The Rocketeer (1991) / Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

"The Rocketeer." This poster sells the concept better than a shot of any actor could.

The Rocketeer Directed by Joe Johnston. Screenplay by Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo; story by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo & William Dear; based upon the comic book by Dave Stevens. Produced by Charles Gordon, Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin. Music by James Horner. Photographed by Hiro Narita. Edited by Arthur Schmidt. Production designed by James D. Bissell. Starring Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn, Ed Lauter, James Handy, Jon Polito, William Sanderson.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow Written, directed and production designed by Kerry Conran. Produced by Jon Avnet, Sadie Frost, Jude Law, Marsha Oglesby. Music by Edward Shearmur. Photographed by Eric Adkins. Edited by Sabrina Plisco. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Gambon, Bai Ling, Omid Djalili, Angelina Jolie, Laurence Olivier (yes, really).

There’s just something about the nature of a WWII-era adventure story that fills me with delight. It’s probably the iconography more than the time period, and clearly I’m not alone, since when a movie like that is made, it overdoses on images that swim through our collective consciousness of the period. The result is less realism and more an idealized fantasy version of the 1930s and 40’s,where every car is a Packard, every hero is a two-fisted tough guy, and every woman has luscious lips and an appetite for tastefully-cut dresses and wear high heels like they were born in them. A time where nightclubs were nightclubs, and reporters were fast-talking wisecrackers, and people were suave, and architecture was gloriously art-deco, and formalwear was worn like pajamas, and good and evil were clearly defined. None of these things have anything to do with the reality of the 1930’s and 40’s, but let us have our dreams.

There is a small little family of movies that share that dream, and I wanted to tackle two of them today in honor of the release of Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which also takes place in this era. The two films are The Rocketeer (also directed by Johnston) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (directed by Kerry Conran). Both movies embrace with open arms the treasure chest of material that influenced Raiders of the Lost Ark: movie serials, comic books, pulp adventure novels, etc. In a lot of ways, both movies can be seen as the children of Raiders, but in each case, something gets lost in the generation gap. If Raiders is a movie that has fun and wit, Rocketeer has only the first quality—it lacks the sly sense of self-parody that made Raiders so unpredictable. On the other hand, that’s still infinitely more engaging than Sky Captain, which is neither fun nor witty.

Let’s tackle the fun movie first. Rocketeer, inspired by a series of Dave Stevens comic books that no one except collectors seems to remember, has the look of the era just right. It has classic cars and classic planes and pretty dames, and a production design that wallows in the joys of the period: they certainly don’t make nightclubs like the lush one seen in this movie anymore, for one thing. The film also has an infectious, gee-whiz attitude, one that is perfectly conducive to the material. It’s the kind of tone that makes it absolutely acceptable for a Depression-era circus pilot (Bill Campbell) to find a prototype jet pack (invented by Howard Hughes!) that makes him a superhero able to soar the skies and become a target for evil Nazi spies. And whaddayaknow, that’s exactly what happens, gosh darn it. And it’s also the kind of movie where the hero’s girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) can preserve a lovely innocence even while wearing low-cut dresses and getting notably ogled by every man onscreen (including W.C. Fields, which in itself is charming).

That very same quality is also what keeps Rocketeer from true greatness – it’s a corny pastiche, and it isn’t quite willing to move beyond that. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a movie that has a sophistication about itself, and finds ways to comment on its own silliness. Rocketeer, on the other hand, is silly stuff played with the upmost sincerity. Are we really supposed to believe that the Nazis would be interested in stealing and mass-producing this crazy jetpack? (A newsreel cartoon where we are shown their plan to invade America with these jetpacks only raises more questions.) For that matter, do they even need the jetpacks when a squad of Nazis is able to materialize on command in the middle of Griffith Park, and a German zeppelin is able to sneak up on our heroes? How are we supposed to view the sight of Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) as a deus ex machina rescue hero, working on the FBI’s payroll? Seriously? The movie makes no comment on these things, it just wants us to believe them, without irony.

But do we need such grown-up sophistication? Perhaps not. Not with a cast as good as this—Campbell, as the hero with the comic-book name “Cliff Secord,” is perfectly serviceable, knowingly white-bread and a little cardboard.  His sidekick, Peevy (Alan Arkin) excels in what can only be called the Alan Arkin role. Connelly is delicious as his girlfriend Jenny; the movie uses her sexiness without ever feeling too exploitative about it. And the movie successfully straddles old and new gender roles: She’s plenty proactive and forthright, thankyewverymuch, even when the movie realizes it must respect tradition and have her, in the end, captured by the evil supervillain.

Oh, and that supervillain, the Errol Flynn-esque Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton)? Top-notch.  A smug little piece of work if there ever was one, Sinclair is a devlish and dapper nasty who sends communiqués to Berlin from a bunker hidden in his gorgeous mansion, and tries to seduce the good girl with money, smooth talk, and chat-ups that are nothing but lines from movies he has appeared in. Dalton clearly has fun with a role that shows him both enjoying the high life of a Hollywood celebrity and, later on, barking commands to Nazis and his mobster flunkies (who ultimately turn on him in an exchange that is both incredibly corny and just kinda fun). If there’s a reason to see Rocketeer, it boils down to the villains: not just Dalton, but the invaluable Paul Sorvino as a Disneyland version of a mobster, and Tiny Ron as the lumbering tough-guy Lothar, who clomps around in makeup that makes him look as much like Frankenstein as is humanly possible.

The movie is just plain fun. It has terrific energy and a gosh-golly art-deco design that extends all the way to the Rocketeer himself, with his bronze helmet with wide eyes and wonderful fins. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention James Horner’s glorious score, which is both lyrical and aggressively whiz-bang (I love it when Horner brings out the brake drum and goes to town). The Rocketeer doesn’t have any depth or much intelligence (at all), but it has heart, joy and spirit. That’s enough.

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." The star is the production design.

Those are qualities that are unfortunately lacking from the much-more expensive (and much less engaging) Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Sky Captain is the kind of movie that is the worst kind of bore: one that keeps insisting (and failing to ultimately prove) how much fun it is being. Based not on a comic book but on a short film that director Kerry Conran made on his home computer, Sky Captain is a technical exercise in search of a narrative. It has a great, sepiatone look and ostentatious production design that pays homage to serials, and it features a downright nifty opening sequence where New York City is menaced by a gang of giant robots (an image taken from an old Max Fleischer Superman cartoon). Then, it kinda gives up any real creativity and just starts going through the motions, as it ticks off 1930’s adventure cliches: girl reporters with moxie, mad scientists, secret islands, monsters, the lost city of Shangri-La, etc. The plot is less a story and more a fast-forward run through of every chapter of a Saturday matinee serial, start to finish. If you’ve ever seen an old serial like that, you know there is no depth. Well, imagine if somehow, some way, somebody had figured out how to give one even less.

But that’s not the problem. The real issue with Sky Captain is its cast (Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, etc.), which lacks almost all traces of joy. Law is the Sky Captain of the title, a hero who flies around in a P-40 Warhawk and defends America from all sorts of weird threats. Paltrow is Polly Perkins, the journalist who has a history with Cap. Oh, to heck with it…you know Superman and Lois Lane? It’s like that, except he isn’t an alien and her initials are different. So far, so archetypal. But although they are fine in other roles, Law and Paltrow are wrong for this material, because their natural instincts are to play down to it. How to account for the fact that Law was one of the producers? Well, this was 2004, a year where he is in roughly 5,639 movies, so I guess a bit of quality control got past him.

What you need for this stuff is acting that looks it straight in the eye, and then has fun with that “misplaced” sincerity. The actors can’t be in on the joke, they have to be a tiny little part of it. The performances here condescend to the material, with the sole exception of Angelina Jolie as kooky sky pirate Franky Cook (yes, you read that right). Perhaps that’s because Jolie is an actress who is refreshingly free of concerns about self-preservation: she looks like she’s having fun. Also Giovanni Ribisi as Cap’s suffering sidekick is ok, because he naturally has the look of one of those hapless 1940’s sidekicks. No offense, Giovanni.

Sky Captain, above all, is not fun. It’s suffocating. Gorgeous, but suffocating. The film was made entirely on a green-screen stage with effects filled in, much like Sin City or the Star Wars prequels. That’s as valid a way to make a movie as any other, I guess, but in order for it to truly work, you need a director who can blend the performances and effects together, to make them feel a part of each other’s world. Conran, as a director, never does that; his actors at all times feel laid on top of the CGI images, and the disconnect between those two levels is fatal. Sure, there are crazy action scenes involving robots and androids and spies, and yadda yadda yadda, but who cares? The actors sure don’t.

Things take an especially unpleasant turn when Laurence Olivier turns up. Now there’s a sentence you weren’t expecting, I’ll bet. Hear me out. Olivier plays the villain, Dr. Toenkopf, via the wonders of manipulated footage (in a performance more lively than Paltrow’s, it must be said). It’s all very cleverly integrated, but what’s the achievement here? To show that it can be done? It’s not the intention, but running throughout Sky Captain is a shallow cynicism that does capture the feel of a 30’s serial, in the worst way: the movie feels like product that doesn’t care to be good or well-done, as long as it exists.

Even the film’s sense of humor is strained; every joke falls flat with a thud. A running gag of Sky Captain pouring shots of antacid to soothe his stomach is laborious. The endless scenes of bickering between Sky Cap and Polly are repetitive, and never funny. The in-jokes and references to other movies that are peppered throughout aren’t delightful, they’re reminders of straight-up better material. The film’s most romantic scene is undermined by a follow-up moment of gay panic, which is oh so hackneyed. And the screenplay has the kernel of a good idea within its final punchline, and then the direction screws that up, too.  The effects are well-done, at least. I adore the retro-look of it, the crazy steampunk qualities, the unmistakable homemade stamp. And I love Edward Sheamur’s score, which is so thrilling it takes your mind off the fact that nothing thrilling is happening.

I like The Rocketeer much more than I like Sky Captain. But to be fair, I kind of like them both, warts and all, in the very way that I can never truly hate a movie like this. It’s too innocent, too sweetly naïve to be hated (compare that to a blockbuster like Transformers 3, for example, which is so hateful it is easy to hate in return). I like Packards, and I like jetpacks, and robots, and villainous Nazis and movie stars. I like these things, and these movies like that I like them. And I like that they like that I like them. And then…well, there you have it. Towards the end of The Rocketeer, our hero is asked what his experience was like, and he says “as close as I’ll ever get to heaven.” And he means it. Try to get that into a movie that takes place today, I dare you. But you can do it if you set it back then.

Ah, those were the days, when it was okay to be corny. We’ve lost something since then. Perhaps not something huge, but something significant just the same. At least we can dream.

NOTES: The torch singer at the Hollywood nightclub is played by Melora Hardin, better known as Michael Scott’s former girlfriend Jan from the US version of The Office. Her singing voice is her own.

Also, the wonderful actor Michael Gambon shows up early in Sky Captain, says a couple of incredibly stiff lines of dialogue, and then departs forever. Misuse of Mr. Gambon, Kerry? For shame.

The Rocketeer GRADE: B

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow GRADE: C-

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1992 – Unforgiven

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 2005 – The Island

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2 thoughts on “The Rocketeer (1991) / Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

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