Okay, I'll admit it. When I first saw the trailer for 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow' in theaters last year, 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' finally hit theaters in the Fall, 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 even less than a year 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,' watching it for the first time now on HD DVD, it is 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 I have to give it points because its intentions were certainly in the right place. The plot, however slight, harks 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 of course being the most obvious examples), and it is hard to imagine this film wouldn't have been a hit back in the late '70s or early '80s. So I guessed we the audience have just changed, because 'Sky Captain,' whatever its charms, seemed like an instant anachronism the day it hit theaters.
There is both 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 the same problem I have 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 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 never destined to be anything more than a cult film at best. I know some will surely 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 already 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.
As I said above, 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 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 ill-defined that I kept wanting to spray Windex on the screen.
My personal distaste for the film's visual look aside, 'Sky Captain' on HD DVD still does not offer the level of an upgrade over standard DVD as most of the other HD DVD titles I've reviewed. 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. That's how I felt watching 'Sky Captain.' 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 the HD DVD format. 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 noticed increased detail and depth to the image compared 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 on the HD DVD. No, the level of improvement is not close to the best upgrades I've seen on 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.
First, a disappointment -- the back of the packaging indicates the inclusion of a DTS-HD soundtrack, but the disc menu itself only lists a standard DTS 5.1 surround option. Alas, since the first-generation Toshiba HD DVD players do not yet support DTS-HD, it would be impossible to listen to the track anyway, and all my Toshiba HD-XA1 was able to output was standard DTS 5.1. Unfortunately, the confusion between what the packaging says and what the menu says is frustrating, and watch this space for an update when we can get a confirmation from Paramount on just what DTS sound format is actually encoded on the disc.
Aside from that caveat, both the DTS track and the Dolby Digital-Plus mix provided on the disc are quite excellent. 'Sky Captain' boasts incredibly aggressive sound design -- your rear channels will definitely get a workout with this one. The sense of envelopment is palpable -- sounds 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. 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 two complaints. First, both the DTS and Dolby Digital-Plus tracks on this HD DVD seems like they were set at a lower volume level than normal. I had to turn my receiver's volume knob up considerably compared to other HD DVD titles I've reviewed (aside from the early Warner releases, which were plagued with lower volume settings). Certainly, this is a minor quibble, but it does get annoying when you pop in another disc later and almost get blown out of your living room. Second and more disappointing, 'Sky Captain' suffers from poorly-balanced dialogue versus the score and effects. This is another one of those mixes where the spoken word is often overwhelmed by all the bombast. No, it is not as bad as the worst mismatched levels 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 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 HD DVD edition as well. It's a nice batch of extras that is quite comprehensive on 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 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 wasn't intended otherwise.
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 "America's Funniest Bloopers" specials with Dick Clark. And the last of the major extras is 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 prove how boring it must be for an actor to sit in front of a blue screen all day, spouting lines.
Last but not least are the film's three theatrical trailers. And in a cool touch that I think only Paramount is currently offering, all are encoded in full 1080p. Sweet!
'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow' has already become a cult film despite having bombed at the box office. No, it is not for everyone and I was not entirely a fan of its CGI excesses. But this HD DVD certainly delivers, with a transfer that is perhaps as good as is possible considering the source material, an incredibly aggressive soundtrack and tons of extras. Along with other first-batch Paramount HD DVD releases like 'Sahara,' the studio has proved with 'Sky Captain' it already stands shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow high-def-supporting studios like Warner and Universal.