Conran sets his film in 1939, a time when Hollywood produced some of its best movies and when tourists lined up outside Futurama at the New York Worlds Fair to glimpse the world General Electric promised they would be living in for the rest of their lives. The United States was emerging from the Depression and had not yet entered into the Second World War. Can we return to that moment of innocence before Dresden, Hiroshima, or Auschwitz? Can we reclaim the idealism and optimism with which that earlier generation confronted the future?
The images of technological destruction in Sky Captain are comfortingly far-fetched. The threats are larger than life but so are the resources with which we may combat them. The movie flirts with global destruction, only to end on a much more reassuring note. This is the kind of movie that studio era Hollywood would have made if it had access to todays digital special effects. Sky Captain is full of the kinds of gizmos and gadgets that filled the pages of Tom Swift novels, pulp magazines, and Buck Rogers comic books: flying fortresses, ray guns that melt solid steel, airplanes that can fly under water, robot armies, shrunken animals, and vast underground kingdoms. The film celebrates the sense of wonder and the can do spirit of an America that was, in the language of the time, constantly striving to reach new horizons. One running gag in the film concerns the reporters agony over having only two shots left in her camera as she encounters one spectacular experience after another, always convinced that what comes next will be even more wondrous.
Sky Captain doesnt just bring old images of technological wonders to life; it also captures the technophilia that shaped those glistening images. Go back and watch a movie like Things to Come (1940). The film stops dead for five minutes or more so we can take pleasure in showering sparks, pounding pistons, and spinning gears. Technology of the1930s was sleek, sensuous, and sexy. According to the prevailing myths, government and corporate efforts were leading to steady improvements in the quality of life, urban planners were already designing the cities of the future, and what happened next was constrained only by the limits of publics energy and imagination. Everyone anticipated better and better tomorrows.
If Sky Captain taps mid-century myths of technological progress, it also reminds us of a parallel history of popular fictions that challenged the quiet desperation which motivated mans hurried progress. Frank Capras 1937 classic Lost Horizon depicts Shangri La as offering modern man a haven of peace in a world on the eve of war, and a refuge from the relentless demands of modern civilization. The film can be read as a poignant reminder that even then, not everyone wanted to live in the world of tomorrow. Sky Captain depicts Shangri La not as a timeless utopia but as the site of atrocity and suffering: its residents have been enslaved by the evil scientists, forced to work in his toxic mines to generate the raw materials needed to fuel his war machines. We cannot escape the forces of change, the film seems to suggest, but we can survive and master them.
We might think of retro-futurism as a sance where ghosts of the past come out to speak to our present concerns reassuring us that we may never get the tomorrow of our dreams but we also never face the future of our fears. Nostalgia, Susan Stewart has written, is a desire to return to a world that never really existed. Is it possible to feel nostalgia for the future?