendell hidden amongst craggy, icy peaks. Totenkopf’s island’s exterior is a jungled swamp stocked with dinosaurs and dragons.

Like it’s characters and props, Sky Captain‘s locales and sets are romanticized versions of a not-quite-real past. These settings were essential to the successes of pulp fictions in the pre-Superman days.

Commentary (1/2)

Totenkopf, the driver of a huge mass of technology and artificial intelligence, dies in 1918. Twenty years on, his creations don’t know how to stop. So they don’t.

As Sky Captain and Polly are on the rocket trying to disable it, a proto-hologram of Totenkopf turns on. (That’s a nice touch, but no one is supposed to be on the ship.) The image quotes The Bible?***, a passage that Joe interprets as Totenkopf thinking himself God.

I loved the message here. Totenkopf considered himself God and meant to create a new world. That world overwhelmed him and he died begging forgiveness. Then his creation went and tried to destroy the world anyway.

Sounds much like the story of Noah. Actual God created the sky and sea, land, and animals, saw it was a nasty mess right up to Noah’s time, and wiped out everything but Noah’s family and two of each creature.

Totenkopf God set out to destroy humankind, thought better of it, couldn’t undo what he did. God could not undo what he did either, so He wiped out everyone. Totenkopf couldn’t bring himself to do the same, but what he set in motion nearly did.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Other than Polly being a klutz as well as New York’s best reporter, she was treated fairly. Sky Captain‘s world is, of course, a whitewashed one. Conran had a chance to reinvent the pulp genre and failed.


  • Those menacing drones loading the animals had logos emblazoned on their fronts that looked suspiciously like Mickey Mouse ears.

Summary (33/68): 49%

I wish I had seen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow as a child. I would have loved it. Dashing derring-do and other outdated adjectives seemed the rage in the early third of the 20th century, and Sky Captain was a beautiful homage to it.

The visuals and onscreen technologies fit the mold of retrofantasy. I wish the actors had more physical stuff to work with, because some actors (cough-Paltrow-cough) struggled to communicate emotional urgency.

Take a drink and fall into the world of Sky Captain. It’s no Indiana Jones, but you won’t leave bored.