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 V.13 No.39 | September 23 - 29, 2004 

Film Review

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Old-fashioned superior invites viewers into a world of visual wonders

There’s nothing like the sight of a boy and his zap gun.
There’s nothing like the sight of a boy and his zap gun.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Directed by Kerry Conran

Cast: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Giovanni Ribisi

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a retro-futuristic sci-fi fantasy that plays out like some lost '30s Saturday morning movie serial chronicling the adventures of the world's greatest pulp hero that no one has ever heard of.

Newcomer Kerry Conran wrote, directed and conceived this ambitious and oddly unique project. Sky Captain has captured most of its publicity for the fact that the entire film, with the exception of the actors, is computer-generated. There were no sets employed in the making of Sky Captain—just vast, empty rooms filled with greenscreens. The actors did their thing, then the entire world was added in around them. Needless to say, it is the atmosphere that takes precedent over the actors. I can say, with little fear of reprisal, that Sky Captain is one of the coolest looking films ever produced. The sets reflect a hyper-stylistic art deco design. The props could have been acquired at a colossal Buck Rogers garage sale. The cinematography is a glowing sepia-toned wash of blues, grays, browns and golds that looks like some Technicolor experiment gone gloriously awry.

Angelina Jolie in a uniform? Where do I sign up?
Angelina Jolie in a uniform? Where do I sign up?

Set in a nebulous '30s world filled with rayguns and robots, the film chronicles the adventures of the titular hero (Jude Law), a World War I flying ace who uses his super-powered airplane to fight the forces of evil. In this particular instance, he is called upon to defeat a seemingly invincible army of giant flying robots who are causing worldwide havoc. Joining him in his battle is Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a tenacious reporter and former flame intent on getting the scoop of the century.

Sky Captain's quest takes him across the world, from the canyons of Manhattan to the lost city of Shangri-La to a monster-filled island in the North Sea. Naturally, it all ends up with some megalomaniacal mad scientist trying to destroy the world. (Doesn't it always?)

Conran's script tries to replicate the witty back-and-forth banter of a Howard Hawks comedy. (Think His Gal Friday with flying air fortresses.) Law and Paltrow do their best to imitate Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell (one could argue that they are the closest this generation has got), but Conran's words let them down. He hasn't quite nailed the knack of making his characters admirable and endearing before allowing them to argue their way through two hours of dialogue. The bickering becomes a little numbing, but audiences—quite attuned to this sort of thing—know that it's all just a prelude to kissy-face action.

Sure, the simple script is predictable, but that probably ends up working in the film's favor. Since audiences can pretty easily figure out where all this is leading, they have more time to sit and stare at all the pretty pictures. Admittedly, these aren't the sort of characters you're going to become deeply emotionally invested in; but it doesn't really matter. In the end, all is forgotten and forgiven in a whirl of aerial dogfights and robotic fisticuffs.

Visually, the film is a nonstop delight, filled with a parade of eye-popping wonders. Conran's decision to film entirely on a greenscreen does limit some of his visuals. For the most part, the camera is forced into a locked, unmoving position, giving the film a static look whenever actors are in frame. Conran compensates by fading multiple shots into one another, creating layers of images, one on top of the other. When Polly types one of her stories, for example, we can see the headlines fill in the background behind her. It's an interesting style, but it ends up looking quite a bit different than movies normally do. Some audience members may find themselves turned off by this aggressive visual style. All that vanishes, however, when Conran steps completely into the world of the digital. Scenes that involve no actors, like a nifty plane chase through the streets of Manhattan, are filled with visual pep.

There are those, of course, who will find the film corny and old-fashioned. This ain't The Matrix, people. Moviegoers not enamored with the '30s may miss some of the lovely touches (zeppelins docking on the Empire State Building, The Wizard of Oz screening at a movie theater, Buck Rogers comic books littering the tables of an inventor's lab). The unusual color palette and strange, computerized look may be distancing enough to turn off mainstream viewers. That's too bad. Taken in the spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Flash Gordon, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is pure, giddy fun sure to tickle the fancy of the 12-year-old popcorn muncher in all of us.

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