The Best Throwback Sci-fi Movie Ever Made Just Hit HBO Max
Forget steampunk. It's time for dieselpunk.
Some of the most memorable action heroes don’t need an origin story. And one of the greatest things about 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is that the introduction of Joseph Sullivan implies you’ve already heard of him. As robots attack a sepia-toned Manhattan, Sky Captain is summoned via emergency protocol, and Jude Law simply replies, “This is Sky Captain, I’m on my way.” Although it owes an obvious debt to various retro sources, the confidence and elegance of Sky Captain are unique. No one has ever made a movie quite like this, and it deserves another look now that it’s on HBO Max.
Shot in just 26 days and almost exclusively on blue screens, Sky Captain is to realistic movies what Uno is to poker. It’s not even trying to look plausible. Instead, the movie comes across as a beautiful facsimile of the kind of adventure film ambitious creators were trying to make in the 1930s.
The story is set in a 1939 where it’s normal for Zeppelins to dock at the Empire State Building. Sky Captain (Jude Law) is a kind of James Bond-meets-Batman superhero, equipped with a cool plane, awesome gadgets, and some Indiana Jones-style baggage from his past. Along with intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Commander Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie), he must stop a deceased mad scientist, Dr. Totenkopf, from destroying the world.
This last detail involves a practice now somewhat common in blockbuster films; a digital recreation of a dead actor. Sir Laurence Olivier plays Totenkopf, despite having been dead for 18 years when Sky Captain was released. Since the character is dead within the film, this is a hologram of a hologram, making it somewhat less ghoulish than, say, Peter Cushing’s appearance in Rogue One. The ethics of using dead actors aside, Olivier’s appearance in Sky Captain is perfect, since the movie presents itself not just as a story set in 1939, but as a film that could have been made then.
Sky Captain is almost a family film, closer to a soft PG version of an Indiana Jones movie. Notably, it came out the same year as The Incredibles, as though the demand for retro sci-fi movies with an art deco aesthetic was peaking. Sonically, the two are close cousins. The Edward Shearmur score for Sky Captain shares some similarities with Michael Giacchino’s for Incredibles, although Shearmur is closer to John Williams doing Indiana Jones, while Giacchino channeled John Barry. Still, retro vibes abound. While George Lucas and Steven Spielberg popularized a retro renaissance in the ‘70s and 80s, the homages to those homages began in the early ‘00s.
And when it comes to reaching back in time, director Kerry Conran made Sky Captain’s deep cuts more specific than anything in 1977’s A New Hope. The robot attack on Manhattan that opens the film is styled to look exactly like what happens in the 1941 animated Superman short, “The Mechanical Monsters.” By the end of the movie, we’re basically on King Kong’s Skull Island, complete with dinosaurs running around. Sky Captain is a movie about movies, a kind of visual thought experiment, that works more often than it doesn’t.
In 2023, Sky Captain is triply retro. It’s a nearly 20-year-old film inspired by ‘80s movies that were inspired by the ‘30s and ‘40s. In theory, this should make it hopelessly inaccessible. But because Sky Captain embraces its weirdness, it still manages to feel fresh today. You might not pick up every reference, but intentional anachronisms have a strange way of feeling timeless.
Again, nothing about Sky Captain is trying to convince you that it’s real. It’s a beautiful cartoon with live-action players trying to make the most over-the-top and fun adventure within a very specific constraint: let’s pretend this movie existed in 1939. Sky Captain is the most laser-focused period piece ever made. It doesn’t want to reflect the real world. All it wants to do is let you fly away and escape.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is streaming on HBO Max.