Dir. Breck Eisner. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz
Dir. Kerry Conran. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Giovanni Ribisi
Two blockbusters, like in indignity,
In the mid-aughts, where we lay our blame,
From seared desert to dieselpunk city,
Where bad reviews force bad pictures aflame.
In Sahara, a group of ex-Navy Americans assist a Mexican doctor from the World Health Organization while meeting, almost at random, in West Africa. The Americans are looking for a Confederate ironclad which is supposed to have crossed the ocean and sailed into the desert, essentially; the doctor is looking for the “plague” which is mercilessly killing people in Mali. It turns out that their journeys will be one and the same. A cave painting made by Africans in the 1860s shows the ironclad sailing into what is now the Sahara on rivers now covered with sand, while those same rivers are being contaminated by industrial waste and are polluting the wells these Africans are drinking from. If the business dropping the pollutants is not stopped, the poison will seep into the Atlantic Ocean and the world will basically end.
In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a Gotham journalist and her pilot ex-lover work together to head off a plot by a German polymath and eugenicist named Totenkopf. They manage to track his secret island, complete with dinosaurs, after a stopover in Shangri-La. They discover his secret plan is to begin life on Earth anew somewhere else, and that his rocket carrying miniaturized critters will destroy the planet on his way out. All of this, incidentally, is set in the late 1930s, with technology probably more advanced than our own without any major changes in the appearance of the time. Sky Captain was thus shot entirely on a soundstage and thus its actors, aside from some simple props, are just about the only pieces of the movie that aren’t computer generated.
Neither one of these movies is particularly good. Sahara is, in point of fact, pretty bad, and I would also argue that Sky Captain has an unforgivably slow first twenty minutes and a dull last ten. Nor is either one a burst of stunning originality. Sahara, taken from a Clive Cussler novel of the same name, reminds me most of CBS television shows. Dirk Pitt was prophesied by the angel in Luke, who said, “For with this man who has mastered every discipline, from foreign languages to fighting people with knives, nothing shall be impossible.” Sky Captain is a comic book movie without the benefit of a trademarked comic book name to launch it, sort of a Buck Rogers fanfic. In short, with their grandiose schemes, close release dates, no-name directors, box office failure, and noteworthy stars—four Oscar acting wins between these two movies!—these are, at least by algorithm, similar movies. Yet in these pre-Iron Man blockbusters there’s a willingness to do something which seems more or less original. There is no series of flicks that these belong to, no series of sequels which kill two hours with world-building in lieu of creating an actual plot, no inflated sense of importance because the phrase “extended universe” sounds cool to teenage boys with no perception of the world beyond their fingers. As derivative as Sahara is, it has an eye on the Global South as a place where present-day capitalists will exploit recklessly but also, in a change from imperalism, far more secretly. And Sky Captain is in short a funky movie, a risk-taker in style and even in substance. There was a time when your popcorn movie did not put the fate of the entire planet on the line in each of its dozen installments, but Sky Captain does just that. It’s not even the fate of the world in Sky Captain, since it is a fantasy world to begin with.
The downfall of Sahara is in its politics, which influences the plot that refuses to hold together. In one scene, a warlord without any noticeable motivations says to his vaguely Francophone partner that nobody cares about Africa. Maybe he has a point—how many American viewers would be able to choose the real country between Mali and Wakanda?—but it’s accidentally indicative of the movie’s opinions as well. It is treated as a sad, sad thing that so many Tuaregs are falling ill and dying from what WHO doctor Eva Rojas (Cruz) and her partner Hopper (Glynn Turman) believe to be some new epidemic; it is also treated as a sad, sad thing that these people are being killed by industrial runoff which is the product of a plant run by a Frenchman, Massarde (Lambert Wilson). But it is not treated as an urgent problem until someone realizes that this runoff will eventually make it to the ocean and kill everyone in North America. Surely there’s something to be said about a local problem becoming a global problem, and that increases the severity thereof, but all the same the movie goes from a “Let’s help these poor people” to “The fate of the world is at stake,” as if righting a wrong such as the ones committed by Massarde weren’t enough on its own. It’s not that we don’t care about Africa, but that we care about America a heck of a lot more.
So too does the movie begin to shift away from Rojas’ mission of mercy and bend toward the action hero stylings of Dirk Pitt (McConaughey), who kicks, punches, and shoots his way to justice in a fashion which lacks verve. The most memorable action sequence of the movie features some speedboats chasing one another and ends when Pitt and Al Giordino (Steve Zahn, who is extremely Italian) blow up a small yacht. Yet aside from those explosions, there’s little that feels new or fresh, and in a movie such as this there’s little to recommend itself if there isn’t something fun. The newest thing is watching a Confederate ironclad firing a cannonball at a helicopter, which sounds like it should be interesting but in practice feels inevitable. Likewise inevitable is the romantic pairing of McConaughey and Cruz, a pair which seems to have no interest in each other and will only end up together on a beach in Mexico because it’s expected of them. The best chemistry in the movie is what Steve Zahn has with himself, which in practice wouldn’t even be a bad thing if they’d just cut the last scene of the movie.
The chemistry between Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow as Joe “Sky Captain Sullivan” and Polly “My Name Is So Bad It Set Feminism Back a Generation” Perkins, the fighter jock extraordinaire with a private army and the ambitious newshound with an axe to grind, is better. The two of them have a past—it’s ultimately determined that he was two-timing her, and that she sabotaged his plane—and the feel of inevitability in their relationship has to do with the fact that the actors go together and do things together. This is not Sahara, in which one chooses the best-looking people in the movie and tells them to copulate. Sky Captain uses the chemistry between its leads as a starting point, which is part of the issue with the film itself: we don’t see them together for twenty minutes. The movie eventually begins to warm up, but the first act is a terrible drag (secretive German scientists! giant robots! flappy bat airplane things that blow up Joe’s base! a ray gun!) and that stink sort of covers the rest of the flick. It’s not until we get a Shangri-La scene that we start to build interest in the story, which begins to get a little screwball with a charming amount of “the world is in peril.”
Sky Captain is its willingness to repackage seventy-five years of whammo thrills and attractive leads into what is supposed to be a modern, techy flick. The great weakness of Sky Captain is that to repackage, it looks like they borrowed the software from the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” music video. Like Speed Racer, which is a reasonably good movie with special effects no better than what you could play on the PS1, Sky Captain is occasionally difficult to watch because of how truly bad these special effects are. At best, you can talk yourself into the haze of some exotic locale, but at worst this movie is a lot more that same haze, brown splattered on a generic background. A similar paradox crops up when you imagine how it would look with a reasonable budget and a 2012 release date: it would have looked worlds better, but it could never have existed against The Avengers.