If any film of the past decade has come closest to matching the tone and atmosphere of the classic adventure films of Hollywood's Golden Age, it would have to be the direct homage presented by first-time director Kerry Conran in his 2004 film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
The story features a reporter (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) embroiled in a plot by a mad German scientist (played retroactively by the late Sir Lawrence Olivier), who has sent his killer robots on a reign of terror across an alternate 1939 earth. Into this comes Sky Captain (Jude law), a mercenary fighter pilot who shares a past with the reporter, Polly Perkins, and a drive to stop the mad scientist's doomsday plot.
Along the way, they encounter just about every trope that splashed across adventure films and pulp fiction from the 1920's to the 1940's. The first 20 minutes of the film (also the strongest and most memorable sequence) is heavily inspired by the original Superman cartoons produced by the Fleischer Brothers, and in particular, the episode Mechanical Monsters. In the Fleischer cartoon, the Last Son of Krypton smashes down an army of stylized robots against the Art Deco background of Metropolis... In Sky Captain, the title character dogfights almost identical robots that have been fully rendered in computer graphics against the backdrop of a Fritz Lang-style New York.
The tropes, and the direct allusions, continue throughout. Sky Captain's hunt for a posthumous Lawrence Olivier takes him to Tibet and Shangri-La, Atlantis, and an uncharted jungle island with dinosaur-like genetic experiments. In the initial fight in New York, the astute viewer can see Kong ascending the Empire State Building, or they can see the S.S. Venture sunken among the wrecks of Atlantis. The audience that really knows their genre will also recognize homages, visuals, soundclips and lines of dialogue from Godzilla, War of the Worlds (both film and Orson Welles' iconic radio broadcast), The Iron Giant, Dr. Strangelove, the Star Wars films and even a cameo by the good ship Titanic. The title "the World of Tomorrow" was borrowed from the 1939 New York World's Fair (though it takes on far more ominous tones for the film).
While critically lauded, the film failed at the box office, no doubt as a consequence of appealing to a very particular audience. For modern viewers, films from Hollywood's Golden Age are an acquired taste. An homage is troubling enough, so full of unknown references, without being so perfect a one as Sky Captain.
Those critics, both professional and profane, who complained about the acting or the preposterousness of the concept generally missed the point: Sky Captain is a perfectly conceived and executed homage to 1930's pulp films, warts and all. If the acting is a little wooden, it is perfectly in keeping with the style of acting found in actual movies made in 1939. This is exactly the kind of movie they would have made back then if they had the technology of today.
Some consider the use of technology to be hit and miss. Sky Captain was released in 2004, in the midst of George Lucas taking CGI green screens to their most ridiculous extremes. Plunking an actor in front of nothing, surrounded by nothing, and then asking them to act is asking quite a lot. Yet there was only one scene, to my reckoning, that the effect did not work in Sky Captain, when a fleeing Paltrow's feet were not visible. Otherwise, it was practically flawless and any slight deviations were certainly no worse than the really conspicuous rear-projection effects of era films.
Still, the film's critical reception was good, gaining top numbers of stars and thumbs up. That didn't translate into actual dollars, again because of the niche appeal of the content. It did what it did extremely, extremely well, a fact only apparent to a relatively small handful of theatregoers. In interviews, Kerry Conran wondered if the film shouldn't go down as a footnote in history, and it did. Now it is only mentioned in passing whenever another Science Fiction or superhero movie is set in the 1930's and 40's. Nevertheless Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow stands as a supreme example of love's labour by someone who "gets" cinema's most magnificent era.