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October 03, 2004

Tomorrow's Dynamite

I’ll surrender at the beginning, the very beginning, and confess that maybe Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Napoleon Dynamite don’t have as much in common as I’m about to try convince you that they do. But, by the oath of Thor, I’ll be damned if, seeing them one after the other, it didn’t appear just so!

Let’s take, for example, the story of Sky Captain. It’s simplistic. It’s corny, clichéd, and taken straight from a pulp magazine or second rate Sci-Fi yarn (albeit on purpose). And, taken by itself, it’s absolutely, inexcusably, unexciting. There’s a dead a villain, which results in an the enemy that’s about as evil and cunning as a tornado or Mount St. Helens The main character, Sky Captain himself, is without a past, without a motive (other than being heroic like a, err… hero) and tends to spend more time underwater than in the sky. His love interest, a reporter with beautiful blonde locks and an unhealthy relationship with constantly checking the number of shots left in her much too much overexposed camera, is just that; a love interest. What a crock. And the damn scenery kept changing, too!

So, now you probably think I’m going to start defending Napoleon Dynamite as a beacon of filmdom, the little guy’s response to the overbearing, suffocating impact of Hollywood and its Studios and rules on the art of filmmaking. I’m not. First of all, because Sky Captain was the product of a little guy, too. But, most importantly, because the story of Napoleon Dynamite is about as good as the story of Sky Captain. High school underdogs triumph in love and politics. The Mexican immigrant becomes school president. The nerd finds true love and friendship. Another nerd finds true love. You get the point. What we have in both films is a case of style attempting to elevate substance.

(Yes, this I where I’ll start applauding Napoleon Dynamite over Sky Captain. But not because it's better.)

Forget the vast difference in the size of the budget and the amount of resources available to Kerry Conran and Jared Hess. Let’s [unfairly] level the playing field, for a paragraph or two, and look at the problem faced by each director/screenwriter. It’s the same scenario. How do I make a good movie from a bad, unoriginal premise?

Conran, the wily scientific type, would answer: “We’ll make it look good. We’ll reference the pulp fiction we’re emulating. We’ll reference cinema history. We’ll bring a dead actor to life to play a role. We’ll push technology until it enables us to elevate our film above its possible level.” It may sound like someone’s trying to pull some fabric over out eyes, but it’s important to remember that cinema, as an art, was made possible by technology. Technology always came first.

Hess, the artsy fartsy Bohemian, would answer: “It don’t matter what the story is, baby. It’s all in the details. It ain’t what you tell, but how you tell it. We’ll make out characters groovier. We won’t make the same mistakes the squares did. We gotta be true. No swelling string section here, man.” Yeah, sure, you say. That’s what every movie tries to do. When there’s a problem with the story, fix the story. And it usually doesn’t work.

It’s not surprising then that reaction to both films has been wildly mixed. It’s also not surprising that both films have gotten a fair share of excellent reviews, and have been praised as great films. It’s possible to watch Sky Captain and be awed by the fantastic images. Imagine playing with software like Bryce, and being both skilled at it and able to create jaw dropping landscapes in mere seconds. It’s also possible to watch Napoleon Dynamite and hate it. Nothing happens. The main character is unlikeable and annoying. It’s not even funny.

As for me, I think Napoleon Dynamite is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. The characters, Napoleon included, are endearing. The comedy, subtle but not cerebral, is hilarious. And the unabashedly happy ending is a great. Sky Captain left me bored and tired. The constant cutting between only Long Shots and Close Ups was disorienting. And, in a few honest words, I just didn’t care.

So, now to end this much too long-winded, regrettable opinion piece, I’ll say this: Take a painter, give him half an idea, and he’ll paint you Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Take a writer, give him the same half idea, and he’ll write you Napoleon Dynamite.

Watching the two films just might give you a pretty good idea of which one you are. It did for me.


Blogger Scott said...

Haven't caught either film yet (I'll try to get to them during my holiday), but is there such a thing as a Mormon bohemian?

2:16 pm  
Blogger Quack Corleone said...

There may be a Mormon or two living in Bohemia... Err, grounds for artistic licence? :o)

4:57 pm  

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