Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
The film stars Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie. It is set in New York, New York in an alternate 1939 and is a science fiction adventure film. It is the first movie to be shot with actors entirely in front of a bluescreen, with all the sets and nearly all of the props computer-generated. The actors spent only 28 days in principal photography. The role of the villain, Dr. Totenkopf, is "played" by Sir Laurence Olivier, who died in 1989; archive footage of him from the 1940s was manipulated by computer to allow him to make this posthumous film appearance, with another actor dubbing his voice.
Conran incorporated many elements of classic genre films into his. Here is a partial list.
- Metropolis (1927)
- King Kong (1933)
- Flash Gordon (1936)
- Things to Come (1936)
- Lost Horizon (1937)
- The War of the Worlds (1938)
- Buck Rogers (1939)
- Wuthering Heights (1939)
- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
- His Girl Friday (1940)
- Superman (1941)
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
- Dr. Strangelove (1964)
- THX 1138 (1971)
- Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
- Moonraker (1979)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- Forbidden Planet (1956)
- Castle in the Sky (1986)
- Star Trek: The Original Series (1966)
- Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
- Battlestar Galactica (1978)
There are also significant visual elements from the pulp fiction series Biggles and Doc Savage. The steampunk graphic novel Luther Arkwright probably provides the origin of the movie's British craft, but there are other possible sources. Franky Cook, Angelina Jolie's character, seems to have some elements of characters like Nick Fury and Honor Harrington.
The name of the lead heroine is Conran's reference to the famous British song Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green.
The line of poetry "... all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by ...", quoted by the hero, is from the famous poem "Sea-Fever" by John Masefield.
The film opens with the arrival of the Hindenburg III zeppelin in New York City, mooring at the Empire State Building. A frightened scientist named Dr. Jorge Vargas makes arrangements for a package to be delivered to a Dr. Walter Jennings, before vanishing.
Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a newspaper reporter for The Chronicle, is looking into the mysterious disappearances of Vargas and five other renowned scientists. She receives a cryptic message, telling her to go to the Radio City Music Hall movie theater that night. She is warned not to go by her editor (Michael Gambon, reprising the 1940s character he played in the BBC's The Singing Detective). She arrives and encounters Dr. Walter Jennings, who is terrified, and tells her that Dr. Totenkopf (German for "death's head") is coming for him.
Just then, air raid sirens go off, heralding the arrival of numerous massive robots that prove all but unstoppable. In desperation, the police call for the aid of Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), who is known as Sky Captain and commands a private air force, the Flying Legion (perhaps a reference to the British Legion of Frontiersmen, a similar historical 'private army', but more likely inspired by the Flying Tigers, as the P-40 he flies is painted in the same style). Sullivan's attempts to stop the robots are successful in that they leave after he knocks one of them over, and he helps save Polly, who endangered herself while photographing the robots.
The wreckage of one of the robots is brought back to Joe's airstrip, so that Joe's mechanic Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) can examine it. Polly arrives as well, hoping to get information for her story. She and Joe are ex-lovers, who broke up three years earlier due to a fight, which each has a different account of. Joe constantly accuses Polly of sabotaging his airplane, which led to him spending six months in a Manchurian labour camp; Polly accuses Joe of fooling around with another woman while he was in Nanjing. Since Polly has some useful information, Joe agrees to let her in on the investigation.
This takes them to the laboratory of Dr. Jennings, which has been ransacked, and Jennings near death. The culprit, a mysterious woman (Bai Ling), escapes, while the mortally wounded Jennings warns of Dr. Totenkopf's plans. He also gives Polly two vials, which he says are crucial. Polly doesn't tell Joe about the vials, presumably so that she can keep her edge in the investigation.
They return to Joe's base, which comes under attack by squadrons of ornithopter drones. In the ensuing battle, Dex is captured, but he succeeds in leaving behind a clue as to where Totenkopf's base is located.
Joe and Polly track the signal to Nepal, and venture into the Himalaya there, where they find a mining outpost, long abandoned, and are nearly killed by two of Totenkopf's goons, who take the two vials from Polly. Joe and Polly escape but are knocked out by an explosion in the mine. They wake up together in the mythical Shangri-La. The monks who live there tell of Totenkopf's enslavement of their people, forcing them to work in the uranium mines, which killed most of them. The survivors Totenkopf experimented on. The final survivor of the mines and experiments, who is horribly disfigured, provides another clue as to where Totenkopf is hiding.
This leads them to rendezvous with Joe's other ex-flame, Captain Francesca "Franky" Cook (Angelina Jolie), who commands a flying aircraft carrier (which resembles both Captain Scarlet's Cloudbase and the craft in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright) in the Royal Navy. Franky helps them get to Totenkopf's hidden island. Getting in requires an extended trip underwater, making use of amphibious aircraft.
Joe and Polly find themselves inside the mountainous island, which contains numerous new creatures created by Totenkopf, many of which appear to be variations of dinosaurs. They travel to the very centre of the island, where robots are loading domestic and other animals onto a massive "Noah's Ark" rocket. Joe and Polly are nearly killed, but Dex arrives with the missing scientists (they escaped from the robots), and spirits them away. Dex explains that Totenkopf has given up on humanity, and seeks to end the world as he begins a new one: the "World of Tomorrow".
The group goes to Totenkopf's lair, aiming to end his evil scheme, only to discover that Totenkopf has in fact been dead for nearly two decades; his machines have carried on his work begun in "Unit 11". The only way to stop the rocket from incinerating Earth during its launch (presumably with the aid of the uranium that Totenkopf had mined and refined) is to cause an internal malfunction; unfortunately there is no way to escape from the rocket before it explodes. Joe knocks out Polly, and then goes to sacrifice himself, while the others escape. Polly recovers and goes after Joe, arriving in time to save him from the mysterious woman (who, as it turns out, is a robot). The two then go into the rocket just before it launches, ready to stop it before it reaches 100km up (at which point the atmosphere will be incinerated). They succeed, releasing the animals in escape pods, and then use a pod to flee from the exploding rocket.
Although the movie had high box office expectations, opening at #1 on its September release date, the movie performed modestly (at best) at the box office grossing only about $37 million in the United States as of December 21 2004. Critical reviews were mixed, with some loving and some hating it. In the spring of 2005, the Canadian network Space: The Imagination Station awarded it the 2005 Spacey Award for Best Film, an accolade voted upon by network staff.