Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

(2004) *** Pg
106 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Kerry Conran. Cast: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bai Ling, Omid Djalili, Angelina Jolie.

Though Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow doesn't dally much with themes (what "there" is there is conspicuously borrowed), Kerry Conran's faux-vintage Hollywood cliffhanger is, in fact, about the past. Beginning with a ride on the Hindenburg and ending with a near-incoherent cameo from a dead star of stage and screen, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow bops through art deco New York and old-school movie montages, recalls "Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future" and the Fleischers' Superman cartoons, and overtly references Lost Horizon, The Wizard of Oz, and the career of George Lucas.

Of course, the real story here isn't story at all—it's special effects. That the effects truly are special goes a long way. The film represents over a decade of toil for Conran, who filmed the actors—adorned only by period costumes and minimal props and sets—against green screens, then rendered the rest with state-of-the-art digital effects. In technique, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow inverts a movie like Who Framed Roger Rabbit by putting the actors into the animation. Like his hero Lucas, Conran chooses the oeuvre of pulp adventure, which best suits a story so consumed with where its next action scene is coming from that it nearly forgets to get to know its characters.

Damn if Jude Law doesn't kick the whole thing up a notch by applying the requisite dash to the rakish Sky Captain (a.k.a. Joe Sullivan). In his attempt to foil the apocalyptic plans of evil genius Dr. Totenkopf, the daring pilot faces giant-robot aircraft, laser-equipped fighter planes, dynamite-laden deathtraps, and underwater battles. His most formidable opponent, however, may be Polly Perkins (a dullish Gwyneth Paltrow), a tenacious reporter in the Lois Lane mold who once had a relationship with the Captain. The taste of their nasty breakup still in their mouths, Joe and Polly banter testily as he tries to save the world and she tries to get exclusive photographs (her loss of film supplies leads to an amusing running gag). Michael Gambon logs a few minutes as Polly's editor Paley; Giovanni Ribisi will charm the young'uns as Sky Captain's best pal—and burgeoning scientist—Dex.

Conran (and his production designer brother Kevin) have done hugely impressive work here which confirms the long-suspected wave of the filmmaking future: directors can now oversee epic scope from behind a computer desk. The look of 1939 is a hyperbolic extrapolation of our movie dreams, perhaps more like the posters than the films. Gauzy with simulated soft light, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow looks like lovingly airbrushed comic art. The recreations of Radio City and Times Square are delightful, as are Stella McCartney's costumes for Law and Paltrow. Edward Shearmur orchestrates a John Williams soundtrack facsimile to accompany the secret technologies and thundering action of Conran's boy's-life adventure. Though the exercise is ultimately empty, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow must be seen to be disbelieved, so off you go.

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