Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Featurettes, Art Gallery, Short Film, Deleted Scenes, Gag Reel, Anatomy Of A Scene, Theatrical Trailers

A virtual testament to fantastic cinema of the last 70 years, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" was a title begging for HD's increased resolution. The 2004 film recently bowed as Paramount Home Entertainment's first wave of HD-DVD releases under the "Paramount High Definition" banner and, unlike the movie, the HD-DVD does not disappoint.

Taking a cue from George Lucas' "digital backlot" concept, writer/director Kerry Conran created the alternate 1930's world of "Captain" from digital scratch. A respectable cadre of actors – including Jude Law, Giovanni Ribisi and Oscar winners Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie — emoted across giant bluescreens, bereft of even the smallest reality of a table or chair. (To be fair, some scenes utilized props and minimal set decoration, like a door or stairs.) The computers did the rest, transporting them (and us) into a densely visualized environment, with parts stitched together from the original "King Kong," the Fleischer "Superman" cartoons, Buster Crabbe's "Flash Gordon" serial, George Pal's "When Worlds Collide," H.G. Wells' "Things to Come," an actual clip from "The Wizard of Oz" and even a nod or two to "Citizen Kane."

I try not to give away too much here, but I do have a couple of spoilers in the next two paragraphs. Just a warning…

The plot itself is sparse: Pert newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow) receives a mysterious message from a scientist who tells her that he is the next to disappear, following a long list of distinguished scientists who have mysteriously vanished. When she asks who is behind the kidnappings, he utters a single name: "Tottenkopf." Their meeting is interrupted when Manhattan is attacked by a fleet of skyscraper-tall robots. When all seems lost, the call goes out to Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Law)! Sky Captain and his intrepid crew intercept and temporarily hold back the invasion. Aided by tech whiz Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) and his British counterpart, Captain Franky Cook (Jolie) in her flying fortress, Joe and Polly follow leads to a mysterious island, where they uncover – and must foil — Tottenkopf's ultimate plan, involving a "Noah's Ark" spaceship and the total destruction of Earth!

There's a lot to like about "Sky Captain." It's eye-candy of the highest order. The story is compelling, but not taxing. All the actors seem to be having a good time, practically winking at the camera at every possible chance. After all, when you've got a villain named "Tottenkopf," or German for "dead head," what's not to like? So why don't I love "Sky Captain?" For all the above reasons. Pastiche filmmaking is a tricky business, especially when it comes to grafting high special effects technology onto classic film moments/icons. A cinematic soufflé is a delicate endeavor and too much or too little of any ingredient will doom it. Yes, it worked back in 1977 with "Star Wars," and we've been seeing that formula applied – with various degrees of success – ever since. I admit watching the giant robot attack straight out of the Fleischer's "Mechanical Monsters" Superman cartoon gave me goosebumps, but there comes a point where over-reliance on that type of plot shorthand becomes tiresome at best and at worst intrusive. Without a real grip on the story, the weight of all those zeros and ones become unbearable. But perhaps the greatest contribution of "Sky Captain's" special effects is that Conran digitally brought back one of the 20th Century's greatest actors and, more importantly, in a completely organic manner. (Revolutionary in 2004, we've now seen the process resurrect Marlon Brando's Kal-El in this summer's "Superman Returns.")

HD is the perfect vehicle to truly enjoy a film like this and the HD-DVD does not disappoint. Filmed in a combination monochrome-color scheme, the film has a highly stylized visual look. The 1.78 HD picture is clear and sharp, with absolutely no distracting artifacts or source element blemishes. Details like the wear on the mechanical monster's metal skin and the jungle foliage really benefits from all those extra lines of resolution. There's a slight softness to the overall image, but I chalk that up as intentional, not flaws in the mastering or authoring. Any film celebrating the 30's will be filled with shadows — along with the potential of poor contrast ratio. Not here; black levels are deep and pure and detail delineation consistently impressive.

Audio is available via Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 and DTS 5.1. (The package says DTS-HD, but the menu states: "DTS 5.1.") Using the digital audio output from the HD-A1, both the DD+ and DTS bitstreams are output as DTS to my A/V receiver. As a result, both options represent a very satisfying and quite aggressive surround experience. The 5.1 mix makes full use of the discrete audio palette, with smooth front-to-back and side-to-side pans occurring on a regular basis during the presentation. Dialogue is nicely legible, even when competing with jungle sounds, explosions or laser zaps. As for the LFE, I suggest taking the volume down a notch when the giant robots stomp down Sixth Avenue. The disc also offers French and Spanish DD+ 5.1 selections.

All the supplements are ported from the SD DVD release. They include separate audio commentaries from producer Jon Avnet and one with writer/director Kerry Conran and several of the key FX personnel; four featurettes on the creating the film's look, the principal photography and the months of animation and compositing; two deleted scenes, a gag reel, and three theatrical trailers. All the extras are presented in 480i SD. Exclusive to HD are the presentation of the three theatrical trailers in 1080p and DD+ 5.1 and something called "Previews," basically a promo for Paramount High Definition titles. For more in-depth coverage of the supplements, please consult the site's SD DVD review by Alan Lindsay.

Interestingly, this HD-DVD doesn't have the option of calling up the special features while the film is playing, like the Warner and Universal HD-DVDs do. While at first I thought of that feature as unnecessary, I have to admit I was surprised – and a little frustrated – to find it missing here. I'm starting to like the idea of calling up all the disc's contents during the presentation. With "Sky Captain," you can access the audio commentaries during the film – no different from hitting the "audio" button on the remote. Here's hoping future Paramount HD discs incorporate interactive "in-movie" menu control.

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" definitely benefits from HD, but has a few issues succeeding as a plain ol' movie. Still, it's one of those HD demo titles that early adopters, including this one, love to have at their disposal. Make sure to pop a lot of popcorn for this one.