Non format-specific portions of this review were originally published in our HD DVD review of 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.'
Non format-specific portions of this review were originally published in our HD DVD review of 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.'
Okay, I'll admit it. When I first saw the trailer for 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow' in theaters, I snickered. It just looked goofy and retro, the kind of movie that kids would think was old-fashioned and stupid, and that had no chance at box office success. Alas, as it turns out I was right, for when 'Sky Captain' hit in theaters, it grossed a measly $37 million (and only another $20 million overseas). Any hopes Paramount had hoped for an Indiana Jones-style franchise starter were quickly dashed, and two years later, the film is more of a curious footnote in the history of effects cinema -- one that most people have already likely forgotten.
Which is a bit of a shame, because even though I laughed along with most other moviegoers at the very idea of 'Sky Captain,' when I finally saw the film myself on video, I discovered it to be a cute, charming movie, one that's idealistic and uplifting in a day and age when cinema sorely needs both. No, I don't love the film, but at least its intentions were in the right place. The plot, however slight, harkens back to the old serials of the '30s and '40s, when square-jawed heroes in biplanes saved damsels in distress from giant alien robots intent on world destruction. The only difference between 'Sky Captain' and a grainy old serial is that it uses the latest in computer-generated imagery to reimagine the past. It's both retro and futuristic in style and tone -- certainly, nothing new (with the 'Indiana Jones' and 'Star Wars' films being the most obvious examples), and it is hard to imagine this film wouldn't have been a huge hit back in the late '70s or early '80s. So I guess we (the audience) have just changed, because 'Sky Captain,' whatever its charms, seemed like an instant anachronism the day it hit theaters.
There was a lot I enjoyed and much I didn't about 'Sky Captain.' But surprisingly, it wasn't the film's technical achievement that impressed me; actually, the all-CGI milieu (almost 100 percent of 'Sky Captain' was shot with actors in front of green screen, with the action painted in later by computer) quickly wears out its welcome and it doesn't really suit the film's story. Honestly, I would have enjoyed the film more if it had taken the old-school approach of an 'Indiana Jones' movie or even the recent 'Sahara.' In many ways, what bothered me the most about 'Sky Captain' is what's bothered me with the new 'Star Wars' movies. Despite all the supposed derring do and old-fashioned adventure inherent in the story, the all-CGI world renders it sterile. It's just far less fun to watch Anakin Skywalker standing in front of a painted-in backdrop than it is to watch Harrison Ford outrun a real-live gigantic boulder in the jungles of South America.
So with all the distracting CGI razzmatazz, it was ultimately the film's themes and characters that I had to respond to. Though the plot is pedestrian (lowly reporter Gwenyth Paltrow teams up with brass flyboy Jude Law to thwart the evil plot of a mad scientist bent on destroying the world, and that's about it), I like the simplicity in which the filmmakers and cast approach the movie -- it's all tongue-in-cheek, but not throwaway. Paltrow vamps it up, Law flashes his usual charming grin, and Angelina Jolie -- as a duplicitous military leader -- chews each line like it was black licorice. Yes, we are supposed to take the story seriously, but only as great popcorn fun. More akin to Richard Donner's original 'Superman' than darker recent comic book movies like the 'Batman' and 'X-Men' movies, 'Sky Captain' is quite nostalgic despite all the hi-tech toys at its disposal.
Ultimately, however, 'Sky Captain' was probably destined to never be anything more than a cult film at best. I know some love the film's visual design, with its vast horizons, desaturated colors and art deco set design, which purely on its own terms is indeed a true work of art. But I still wonder what the point of it all was supposed to be? Was 'Sky Captain' meant to thrill us as a living, breathing motion picture, or simply dazzle us as a technical experiment? By the time of the film's climax, I was growing restless, yearning to watch an 'Indiana Jones' film instead -- with real live sets, and actors not talking to CGI creations. I still give props to 'Sky Captain' because its retro-heart was squarely in the right place, but it is hard to imagine anyone but lovers of special effects and '40s-era nostalgia getting much more out of it than a 102-minute special effects demo reel.
I previously reviewed two of Paramount's first wave of Blu-ray launch titles, 'Four Brothers' and 'U2 Rattle and Hum,' and found that those transfers looked slightly smoother than their HD DVD counterparts, if also a bit softer. Nothing spectacularly noticeable, but present nonetheless to the discerning eye. However, 'Sky Captain' for me is more on par with the results of my HD DVD versus Blu-ray comparisons of Warner's titles. Namely, I can't tell a dime's worth of difference between the two formats on this one.
As I said before, I am not a fan of the visual look of 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.' I know it is supposed to be surreal and unrealistic, but it is really more an animated film than live action -- and not a very good-looking one at that. While I loved the visual homages to such grand cinematic achievements of the past like Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' and George Melies 'A Trip to the Moon,' 'Sky Captain' smears everything under a CGI blur, with colors desaturated to ugly shades of brown and any sense of real detailed down-res'd to a computer-generated distraction. At times the image looked so soft and poorly defined that I wanted to spray Windex on the screen.
My personal distaste for the film's visual look aside, 'Sky Captain' on Blu-ray offers no difference from the HD DVD, nor a huge upgrade over the standard DVD release of the film. There just isn't enough inherent detail in the original image to give high-def's superior resolution much to chew on. It is sort of like when someone gives you a blurry, bland polaroid to scan in in Photoshop -- there is only so much sharpening and coloring you can do to pump it up. Sure, there is a bit more fine detail visible than ordinary DVD, but the film still looks so soft and pale it is far from the ideal candidate in which to show off the improvements of high-def. And no, this film is never "photo-realistic" -- it always looks like just what it is, a bunch of actors standing in front of computer-generated backdrops.
That said, in all respects this is a perfectly fine transfer given the source material, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Blacks appear to be correct, though because the film is so processed and "bleached out" even the darkest scenes have a silver tone to them that some may mistake for incorrect black levels. Colors are also accurately reproduced given the film's stylistic intentions, though hues are so severely desaturated the image looks smeared by default. Given that, I noticed no visible chroma noise or bleeding. The transfer is also very soft, with nary a single sharp line anywhere in the film. However, I did notice increased detail and depth to the image compared to the standard DVD -- for example, I could read words on a blimp high in the sky and the insignias on the military outfits more readily here. No, the level of improvement is not close to the best upgrades I've seen on either Blu-ray or HD DVD, but again, given the intended visual look of 'Sky Captain,' this is probably as detailed as this film is going to look on home video.
'Sky Captain' sounded damn fine on HD DVD when I reviewed it a few months back, and thankfully we get the same mix repackaged on Blu-ray. Presented here as a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track encoded at 640kbps (don't worry about the missing "Dolby Digital-Plus" designator, it is not required when labeling Blu-ray titles featuring six-track or less soundtracks), it provides an excellent level of envelopment and sensory overload.
Listening to 'Sky Captain' again a second time, I have the same reaction -- the film boasts incredibly aggressive sound design and your rear channels will definitely get a workout with this one. As is often the case with largely CGI films like this, their soundtracks are also "built up" piece by piece, with little in the way of natural or "production" sound. A couple of the film's sequences -- in particular the early first attack by the giant robot-things -- deliver as well-executed and precise sound design as I've heard in a movie.
The result is a very gigantic and crushing tone to the sound. The sense of atmosphere is palpable -- effects are directed all across the soundfield with terrific imaging that feels seamless. Dynamic range is also stellar, with a sense of clarity and realism to the sound effects that really makes you feel like the soundtrack is a living, breathing entity. Low bass is also intense, delivering deep .1 LFE frequencies that are suitably ominous and foreboding. (At times I thought I was listening to 'Triumph of the Will,' not 'Sky Captain.') I know, that sounds over-the-top, but when you crank this mix up it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer sonic assault of it all.
Alas, I do have one complaint. Like its HD DVD counterpart, 'Sky Captain' suffers from poorly-balanced dialogue versus the score and effects. This is another one of those mixes where the actors are often overwhelmed by all the bombast. No, it is not as bad as the worst I've heard, but I did have to either adjust my volume frequently to compensate, or resort to turning the subtitles on just so I could understand what the characters were saying.
Paramount produced a wealth of value-added content for the standard DVD release of 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow' and they've ported it all over for this Blu-ray edition as well. Seeing as how anemic so many of the early Blu-ray releases have been, it's nice to see such a healthy batch of extras, offering comprehensive detail about the making of this very unique film.
Starting things off are two audio commentaries, the first with producer Jon Avnet and the second with director Kerry Conran and his effects team, including production designer Kevin Conran, animation director Steve Yamamoto and visual effects supervisor Darin Hollings. Unfortunately, these have to be a couple of the driest commentaries I've heard in a long while. Am I allowed to say I was dead bored through both of them? It is not just that the tracks are largely technical in focus, but that no one has much of anything enlightening to share. We already know that the film was shot largely in front of blue screen, etc., but all we get is little more than too much dead space and unenthusiastic mentions of when props and sets were used instead of CGI. And that's about it. Eek.
Much better are the making-of featurettes. The two-chapter "Brave New World" runs a combined 55 minutes and is quite a comprehensive overview of the film's production. Anyone who thinks making movies is glamorous should check this one out, because the vast majority of the film was either created by a team of effects artists in dark cubby holes or on a nondescript soundstage in Van Nuys, California. "Brave New World" is also interesting because of the the story of Kerry Conran himself, who was never a Hollywood player yet somehow managed to convince Paramount to spend $70 million on what started out as a lowly six-minute short film, as well as convince a cast of major stars to appear in his self-described "dream project." And the fact that the film flopped also adds a bit of poignancy to the doc that clearly wasn't intended.
Next up is effects-related featurette "The Art of the World of Tomorrow." This short piece stars production designer Conran and the thousands of sketches that were required to create the look of the film. There is also a sorta-funny Gag Reel with plenty of blown takes, though all as innocuous as anything you'll see on those Dick Clark Bloopers specials. There are also a pair of Deleted Scenes, both of which are fully rendered sequences. "Totenkopf's Torture Chamber" is surprisingly dark and seems like something out of 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,' while "The Conveyer Belt" is just an alternate version of the existing scene in the finished film.
But perhaps the most interesting feature is the Original Six-Minute Short Film that inspired 'Sky Captain.' Since it was so key to the conception and development of the film it would have been almost sacrilegious not to include it, and it is definitely worth a watch. Surprisingly, much of what was in the short made it it into the final film in some form, which only makes this an even cooler addition.
Rounding out the extras is a "bonus" featurette, "Anatomy of a Virtual Scene." This was originally available only as part of a special Paramount bonus disc promotion with Best Buy, and the full eight-minute vignette is included here. It doesn't add to much after all the other extras, but it does show how boring it must be for an actor to sit in front of a blue screen all day, spouting dialogue to nobody...
Last but not least are the film's three theatrical trailers, all are encoded in full 1080p video.
'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow' has already become a cult film despite having died a quick death at the box office. No, it is not for everyone, and I was not entirely a fan of its CGI excesses. But fans should appreciate this Blu-ray release, with a transfer that is perhaps as good as is possible considering the source material, an incredibly aggressive soundtrack, and tons of extras. It's an all-around solid release on Blu-ray and worth checking out.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.