Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/24/05 21:47:26

"An overload of retro cool."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

If you’re like me (and surely you are!), you got all giddy at the mere notion of “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” Not the hi-tech breakthrough way in which it was made, although surely the technical inventiveness featured is indeed worthy of much giddiness. No, it’s the “art deco retro” (for lack of a better term) tone driving the film that makes me grin. Somebody made a movie that imagines how someone in the 1930s would make a sci-fi adventure yarn using today’s technology, an idea that reaches down into the very same part of my brain that loves “The Rocketeer,” “The Phantom,” and other cinematic throwbacks, and stirs that part with the other part that enjoys pouring over old time sci-fi, the decades-old estimates of what the future would hold.

That somebody is Kerry Conran, who spent the better part of the last few years making a retro sci-fi movie on his home computer; the six minutes of footage that he finally produced was wow-inducing enough to get the attention of Paramount, who agreed to turn his idea into a big budget number, and Gwyneth Paltrow, who agreed to star before even seeing a script. Better still, Conran chose to make the big version of his movie in the same way he made the small one: by filming all actors against a bluescreen, then adding in everything else - and I mean everything, including sets, backgrounds, digitized extras, etc. - in later.

Which is kinda how George Lucas made most of his new “Star Wars” movies, and how Peter Jackson created many key scenes for his “Lord of the Rings,” although the difference here is that Lucas, Jackson, and almost everyone else using computers for their special effects aim for photorealism, while Conran does not. His aim is for a more stylized look, more like a comic book, or an illustration from an issue of “Amazing Stories.” The fact that nothing looks quite real never detracts from the film as you’d expect it might; instead, the stylized visuals bring about a dreamlike sensation. (The same has been said of King Kong’s strange movements, the strange movement of his fur suggesting the otherworldliness of a nightmare - no surprise, then, that the original “Kong” is a major influence on Conran’s movie.)

Better still are the designs from Conran’s brother Kevin, sleek art deco imagery that overwhelms the senses. This is an old-time fantasy sprung to life, soaked in sepia tones and rattling with outlandish jolts of exaggeration and imagination. If there is a heaven, how I wish it looks like the New York of this movie.

Now, all of this is good stuff, to be sure, but a movie needs more than impressive visual effects (just ask anyone who saw, say, “I, Robot”). And it’s in the story, not the effects, where “Sky Captain” ultimately wins you over. This is a ripping tale of bravado and derring-do, a wickedly fun take on the adventure serials of yesteryear. In other words, if “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was Lucas and Spielberg’s spin on “The Perils of Nyoka” by way of “Zorro Rides Again,” “Sky Captain” is “Spy Smasher” by way of “King of the Rocketmen.” And if any of those titles made you smile, there is no excuse for you not to see “Sky Captain.”

The Sky Captain in question is Joe Sullivan (the dashing Jude Law), daring leader of his flying Army For Hire, who, in an awe-inspiring alternate 1939 (in which dirigibles still rule the skies and war in Europe is nowhere to be found), teams up with intrepid reporter/old flame Polly Perkins (the lovely Paltrow) to uncover the mystery of the giant robots that have been attacking cities across the globe. On their side: electronics whiz Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) and sexy Brit air commander Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie). Against them: a sinister nameless assassin (Bai Ling) and her employer, Dr. Totenkopf (played by... well, you’ll see).

OK, the plot, with all of its globetrotting and cliffhanging, is a tad underdeveloped; unlike the more solid Indy Jones flicks, “Sky Captain” is more superficial, content with big action sequences instead of quieter character moments. Conran’s script zips us from set piece to set piece without a deeper drive; we don’t really get involved with the mystery than we do simply get swept away by those involved with it. That more of the storyline fails to stick into memory after one viewing reveals that this is merely a good movie, instead of a great one.

This is not to say “Sky Captain” is a letdown, however. On the contrary. This is a movie boiling over with its own positive energy, its own sense of boy-howdy fun. Here’s a movie that brought out the kid in me (not hard to do, but still...), a marvel of the imagination that’s packed with wows. And news that Conran has recently signed to helm the upcoming “John Carter of Mars” is only making me happier - more loving retro fun from someone who looks like he really gets it. With “Sky Captain,” Conran gets it, alright. He gets it in spades.

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