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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow   B+

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Kerry Conran
Writer: Kerry Conran
Cast: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Gambon, Bai Ling, Omid Djalili.

Review by Rob Vaux

Special effects have become such cynical things: harnessed in the service of naked greed, draining movies of their heart and humanity, paraded before an increasingly jaded audience all but numbed by the endless cacophony of technological mindblowers. Which is why Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow comes as such a breath of fresh air. It reminds us of the wonder that visual effects are supposed to evoke -- the awestruck excitement of a nine-year-old stumbling over his first Superman comic, or seeing Star Wars without knowing a thing about it beforehand. The filmmakers boast that every shot is an effects shot: the landscape and scenery is completely computer-generated, blending with actors working amid cavernous blank bluescreens. The focus is almost entirely on the bells and whistles, and yet the results burst with old-fashioned innocence, channeling the essence of Buster Crabbe and the rest of his Republic serial ilk. It's been a long time since anyone really understood what that was all about.

Of course, many films have embraced their production design just as madly. Sky Captain trumps them with a deliberately stylized vision that makes no pretense to plausibility. Other movies struggle sometimes because they place an emphasis on faux naturalism -- bending over backwards to convince us that the werewolf/spaceship/dinosaur/what have you exists in an otherwise normal, believable world. Sky Captain makes no such assumptions. It embodies a universe all its own, its art-deco edges interacting with ours, but never pretending to represent it. The oversaturated lighting and cockeyed angles make the buildings loom taller, the shadows yawn wider, and the lights pulse with energy and life. Through it, we're given a cornucopia of Thrilling Wonder Stories landscapes: hidden bases, secret mountaintops, armies of robots, and a New York City that just finished cleaning up after King Kong. The look extends to the actors too, their faces glowing above '40s-era fashions cut whole cloth from the Indiana Jones collection. It all lends Sky Captain an atmospheric totality that utterly envelops us. We believe in it because it is complete, not because we could envision any of its marvels appearing in the real world.

Writer-director Kerry Conran wisely marries that zeitgeist to a story that evokes the pulp serials of the era: simple, straightforward, and full of broad, sweeping gestures that make the audience grin like fools. We have the dashing, square-jawed Sky Captain (Jude Law) who spends the eve of World War II righting wrongs from the cockpit of his modified P-40 Tomahawk; plucky girl reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) who gets into all kinds of trouble pursuing the next big scoop; grease-monkey sidekick Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) assembling high-tech gadgets out of chewing gum and string; and human action figure Angelina Jolie making a twinkly-eyed cameo as Sky Captain's RAF compadre Frankie. They're pitted against a phalanx of machines controlled by the sinister Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier; yes, the dead one) who naturally has a plan to destroy the world from his secret island lair.

Conran keeps the script very simple, leading his heroes from one death-defying feat to another like any good Saturday matinee should. That's nothing new for films like this, but Sky Captain succeeds in capturing the spirit of its precursors the way few have before it. Other movies use the clichés as an excuse for lazy screenwriting, phoning the story in and counting on the effects to carry the day. Sky Captain understands that its visual marvels mean nothing if we can't get fired up about them, and approaches its plot with a joyful affection that's impossible to resist. It revels in the absurdities, embraces the archetypes, and winks at the audience often enough to let us in on the fun without reducing it to postmodern posturing. Law and Paltrow bicker enthusiastically as hero and heroine, though no other character development is really needed. The figures here are as larger than life as the sets and machines, and we know everything we need to about them as soon as they set foot on-screen.

But the film's real energy is saved for its toys, ranging from the blimps that touch down at the Empire State Building to the marching giant automatons that do Dr. Totenkopf's bidding. It avoids the soulless pitfalls of its competitors with its unique stylistic conceits and a strong grasp of the kids-eye-view that made such spectacle exciting in the first place. Sky Captain can't quite match the gold standard set by the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, but only because its brand of magic is a slightly more acquired taste, and may take a little longer to properly sink in. It's worth the added effort, however -- if not completely on par with the very best, then at least worth mentioning in the same breath as them. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow happily reawakens their slumbering pleasures, and reminds us how much fun the movies are supposed to be.

Review published 09.17.2004.

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