written and directed by Mamoru Oshii
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW
**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi
written and directed by Kerry Conran
Le Temps du loup
starring Isabelle Huppert, Béatrice Dalle, Patrice Chéreau, Rona Hartner
written and directed by Michael Haneke
by Walter Chaw For me, the most intoxicating visions of the future are those in which we're drowning in an ocean of our past--garbage, wreckage, Romes burned to a cinder and heaped against the new Meccas of our collective tomorrows. Star Wars proffered a kind of aesthetic of dirt that appealed: a wonderland where the spaceships looked like they'd been flown and there were places like Mos Eisley that reeked of stale liquor, sawdust, and cigarettes. (The distance that George Lucas has gone to disinfect his grubby vision of the future is the same distance that esteem for the franchise has fallen amongst all but the most die-hard chattel.) Among the spearhead of a group of artists who redefined the science-fiction genre in film the same way that Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah scuffed-up the western in the Sixties, Ridley Scott evolved the idea of a functional future, with his Alien and Blade Runner serving as visual echoes of T.S. Eliot's broken stones and fragments shored against our ruins. Terry Gilliam defined the aesthetic when describing his rationale for the look of Brazil (1985): he wanted it to seem as though the whole century had been compacted into a single moment. The timeless "someday soon" that is always just around a corner that never comes.
It's why Steven Spielberg's A.I. has a more compelling future than his Minority Report. There are junkyards and rabies in A.I. but just suburbs and cities in Minority Report, and the end result of our fast culture of corporate abuse, materialism, and greed is that we're going to end up living in a rubbish heap. Think a futurama of Fred Sanfords scavenging bits and spare parts--the Frankenstein model applied to our art (post-modernism is a pastiche pastime), our environments, and ultimately procreation itself. The combination of machine and man, then, cybernetic organisms ("cyborgs") with human emotions and memories (from James Cameron's Terminator (1984) to Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1986) to computers and androids implanted (as they are in Blade Runner, A.I., 2001: A Space Odyssey, WarGames, The Matrix, I, Robot)), have emerged as foremost in our modern science-fictions. What are cyborgs except straw men cobbled together with flesh and bits of wire? Humans without souls and machines with them--something about where we are as a people speaks to this desire to create a surrogate for ourselves that can experience the kind of depths of loss and pain we no longer can or wish to.
The process of going to the movies likewise has changed from a communal cathartic exegesis to a more troubling mass confrontation with the issues and the headwaters of our despair. So many of 2004's films are about looking for father figures or maternal guidance and, failing that, seeking freedom from our past by erasing our memories--abridging our experience to salve some gaping, un-closable, un-nameable wound. We address our wounding by searching through the detritus of our past and seizing onto the things that carry the weight of resonance (scraps of emotion as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--its title scavenged, as Eliot often scavenged, from an Alexander Pope poem) and fashioning a stopper against the rising tide. Anthropomorphic technology is comforting: we create mechanisms in our image as we created our anthropomorphized gods and they created us in theirs.
It's that slipperiness of creation and that psychosis that finds us repeating ourselves by repeating images of ourselves (Multiplicity is a trickier flick than given credit for) which informs a trio of new science-fiction films reaching North American movie screens simultaneously (though only one is American in origin)--we are the world's new cultural/emotional wasteland and the films of our new millennium reflect that status. (Throw a pebble in a pond this size and the ripples are like tsunamis.) They are: Mamoru Oshii's brilliant Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, whose very title suggests the past haunting the present and a nostalgia for a prelapsarian state of bliss; Kerry Conran's fabulist expo Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which also tells a story of ghosts in machines and clockworks constructing clockworks caged in a film that is itself a cyborg (like Oshii's film) more machine than man; and Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf, a jarring, fighting trim vision of Ragnorak that reduces humans into wolves and sheep in a landscape lit by dark, scarred by torchlight, betrayed by ritual, exposing the selfish machine that nests, Giger-like, in the coils of man's lizard brain.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence picks up a few years after the events of the first film, taking for granted a knowledge that Ghost in the Shell is not only among the most influential animé films of all time, but also the source material for most of the richer veins of philosophy in the Matrix films. Set in a future world that looks suspiciously like a Hollywood noir, complete with trench coat hero and vintage transportation, the basic narrative involves a murder mystery as a "gynoid" (partial anagram for ningyo, the Japanese tradition of doll worship), a girl-robot implanted with the "soul" of a young woman and used by the wealthy as a sex toy (shades of Blade Runner and character Pris are unavoidable), kills her keeper and a pair of cops sent to apprehend her, then self-destructs before hardboiled protagonist Bateau can save her. The thread leads Bateau, himself so souped-up with robotic improvements that he's described as more machine than man, to the home of a demented programmer and, later, to a secret laboratory where the process of soul-extraction appears to be taking place.
The sets and design of the picture are produced by a marriage of traditional cel animation and CGI--the world Ghost in the Shell 2 depicts all sepia stained in a way that suggests nostalgia while the apparitions (dolls themselves) that populate the piece speak in a highly formalist fashion: quoting philosophy and theology in lieu of "natural" dialogue, they're constantly in the process of unraveling their identities with tools from a rhetorical past. A series of hallucinations cascade in on themselves at a late point in the film, providing a means by which Oshii can visually examine the quantum meaninglessness of life as a series of barely differentiated cycles and offering up the idea that identity, that humanity, is better described as a concept than as an absolute. It's a conceit that offers the insight, not surprising perhaps, that humans are indistinguishable from machines in that they are electrical beings hardwired with instinct and soft-wired with programming--that even something as ephemeral as a soul can be distilled and commodified like a vintage spirit for the consumption of the rich. The myth of the golem is referenced, Descartes quoted often, a connection to the story of the oft-filmed Alraune (the asexual production of life from the sperm of a condemned man and the egg of a whore) suggested; by the end of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, the gestalt coalesces into an epiphany that issues of life and death are far hairier than either foundational debates about meat and metal or, indeed, the art that springs from pens wielded by hands and mainframes.
Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow poses similar questions first by its own existence, then by the sticky fact that Laurence Olivier is resurrected in the picture as a literal ghost from Conran's machine. As arch-villain Totenkoff, Olivier makes a cameo appearance in spectral illumination: a projection of a spectre jerry-rigged from new technology mining old film clips and stills. An act of exhumation sanctioned by Olivier's estate and dreamed up by Jude Law (playing the titular hero, otherwise called "Joe," who has a mouth that is exactly the right shape to say things like "Where's Dex?"), it renders Olivier more machine than man and gives the film its balance by providing, mostly offstage, a villain with charisma and a dream for a better tomorrow free of the animalism of man. It's disconcerting to consider that the aims of the villain jibe with the aims of the film itself (recall Andrew Niccol's underestimated S1m0ne): a construction filmed completely on blue stages, fabricated whole inside a computer with only the actors (and not even all the actors, at that) the flesh and blood. Things like this have been done before using 2-D techniques--Cool World, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Lady and the Duke, and Anchors Aweigh swim to mind--but Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow represents that great leap forward for machine technology where an advancement in science has finally made it possible to make the spectacle film that would have been made in the 1940s were it possible.
In a similar way, it's the great leap forwards of Star Wars of a generation ago (and sure enough, the storyline is at times alarmingly like that of the original Star Wars trilogy), where technology advances to the point at which nostalgia and the decay that accompanies it can finally be represented with a presumption of authenticity. Sky Captain is a scrapbook of references to old styles and newer films, everything from the pulp art of Rafael DeSoto and Frank Paul to the modern versions of them in the art of Jon Muth and George Pratt; from old Buck Rogers serials to The Land that Time Forgot and Journey to the Center of the Earth to the clinical lunar phantasms of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even the kitsch camp of Mike Hodges's curious Flash Gordon is evoked. Telling, too, that with a cast that includes Gwyneth Paltrow as a Howard Hawksian news maven, Giovanni Ribisi as a boy-mechanical-genius, and Angelina Jolie as a one-eyed British sky-pirate (a turn that would fit comfortably with any outtake from Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso), the only thing that sparks conversation is the technology used in the film's creation--and the sources that it's cannibalized to serve as the framework for all the admittedly impressive gewgaw.
On the far side of the spectrum comes Austrian director Haneke's literally dark, chilling fable of the end of time, Time of the Wolf (a title from the "Codex Regius," inviting comparison to Ingmar Bergman's similarly internalized Hour of the Wolf). When a clan led by matriarch (and Haneke mainstay) Isabelle Huppert shows up at their summer home, a nuclear family of squatters summarily, arbitrarily executes her husband--an act of senseless violence intruding into the middle of a domestic idyll the same tactic Haneke takes to begin his almost-unwatchably brutal Funny Games. Time of the Wolf proceeds in a series of un-scored, almost voiceless tableaux of an emptied French countryside devastated by some unnamed plague that sees what might be left of humanity congregating at a train station, waiting for a ride that may never come. A conversation between a boy and a girl across the railroad tracks in a mist-shrouded magic hour is one of the most haunting, most laden moments in any film this year.
The relationship that Time of the Wolf has with the machine salvation offered by the rail is the same as the conflicted response to the railroad in the Industrial Revolution world, the engine infernal cutting through the pristine countryside for the Brits, the locomotive bringing colonists to the promise of their futures in the American West. What Time of the Wolf does is reverse the Industrial Revolution, in a sense, using the same image of the train and the rail-line to represent that border at the end of expansion--examining in the process the ways that man convulses when robbed of the insulation of mechanical conveniences. It's a time travel film, in a sense--not into the future, but into the undifferentiated past, where the night shortened the day and communal society was the bedrock for human survival. The suggestion here, stripped down and denatured, is the same as the existential postures of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and the existential quandary represented by Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: that machines are basically an extension of human automatism. That even without the Industrial Revolution, man would take refuge in mindless repetition and ritual--religion and society as the same children born of the same mother of invention as the steam engine and the cotton gin. Haneke shows horses being slaughtered alongside people and presents justice rewritten without nuance (timely for life in these United States), suggesting that this devolution is nothing of the sort. Rather, it's a sidestep through a mirror darkly of our machine future and our machine present into another reality just around a corner that never comes. Originally published: September 17, 2004.
THE DVD - SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW
by Bill Chambers Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow arrives on DVD from Paramount in competing widescreen and fullscreen Special Collector's Editions. We received the former for review, which offers the film in a seemingly excellent 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced presentation--with images as inorganic as these, it's difficult to tell, really, if there are any objective flaws. (The best I could come up with is a trace of banding during the opening titles, and my player's decoder might be responsible for that.) Unquestionably marvellous is the (anachronistic) 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, featuring more gut-churning bass than Dolby owners will be used to as the robots march on New York City, though this showpiece use of the LFE channel occurs so early in the action that it's a mild letdown when no other facet of the mix proves quite as memorable.
Skip the two commentaries--one from producer Jon Avnet (quite the portrait of arrogance for a man whose filmmaking expertise resulted in Red Corner and Up Close and Personal), the other a group yakker featuring writer-director Kerry Conran, production designer Kevin Conran, animation supervisor Steve Yamamoto, and Visual Effects Supervisor Darin Hollings (their frequent gaps in conversation throwing the comparatively loquacious Avnet's Hollywood gasbaggery into relief)--and head straight for their digest version, a two-part making-of from Sparkhill called "Brave New World" (49 mins. total). Therein, at an unavoidable cost of having to listen to Avnet boast about pulling power trips on first-timers with regards to casting and the like, you get to witness first-hand how this scissors-and-glue enterprise took shape, from footage of Kerry Conran preparing the fabled demo reel on his home computer to the 29-day, prop- and set-free shoot and beyond. Though it tries too hard to evoke the journey aspect of the Lord of the Rings DVDs' appendices, failing to earn the emotional tenor of a conclusion in which the ramshackle postproduction facility is dismantled and crewmembers speak of starting families in the time it took to complete the film, it's a piece blessedly light on promotional affectations.
In "The Art of World of Tomorrow" (8 mins.), Kevin Conran, who frankly comes off as a bit of a weasel throughout these documentary extras, efficiently shows off and explains the genesis of key props, though his moment in the spotlight is tarnished by Avnet's offhand remark in "Brave New World" that Kevin is not a real production designer. Likewise, Kevin himself opens up a can of worms by defending his artistic choices with the declaration that "this wasn't an exercise in photorealism," thus calling into question the film's deployment of flesh-and-blood actors. A pair of partially-rendered deleted scenes that blatantly revel in George Lucasisms (Indiana Jones in the first, Star Wars prequels in the second), a 3-minute gag reel, previews for the Alfie remake, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Without a Paddle (which also launch automatically upon inserting the disc), and the neat "Original Six Minute Short" (a.k.a. Sky Captain and the Flying Legion in The World of Tomorrow) round out the platter. For what it's worth, said short is in beautifully stark black-and-white, something Avnet vetoed for the feature film: "Even if you prefer that--I don't," he recalls telling Conran on his yak-track. So that's why The Mighty Ducks was in colour. Originally published: January 24, 2005.