On paper, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow sound a lot like a movie that George Lucas or Steven Spielberg would have made in the 80’s. The plot is right up their alley: it’s about a dashing pilot who trots around the globe fighting evil robots and sinister Germans. The cast of characters is also right up their alley: in addition to our rouge-ish hero, there is a hopelessly square inventor who acts as a sidekick and a plucky reporter love interest who gives as good as she gets. The Sky Captain also has so many old war buddies that if he gets stuck in Tibet or in the middle of the ocean he’ll run into someone he knows that can save him. The tone is the same, too, winkingly referencing the old movie serials that were popular before television really took off – mostly sci-fi influenced action and adventure, but with a pinch of kid-friendly comedy and romance, too.
Unfortunately, Sky Captain can’t live up to the legacy that Spielberg and Lucas left behind: it feels inert in a way that Indiana Jones never did. (The Indiana Jones movie that everyone is trying to pretend never happened might have been dumb – but it wasn’t dull.) There are a lot of reasons why Sky Captain might lack that same spark, but I think the main reason is the Sky Captain himself.
Jude Law can be a fine actor, but he just doesn't have the right mixture of playfulness and gravity to play a character like the Sky Captain. He’s the Mitt Romney of action stars: with his good hair and strong jaw he has the look down pat, and he has mastered a few of the requirements of the role, but he just isn’t versatile enough to handle the whole job. Law does fine in the fight scenes, whether they are green screened air battles or one on one fist fights. He even does well at delivering goobledygook exposition with conviction, which can be the hardest thing for an actor to pull off in a movie like this. But he completely lacks the devil-may-care charm that his character is supposed to have, and he isn’t fluid enough to make the back-and-forth repartee with his brassy dame sound as funny and charming as it’s meant to be. He consistently underplays the Sky Captain when the only way to turn that stock character into something vivid would be to make him larger than life.
Honestly, Law’s performance is so one sided that it really made me reconsider what a good actor Harrison Ford is. Ford inhabits the role of a cocky rogue better than just about anyone: he knows when to emphasize the smugger aspects of his personality so that his characters don’t seem like a bland pushover, but he also knows when to pull back so that he doesn’t seem like an asshole. Both Han Solo and Indiana Jones are perfectly calibrated characters, consistently likeable, but imminently capable of being a jerk – which makes them dependable but unpredictable. It isn’t until you see a competent actor like Jude Law try so hard to pull that balance off and fail that you realize how tricky that sort of character really is.
Of course, Ford would have been too old for the role, but there was someone else who could have fit the part perfectly. If the filmmakers had called Robert Downey Jr. (who was in movie jail at the time because of his history of drug problems) they could have captured the Iron Man lightning in a bottle a few years before Marvel did. The only reason why the workmanlike plot feels so inert is because there's no vitality in any of the characters, all of whom seem like archetypes plucked from generic stories from four generations ago - but Downey is never inert on the screen. He could have lit a fire under this movie, both by adding comic zip to the sadly straight forward story and by putting a real spark in the romance subplot with Gwyneth Paltrow. But while Iron Man had the smarts to keep Jude Law on the sidelines (he voices Jarvis, the computer that helps control Iron Man's suit), here he's front and center - and the movie suffers for it.
If the had cast a better actor as the Sky Captain this movie could have really worked. It looks amazing – the entire production design is heavily influenced by art deco, which gives it a nice retro feel without making it feel too dated. The killer robots are inspired by old pulpy sci-fi magazines, but they’re fleshed out in a way that feels three d and real. The cinematography is also great – the film’s color palette is not quite black and white, but it’s close, meaning that it evokes a bygone era without losing the power to be eye-popping. Yes, all of it is beholden to classic sci-fi tropes, but being rendered so beautifully has to count for something... But in this case, that something just isn't enough.
It's crazy how close Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow got to being a great movie and how short it fell from that lofty goal. After all, the Spielberg / Lucas formula was sitting there waiting for a talented filmmaker to breathe new life into it, but this movie blew it by copying the broad outlines of their stories without capturing their spirit. Ah well... I suppose I can always re-watch Iron Man if I need to satisfy my jones for new Indiana Jones stories.