I am introducing a new series today: I am calling it Cinema Second Look. We are going to revisit films that are misunderstood, miscategorized, or got something wrong. I often have these debates with friends and cinephiles and I thought a blog post might be a fun way to expand this into the interwebs. And after seeing The Secrets of Dumbledore over the weekend, I figured we’d kick off with another Jude Law film, one of my favorites.
I remember the buzz and sheer excitement of Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow when it was announced. There was no other film like it at the time, (or since, for that matter). I was immediately hooked when I first saw it. The cast was huge, with Jude Law as the eponymous hero, one of five films he headlined in 2004, as well as Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, arguably at the top of her box office earning power. Hell, the film even had Laurence Olivier in it, and he’d been deceased 15 years at the time of the premiere!
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first exposure to the various “punk” worlds; in this case, dieselpunk (though an argument could also be made for rocketpunk). My subsequent interest and love for steampunk comes back to this film.
Writer-director Kerry Conran evoked a world of yesteryear for this film, evident from the opening titles, with it’s epic soundtrack, which I still listen to weekly. It was a truly cinematic experience that I will never forget. And it should go down in history as a watershed piece of cinema, if not one of the most important films of the 21st century.
No, you didn’t read that last sentence wrong. I’ll explain why shortly.
The film started out as a short that Kerry worked on during his down time. There are various sources that stated he’d lock himself in his apartment and craft the short on his iMac. If I recall correctly, one outlet said Conran once staying in his place and worked on it for 31 straight hours.
It’s awfully sad that this film didn’t do well at the box office (only $15 million opening weekend and $58 million during its run), and was largely considered a disappointment. It led to Kerry Conran’s version of John Carter (his test reel for it can be seen here) and largely disappearing from Hollywood (making only a short film in 2012 – Gumdrop).
This second look isn’t going to try and convince you of the merits of the plot or acting: as Olly Richards says in a 2015 article on the film: it has”some stiff line readings and uneven plotting”, the film is momentous in how its made.
The entire film was shot in front of a green/blue screens. No sets were built for it, and very few props were constructed. The entirety of the film, including its very unique look on screen, were done in computers of 13 VFX houses- necessitated by a shift forward in release date.
Today, digital backlots are commonplace, used the world over to take moviegoers to unseen worlds, recreate the past or go anywhere that’s needed to tell a story. That’s it very common (and advanced to the point to be completed in less than 18 months) is, in large part, due to Kerry Conran’s vision – which is why it’s a historically important film.
Kerry doesn’t talk about his experience, and likely won’t ever direct a big-budget Hollywood film again. Because of his work, he doesn’t really have to, as VFX software is affordable nowadays. I’d love to see him make something. His imagination, as proven by Sky Captain, is vast, and I’d wager he has another unique way to tell a story.
Hollywood owes a debt to Kerry Conran, and sadly they won’t acknowledge it. Hopefully, someday, someone like AMPAS can recognize him, but until then, we have his wonderfully unique vision to enjoy.
And since the industry won’t say it, I will: Thank you, Mr. Conran, for creating something extraordinary that taps into our imaginations and helps us believe the impossible is possible.