Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

The storyline assumes a superfluous, secondary role to the special effects in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a true curiosity of a picture that in sensibility and visual design is a hybrid of both retro and postmodern. Though this peculiar confection boasts the presence of three stars (Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie), the acting is almost deliberately stiff and cartoonish. Clearly, in this picture, technology is the star.

Every element of Sky Captain is subsumed within the overall vision of first-time writer-director Kerry Conran and his producer-mentor Jon Avnet. Conran's inspiration derives from The Book of Marvels, which he read as a boy. That book contained the rendering of the Empire State Building, and its mooring mooring dock for dirigibles, an image that was amplified when Conran saw the movie King Kong, with its beast scaling the walls of the building and grasping at the zeppelin cowling dock.

Conran has made some bombastic statements of how his movie represents “a trailblazing moment, a groundbreaking achievement in cinematic history.” To be sure, Sky Captain is a first, pushing Computer Graphic Imaging (CGI) to new, unprecedented levels. The movie has virtually no sets, landscapes or locations. Instead, Conran uses the latest digital technology to immerse the viewers in a breathtakingly lush sci-fi world that's long lost from our collective memory as reflected in pop culture. The live action was first filmed against a blue screen, then the director and his crew filled in every detail of every frame digitally. The end result is a film composed of more than 2000 special-effects shots.

Conran takes his viewers on a wild roller-coaster ride, but the ride is repetitious and at least half the time not particularly involving, either emotionally or intellectually. The optimal context to see this bizarre picture is in small increments–half an hour at a time–like the Saturday Serials that have inspired it. Otherwise, at the end of this ride, you'll feel more exhausted than exhilarated.

The opening sequence is astonishing with its image of the Hindenburg III, a behemoth airship, docking atop the Empire State Building, the world's tallest port-of-call. Moments later, deadly gargantuan robots trample the city streets, flinging cars and crushing buildings. Storm clouds rumble and snow blankets the city, when the news is announced about the mysterious disappearance of some famous scientists.

Narrative proper begins when Polly Perkins (Paltrow), a reporter for the Chronicle, is assigned to investigate the mystery. She enlists to her help Captain H. Joseph Sullivan (Law) aka Sky Captain, an ace aviator with daredevil flying skills, who just happens to be her old flame. Which means that, as in the best Howard Hawks screwball comedies, there will be a lot of bickering before the couple declares truce and falls into each other's arms.

After traveling to the Himalayan Alps in another amazing visual sequence, Polly and the Captain are trapped in an enormous ice cave wired with explosives. They're then off to the tranquil valley of Shangri-la. Battling scary flying robots, the couple makes a mid-air landing on a mobile airstrip way up in the sky, and experiences the wonder of underwater flight, as they search for Dr. Totenkopf, the evil mastermind behind the plot to destroy the world. As the planet's only hope for survival, the couple proceeds with the help of the courageous Franky Cook (Jolie, wearing an eye patch), the captain of an all-female amphibious squadron, and Rex (Giovanni Ribisi), a technical genius.

For some, the picture may serve as an inspiring, even exciting retrospective of cinema, grounded in a collective memory of classic films, Saturday morning serials, and comic book superheroes. Mixing elements from various genres (sci-fi, fantasy, film noir), Conran merges classic Hollywood styles and iconic images with the latest cutting-edge digital technology. Working more as a computer whiz than a narrative filmmaker, Conran juxtaposes the Empire State Building, circa 1939, with wild, whip-lashing, point-of-view aerial action shots, seemingly taken out of today's most intense virtual reality and simulated flight experiences.

A visionary director, Conran shows flair for epic scale, elaborate graphic compositions, and stylized lighting. The images in his movie are fully and vividly rendered, even if they are not particularly coherent. As a result, there is tension in the juxtaposition of the naive story and uncynical characters and the ultra-modern technology against which they play.

There's a twinkle in the Captain's eye, and it feels as if the actors are winking at the audience, too, as if saying, “Do you believe what you see” The film is an idealized vision of the future that never materialized, depicting an alternative reality, sort of speculating, “What if”

Wrapped in the shadows of film noir and shaped by the sleek, geometric forms of a faster, technology-driven culture, the story unfolds mysteriously, owing as much to Orson Welles and H.G. Wells as to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Conran's visual homage leaps back to the future, mixing sci-fi, action adventure and fantasy with historical fact in a dark tale about the battle against the machine for the survival of humanity.

Representing what might be described as the ultimate postmodernist pastiche, Sky Captain is a relentless mixture of historicism and eclecticism, filled with quotations from film history, photo-novels, TV melodramas, radio shows, pop music, ads, and newspapers. The film's look changes from scene to scene, and sometimes within the same scene. In tone, too, the movie goes from being self-consciously camp and kitsch to ponderously serious, and back again.