Random Musings: A look at The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.



In 1938, pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and his mechanic, Peevy (Alan Arkin), come into possession of a remarkable device: a rocket pack that allows a man to fly. The crook who stole it had hidden it in their hanger while being pursued by the FBI.

The chase resulted in the destruction of both Cliff’s plane and the airstrip owner’s fuel truck (for which he wants reimbursement from Cliff and Peevy). After seeing what the rocket pack can do, Cliff realizes it’s a way for them to make real dough, since people would pay good money to see a man fly.

Peevy doesn’t want anything to do with it, given that A) it’s like strapping nitroglycerin to a person’ back and B) the feds are mixed up in it.

Cliff promises to return it in a few weeks, as soon as they can afford a new plane, but a pilot in trouble during the air show the next day forces him to strap on the pack and take to the skies. He becomes the Rocketeer.


“Looking like a hood ornament”, the Rocketeer prepares to take flight.

He soon becomes caught between the government, which wants to use the rocket pack (know as the X-3), invented by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn); mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and actor Neville Sinclair, (Timothy Dalton), a secret Nazi agent. Sinclair also has Cliff’s unsuspecting girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), in his sights.

Adding to their troubles, the feds believe Cliff and Peevy shot at them when agents came to their home.

Saturday 7th September 2002, 6pm.

Strapping on the jet pack.

With rocket in hand, er, on his back, Cliff takes to the skies to stop the bad guys and rescue Jenny.

The Rocketeer (1991) is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Dave Stevens (who co produced), which first appeared in 1981 and is a homage to the Republic serials. The film gives special thanks to Republic Pictures and the Rocketman and Commando Cody characters.

In the comics, Cliff’s girlfriend is Bettie, not Jenny, and she’s drawn to resemble pin-up queen Bettie Page.


Cliff and Jenny.

The Rocketeer is a fun movie that captures some of the optimism of the late 1930s.

There are also a few in-jokes. The movie scene Neville Sinclair is filming is an obvious reference to the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, while another scene explains why the famous “Hollywood” sign no longer says “Hollywoodland.”


In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), when giant robots attack New York, the authorities call in Sky Captain, AKA Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), to deal with the problem, since military resources are stretched thin across the globe.

Joe soon finds himself crossing paths with his old flame, Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a reporter for the Daily Chronicle investigating the disappearance of elderly scientists. They soon discover there’s a connection.

They also learn that similar armies of robots have made occasional “smash and grab” attacks over the past five years and that a mysterious man named Totenkopf (a digitally resurrected Sir Laurence Olivier) is apparently behind them.

His robots have also abducted Joe’s assistant, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), prompting Joe and Polly set off on a round-the-world adventure to rescue Dex and stop Totenkopf— with some assistance from Francesca “Franky” Cook (Angelina Jolie), commander of a mobile reconnaissance outpost for the Royal Navy.


Joe and Polly.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which was filmed (primarily in sepia tones) entirely on sound stages in front of blue screens, is an enjoyable film that, like The Rocketeer (but in a different way; it was originally meant to have chapter titles), evokes the old serials.

Sky Captain takes place in an alternate timeline in which the May 6, 1937 Hindenburg disaster either never occurred or didn’t spell the end of airship travel (the Hindenburg III docks at the Empire State Building), but what year does it take place?


The Hindenburg III.

It would appear at first glance to be set in 1939, given that The Wizard of Oz is playing at Radio City Music Hall, where Polly meets Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter) (and another theater advertises Wuthering Heights, also released that year), but The Wizard of Oz was released in August and Polly and Joe depart from Shangri-La on March 2.

(Wuthering Heights, which starred Olivier, was released in April).

On top of that, another theater marquee advertises King’s Row (released in April 1942). Also, Dex says “Shazam” in one scene, but Billy Batson and Captain Marvel debuted in Whiz Comics #2, cover dated Feb. 1940.

What’s more, Polly reveals that Totenkopf worked on something before World War I and was last heard from more than 30 years ago. At the latest, that would set the movie in 1943 or early 1944.

Unless these anachronisms are mistakes, I think the film either takes place, at the earliest, in March 1941, with King’s Row rushed into production in this alternate timeline, or March 1943. The second part of the movie’s title is The World of Tomorrow, which was the theme of the 1939 World’s Fair. Joe, Polly, et al are living in the (near future) tomorrow predicted by the fair. Dex has a working ray gun, for one thing. For another, Joe’s plane has some great features, including really impressive gas mileage.


Dex with his ray gun.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow also has a number of Easter eggs. When Polly phones her editor (Michael Gambon) and reports that the robots have crossed Sixth Ave., Fifth Ave. and are 100 yards away, she’s quoting from the Oct. 30, 1938 Mercury Theatre broadcast of “The War of The Worlds.”

Also, the newspaper montage scene references Citizen Kane; the scene where Polly recovers her camera from a storm sewer echoes a similar scene in Strangers on a Train and we see King Kong’s silhouette on the Empire State Building in another scene.

One of the commentary tracks suggests there are many (mostly film-related) Easter eggs. The Wuthering Heights marquee probably counts as one.

In addition to exciting adventures, Sky Captain also entertains in the bantering relationship between Joe and Polly. One amusing subplot involves her camera. After her camera bag is destroyed, it’s all she has left— and she only has two shots remaining. A running gag has her encountering so many remarkable things (like Shangri-La), she’s constantly unsure what to shoot.

If they’re not already part of your home movie collection, both The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow would be welcome additions.

Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.