Thursday, 3 July 2008

Dieselpunk vs Steampunk

A couple of weeks ago two different TV channels happened to synchronise their schedules to create a virtual double bill: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow followed by Wild Wild West. Sky Captain has the Sky Captain, Joe Sullivan, (played by Jude Law) tracking down both the mysterious kidnappings of eminent scientists and the source of mysterious giant robots which are attacking all over an alternate 1939 world and stealing resources and equipment. Wild Wild West has US Army Captain Jim West tracking down Confederate hold-outs who are kidnapping the most eminent scientists in 1869 America, while preparing for a new Confederate rebellion. Both are saddled with sidekicks they don't want (Sky Captain gets Polly Perkins, intrepid girl reporter for the New York Chronicle played by Gwyneth Paltrow; Jim West gets US Marshal Artemus Gordon played by Kevin Kline who builds gadgets and intrepidly dresses up as a red-head (leading inevitably to Will Smith's line: "Never drum on a white ladies boobies at a big redneck dance"))

I could go on about similarities and differences to try and build a coherent article or even track down links between the films (Bai Ling plays a beautiful and evil sidekick to the villain in both!) to try and impress you. But in all honesty I've put off writing this for so long it's movie night tonight and I'll have a backlog. So here's some of my notes:

The Sky Captain is an extraordinary pilot[1], and a fine pulp adventurer, but a rubbish general. His "Army for Hire" doesn't seem to have been on alert despite the attacks on New York, which appears to be just up the road. On the other hand, there's not (yet?) been any attack on Pearl Harbour, so maybe the "If you think you're under attack, get those damn planes off the ground" idea isn't in his doctrine.

Polly Perkins ("Could we just for once die without bickering?") sees to be fine as an investigator, and has a good turn of words. But she's rubbish at holding on to her camera, or in fact sending her copy in to the editor.

Angelina Jolie turns up as a British Air Captain[2] in a leather flightsuit and an eyepatch. Sky Captain has a machete[3] which comes in useful on the mysterious island. This is a full on alternate history; not just the technology but the world situation is different to our 1939.

It's the technology - a ramped up 30s - that makes it dieselpunk. It looks fantastic. It uses many old 20s and 30s pulp ideas.

Maybe that's the flaw; it uses them but doesn't examine (or better yet re-examine them) in the light of the 21st century. There's lots of ideas that sound better than they turn out to be[4]. It seems to have been the director's first and to-date only film. As I said, it's flawed, but it's interesting and it looks great.

So on the Wild Wild West side, we have a couple of one liners from Will Smith: "Hold on a minute Belle, you can't just go ramming a man's personal things into a hole like that."
"This is not the way you transport nitro."

I don't remember ever seeing a whole episode of the original 60's TV series (there's an idea Heckler), but on the idea of a black lawman in a comedy western, didn't Blazing Saddles do that better?

The technology is one part super-powered Victorian Steampunk (note Loveless's steam-powered wheelchair) to three parts fantasy. Wild Wild West is more secret history than Alternate History (most of the things that are a matter of historical record actually happened around about 1869, although the secret service was actually set up to combat counterfeiters and that in 1865). And this film passes the time easily enough, it's amusing enough and the action and effects are good enough, but it never seems to me to be trying for more than good enough. To me, Sky Captain seems to try for more, and partially succeeds, while Wild Wild West aims to pass the time pleasantly and just about manages it.

Some videos (link):

[1] Although not as extraordinary as his plane, from the imdb trivia page (oh, spoilers):

Sky Captain flies a late-model P-40, the six gun version of the P-40N. However, his has a few "Hollywoodifications":
- The rear decking behind the pilot's seat, and the fuselage fuel tank under it, were removed in order to add a second seat (for Polly). This was actually done to some real P-40s for flight instruction.
- The pop-open bays for the cable launcher and magnet bombs are right in the middle of the centerline fuel tank (which fills the interior of the wing between the main wheel wells).
- The small underwater engines under the horizontal stabilizers would retract right into the tail wheel gear well, and into each other.
- When going into underwater mode, the ostensibly solid-metal propeller blades collapse down into the prop spinner, and into a different section of space-time. The real plane's prop spinner is a shell that goes around the collars and gearing of the prop hub assembly.
- Roughly 5000 horsepower appears to have been added to the 1200hp Allison engine.
[2] This being an alternate 1939, it's not quite the RAF and it's not really the Navy either.
[3] There are several scenes in the Jurassic Park films that I can't help wondering why no-one ever packs a machete with them. It turns facing a velociraptor from "certain death" to "deadly fight".
[4] SPOILER: having archive footage of the dead Laurence Olivier stand in for what turns out to be archive footage of the dead Dr Totenkopf sounds fantastic, but you know, on screen, so what?

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