Kerry Conran and the Raiders of the Genres of Yesterday

So much to write about. Kerry Conran’s (and by gum is it his) Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is the best fun you’re likely to have at the movies (and by gum is it ‘at the movies’) this year, if you go into it with the right expectations. It’s not great art, but it might be the best genre-fuck you’ve ever seen.

I’ve been waiting for it ever since Harry Knowles started doling out a trail of geek-food to ensnare those of us who love such things. It was clear that this was a blue-screen riot. It was clear that it was Conran’s baby. Early press talked stupidly about Conran having ‘invented a computer program’ that allowed him to generate the backgrounds and composite them with live-action actors. Quite apart from the fact that you might ‘invent’ an algorithm, but you write a computer program, I’ve not seen anything about this mysterious program since, and for good reason. What started out as a geeky bedroom project involving Conran and his Mac, ended up being just as much of a special-effects-house free-for-all as anything George Lucas might dream up. Though Conran stayed notionally in control, it was as part of a big team.

However, there are still odd traces left of that bedroom project, and the effect they create is that of a film that we see being made in real-time — one which starts out with a few minutes of Conran-in-his-bedroom, then gradually opens out to something wider, acknowledging that the project had grown with the addition of Paramount money and effects workhorses, and finally splashes onto the screen with complete abandon. It’s as if we were given the first few minutes of A Grand Day Out, which then morphed (or maybe Morph’ed) into the refined craft and derring-do of A Close Shave.

It’s said that the six-minute opening is much as Conran had created it alone, and it shows. There’s a stylisation about these few minutes that speaks of limited resources used effectively. The expressionistic angles, simple composition, and dark shadows are exactly the limited palette that defined noir. In many ways this is the film that I’d expected to see. Insofar as the film is disappointing, it’s that this very personal expressionism isn’t quite followed through. Whether because Conran lost some control due to the massive increase and splintering of effects-work, or whether because he gained more control because of that, the film’s style changes as it progresses. It ends in a very different place, with huge, detailed vistas and dazzling colour.

Given Conran’s gleeful embrace of blue-screen, there are two opposite approaches. The first — which is basically the Lucas/Star Wars approach — is to use that freedom to imagine massive, unbuildable sets, but then to place the actors within those sets as if they were real. The second — which is where Conran begins — is to layer the actors and the blue-screen sets in a stylised, comic-strip manner, almost highlighting their separation to heighten the unreality of the whole process. Hitchcock, after all, didn’t give two hoots about the unreality of much of the projection work he used later in his career. Doesn’t need to look real to be a good story.

A stylistic problem with World of Tomorrow is that it’s not quite sure which of those approaches it’s using. It begins with blue-screen as a stylised noir comic-strip, but finishes with an intent to place the actors convincingly within huge virtual sets. As Lucas has discovered to his cost, by aiming to convince with major virtual sets, the consequence is to invite the audience to notice what’s not convincing and be distracted by it. Moreover, the actors are then forced to try to interact convincingly — rather than symbolically — with those sets, and that’s just plain hard to do. Not even Lucas’s resources have allowed him to conquer that nutty one yet. Conran also falls for this somewhat by the end of the film.

That’s really the beginning and end of my problems with World of Tomorrow, though. I’d prefer that it had aimed for stylised blue-screen more often, and convincing blue-screen less often, partly because that’s what I’d been expecting, partly because at least at the moment it’s a more successful approach to the use of virtual sets, and partly because, well, I think it might have made a good film great. It might also have avoided a bad directorial habit that Conran indulges in more and more as the film shifts into its convincing virtual-set approach. There’s a directorial riff that goes like this: characters open door, or burst from jungle into clearing, or somesuch, with us facing them; their jaws slowly drop as they take in something obviously awesome that they can see but we can’t; our appetites having been whetted, the camera then swings around so we can see. And it is indeed awesome. But the sequence is just way too showy, too pleased with itself. It’s a small child bringing some art project to a parent for praise. It’s the moment in Jurassic Park when we see the dinosaurs for the first time. It’s about showing off the effects, and not about story-telling. Conran lets himself indulge in this gosh-wow practice too many times for his own good.

Reviews I’ve seen which claim that World of Tomorrow has no heart ought to win some sort of prize for missing the point. It’s overflowing with film-geek heart. The love that matters in the film isn’t between characters; it’s between Conran and the movies that he’s stitched together like some mad genius. There’ll be a scouring of the film for references, homages and in-jokes for months to come, and it’ll make a hell of a DVD. King Kong and Buck Rogers figure heavily. There’s a dash of Things To Come here, and of course the obligatory ‘1138’. There’s even, after the first appearance of Virtual Olivier, a nod to Marathon Man that I can’t believe wasn’t intentional.

The cast is entirely good enough, and then a little bit more besides. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow get better and better as the film allows them more time together and they exchange running gags and one-liners like a vaudeville act, never quite believing the lines, but revelling in the bounce and the timing. Angelina Jolie’s cameo is good, but should be better. It’s about time that she either got the British accent right, or gave up on it. She’s far too tight and mannered playing Brits, when she should be loose and campy.

Speaking of Olivier, co-opting his image into the climax is a stroke of amazing daring. What better way to represent a great scientist who’s long dead than with a great actor who’s long dead. There’s enough of him to bring the right sort of gravitas without stretching the point too much.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t just Conran’s first big film, it’s his first film of any size at all. Much would be forgiveable because of that, but there really isn’t very much to forgive. He gets so much right, and hopefully has a long career of the fantastic ahead of him.

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