Sept. 3, 2005
Diagnosing Sky Captain
Just Say, "Awe"?
Nearly a year ago, I wrote an
editorial about the movie (just then
released), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, starring Jude
Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. That was the flick about a
pulp-style 1930s' air Ace and his spunky "Margo Lane"
racing to save mankind from the machinations of an evil genius (played
postumously by Lawrence Olivier), involving every pulp fiction sci-fi
staple from giant robots to rocket packs to ray guns -- and all of it
(except the actors themselves) supposedly added in Post-Production
using computers. Remember? Actually, my editorial was about
that we might someday see, in the none-too-distant future, "single
credit" blockbuster movies -- that is, movies that are literally the
product of a single artist of many hats, without the assistance of the
usual army of technicians and "gofers" now mustered to make even the
simplest movie a reality. I pointed to
Sky Captain as a harbinger of such a future. Not there
hm, brother, can you taste it?
At the time, I was somewhat handicapped by not having actually seen
Sky Captain and was going by what I had read in reviews and
That and Ebert and Roeper (They from whom all wisdom springs.
Amen.). Based on that admittedly Spartan research, I predicted
that, when the time came to actually see it, I expected I would find
computer effects good but
unconvincing, and strangely muddy and washed out. Well, the other
day, I finally
got around to watching Sky Captain when it premiered on
Canadian television and I thought it might be interesting to revise my
previous remarks in light of that increased knowledge.
Interested? Right then. Ushers, lock the doors.
Now, having seen it in its entirety, I find my
reaction wasn't what I expected at all. In my previous editorial,
I believe the phrase "eye-popping stuff"
was how I described the Sky Captain effects based on my limited
knowledge. Make no mistake, I
enjoyed Sky Captain. It was a very good movie, oddles of
especially for those of us who worship at the altar of the Pulp
gods. Fast paced, mildly funny, vaguely suspenceful, very, very
imaginative -- I had a good time. And the special effects were
certainly as interesting as they were plenitful. You couldn't
have asked first-time director Kevin Conran to have crammed in any
more, I don't
think. One more super-scientific gadget and I think he would have
had to pay a government tax or something. (Even I'm not sure what
But to be "eye-popping stuff" calls for something more than mere
"interesting". It has to reach us in a deep, visceral level, to
really touch that cord, that involuntary nerve which makes our jaws
drop and our eyes dilate and leaves us feeling awe-struck and shaken,
as if we have really seen something.
It leaves us feeling humble.
And, at first, I thought Sky Captain was going to pull it
After all, when was the last time you saw a movie that begins with a
zeppelin in all its vast and gleaming glory? Begins. There was no
particular reason for it. Conran was just setting the game rules
for those of us who hadn't read the reviews, showing us that, thanks to
computer effects, the sky is literally no longer the limit.
Zeppelin? Why not? While we're at it, why not make it dock
with the old airship tower on the peak of the Empire State
Building. No sweat. One docking airship, coming up.
nothing compared to what we got waiting in the wings. We can toss
this stuff off in our sleep.
Then, barely had Conran finished wowing us with his zeppelin than
-- Great Caesar's Ghost! In the skies
overheard, like a swarm of World War II Japanese Zeros... that's
right. Giant robots! And not just one, but a whole
humming squadron of glistening metal
monsters. (Or malevolent mechanical meta-men, as Stan The Man
have put it.)
And these were real robots. Not gaily hued manga inspired
Power Ranger wannabees animated by Japanese breakdancers. These
were real robots, looking
precisely the way you know real
giant robots would look if some real
evil genius really did build them and unleash them on a real unsuspecting world. But
as interesting as they were soaring in formation overhead, it wasn't
long before those robots set down in the middle of the city and then...
It was just about then I realized something was wrong. It was
wrong precisely because everything seemed so right. Those vastly
clanking metal colossi marching titanically down the narrow city
streets, their gleaming metal feet crushing cars like diary milk
cartons, crowds of horrified citizens fleeing hysterically before them,
police vainly firing off round after useless round from their puny
pistols and, then, the heroine herself (Gwyneth Paltrow) unable to
escape in time, finding herself dodging in and out of their stamping
feet, like a little pixie caught in some giant mindless threshing
machine. It was all so perfectly precisely the way it ought to
One thing was missing. Interesting it was. Imaginative
and brilliant and evocative. But it just wasn't "eye popping
stuff". As the film progressed and more and more marvels were
unveiled, the problem just became more and more evident. Given
the sheer size of the robots, the level of the destruction, the
ingenuity that went into dreaming it all up, I would have bet good
money my reaction would be one of awe. I should have felt
humbled. Instead, I just found myself thinking: "Hm, that's
pretty cool. That's even more cool. That's all
right. That's pretty cool..." Cool, yes...but not eye
The reason, I realized, for this lack of eye-poppingness was that,
as good as they were, the computer generated effects came nowhere near
convincing me that they were
real. I don't mean real robots. Obviously I know the robots
in Star Wars weren't real
robots. They were actors in
costumes. But they were real actors in real costumes. And
thus, when something was real big in Star
Wars, like, say, those shaggy
elephantine "Banthas" on the planet Tatooine, the effect (at least for
this viewer) was to stare pop-eyed, with dropped jaw, amazed and
awestruck and, yes, humbled.
In spite of the apparent grandeur of computer generated effects
mustered for Sky Captain, they never succeeded in convincing me
seeing anything more than a really impressive cartoon. Nor was
that far from the effect Conran was going for, I suspect. The
entire look of the thing was purposely designed (by Conran's brother)
to evoke the legendary cartoons of the great animator, Max Fleischer,
especially his short Superman vignettes which used to play in theatres
before the main attraction. And in that the Conrans entirely
succeeded. It was amazingly evocative, not only in the set
but even in the way Conran composed the shots, and the impossibly
speed of the action. It looked uncannily like those Max Fleischer
And that was the problem. It looked like a cartoon. Only
like a cartoon. I was no more awed by the sight of the heroine
barely avoiding a colossal swinging metal foot than I would have been
had she dodged a passing shadow. It looked like what it was -- an
actress miming avoiding something that wasn't really there. By
comparison, I vividly remember the
scene in the second Star Wars
movie, The Empire Strikes Back,
Luke Skywalker's "snowspeeder" has crashed in the path of a giant
metal "Walker". I was on the edge of my seat as he scrambled to
get clear of the wreck even as the vast metal foot descended on it like
the world's biggest library stamp (God, I miss those.). Now that was a big foot.
More importantly, that foot was real -- in that, it was a real
object that really was that huge.
I suppose I'm not saying anything that I haven't said a zillion
times previously in the course of these editorials. Sure, I
already knew I found computer generated effects to be cartoony
and unconvincing. I didn't care for the computer generated Hulk,
nor Spider-Man, nor Cat Woman. (Who in their right mind hires
Halle Barry, dresses her up in a revealing dominatrix get-up,
then replaces her with a computer generated image? Were
they mad?) In fact, I
think the only computer generated character that truly impressed me was
probably Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. That scene where his
evil half is chewing out his weaker half just about had me in
tears. But other than Gollum, the rest have pretty well left me
cold. Still, I knew all this before. But, until I saw Sky
I don't think I quite realized how complicated the problem might
be. It might even be intractable.
The problem is, in Sky Captain the computer effects were
realistic enough to fool us into not consciously noticing how unreal
they really were (and try saying that after tying on a few).
Which is why most people would balk at calling
"cartoon" where they would have no such problem with something like Who
Framed Roger Rabbit? And yet, Roger Rabbit likewise combined
extensive animation with real actors. It's just that its
animation was more traditionally cartoony. So, on a conscious
level, when watching Sky Captain, we feel we should be struck with awe, but on an unconscious level, our minds react
as they would to any other cartoon. We
truly believe in the physical reality of what we are seeing. The
result is, when Gwyneth Paltrow ducks under a giant robot foot,
deep down all we see is Gwyneth Paltrow ducking under a drawing of a giant robot
foot. The result is entertaining and fun, but rarely "eye-popping
The reason I say the problem might be intactable (other than to use
the word "intractable") is that I'm no longer so certain
we will ever see a day when
computer generated special effects are good
enough to truly fool us into believing in their physical reality.
I realize that is heresy in this day and age (All hail Industrial Light
and Magic and the Great God George!). It is simply taken for
granted that creativity will follow a smooth curve to perfection, that
computer generated art must
steadily improve with the inevitable result
that someday it will be indistinguishable from the real thing.
But is that necessarily so?
Experience tells us that the human mind's ability to detect the
False itself evolves with time and experience. Thus, today's
"ground breaking" special effects are tomorrow's "out-dated" and
"shoddy" effects. We are caught in a sort of Darwinian arms race,
an evolutionary battle between increasingly clever effects and
increasingly fraud resistant audiences, each driving the other
forward. The result may be, not steady improvement to
perfection, but rather what is called an asymptotic curve -- we may get
closer and closer to perfect mimickry, but never quite achieve it
because the human mind is always just one step behind.
But does this mean disaster for the film industry? Far from
it. At least, not on a level that really matters.
(Ka-ching,) Because I can easily see a future where most special
effects are cartoony and unconvincing but everyone pretends not to
notice. It is my brother's contention that the reason the
effects wizards have gotten this far is because a new audience is just
beginning to enter the market, an audience reared on Nintendo and Sony
Playstation. The younger movie goers today have suckled at the
breast of video game reality and they are prepared to accept a lesser
reality in their movies, so long as it looks like a real sweet
In the climax to Spider-Man II,
the villainous Doc Oc (played by Alfred "You throw me the idol, I'll
throw you the whip" Molina) sacrifices his own life to stop his
gone awry. He leaps into a lake and we see him sink away into
darkness, his face clearly visible until it fades into the downward
distance. It is very important that we see, written on that face, how
he feels in that moment. But, to carry off the effect, director
Sam Raimi daringly used a completely computer generated version of
Alfred Molina, face included. And, yes, it is just good
to fool us into believing it really is Molina sinking into those
waters. But written on Molina's computer generated face?
Zip. It is completely expressionless. Perhaps the animators
wanted it to appear tranquil and at peace. All I know is that
they might as well have sunk a statue from Madame Tussaud's for all the
performance they managed to coax out of their Cray CPU.
But I didn't hear any complaints. Interpret that how you
will. Either the public's ability to detect the False hasn't yet
caught up, or we have already begun to lower our
standards. Smart money's on the latter.
I guess that's about all I've got to say about Sky Captain and
World of Tomorrow. Before seeing it, I had read reviews that
complained about the small size of Angelina Jolie's part as the tough,
eye-patch wearing Nick Fury clone. And, with that assessment, I
certainly agree. But at least it was really her most of the time.
Alfred Molina, please take note.
You too, Halle.
Jeffrey Blair Latta,
and Supreme Plasmate
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Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
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