The Movie Review: 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow'

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One of the most emotionally affecting moments of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow comes, unfortunately, during the closing credits, when jazz vocalist Jane Monheit sings "Over the Rainbow." It's a wistful, haunting rendition that plays beautifully off Judy Garland's Wizard of Oz version, becoming at once old and new, an homage and an original.

It's this challenge, of simultaneously conjuring the classics and offering something fresh and vital, that largely eludes Sky Captain, released on video today. With its retro-futurist visuals and abundant references--in addition to The Wizard of Oz, which the film cites several times, there are nods to King Kong, Lost Horizon, War of the Worlds, Metropolis, Buck Rogers, and countless others--Sky Captain is imbued with a touching reverence for Hollywood's Golden Age. But while the film is a loving tribute, it is also frequently a lifeless one, appealing more for the memories it conjures than for what is actually taking place on the screen.

The story is a likable enough pastiche of genres--war, science fiction, jungle adventure, romance--populated by immediately recognizable types: Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Jude Law), the earnest, resolute pilot-hero; Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), the plucky reporter; Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi), the amiable sidekick and scientific whiz kid; and Dr. Totenkopf (Lawrence Olivier, in a posthumous "performance" cobbled together from archival footage), the reclusive evil mastermind and wizard of this particular Oz. (Angelina Jolie also stars, but I'll get to her later.) The period is 1939-ish, though there are a number of anachronistic slips (e.g., references to the "First World War"). As the movie opens, Hindenberg III is docking at the pinnacle of the Empire State Building, an image lovely enough to make one wish the airplane had never been invented. A German scientist aboard the zeppelin is being followed and subsequently disappears, a story that is covered by Chronicle reporter Polly. The nascent spy drama quickly takes an otherworldly turn when New York is besieged by flying 50-foot tall metal men--think The Iron Giant, but with a bad attitude and a large posse. The overwhelmed police quickly summon Sky Captain Joe Sullivan, who arrives in his trusty P-40 Warhawk to confront the giant machines. Once they're taken care of, former paramours Joe and Polly agree to work together to find out who sent them and why, trading banter as the action moves to Joe's personal airbase (apparently located in Long Island Sound somewhere near Great Neck); back to Manhattan for a dogfight with gull-winged gliders; on to the frozen peaks and hidden Edens of Nepal; and finally to Totenkopf's Secret Island Hideout for a final confrontation with the diabolical genius.

The computer-generated visuals are striking, achieving the slightly grainy look of an old black-and-white film subtly colorized, the characters' faces glowing as if lit from the inside. (Had Ted Turner done his tinkering so elegantly, there would have been far less fuss.) First-time writer-director Kerry Conran famously spent years putting together a six-minute short in this style on his home computer; producer Jon Avnet then help him get the resources to expand it into a full-length feature. Memorable images are scattered throughout the film: The rapturous look on Polly's face, her hair billowing, when Joe flips his plane (and her) upside down; the menacing, tentacle-armed robots that converge upon Dex; the uniquely lush and colorful valley of Shangri-La.

But there are also moments when the technical wizardry stumbles. The actors worked almost entirely in front of blue-screens, with their surroundings digitally painted in afterward, and sometimes the disconnect between the two is jarring. A few scenes (notably one in which Polly flees giant robots rampaging through midtown) recall a little too well those old movies in which foreground characters scream at a background dinosaur that quite obviously inhabits a different snippet of film. There are also times when Conran lets the infinite visual possibilities of the computer age get the better of him. One airplane that turns into a submarine is enough of a stretch; a flotilla of them feels like overkill, somehow disloyal to films from an age when such self-indulgence was not technically feasible.

The cast struggles a bit as well, perhaps in part because they are usually performing on an empty set. (One wonders how much further this trend might go. Could film one day be like music, with performers dropping by the studio to "lay down" their individual parts, all to be put together at a later date?) Law, audibly restraining his accent, never quite registers as the All-American Hero. He's a little too amiable and easygoing to be charged with saving the world. Paltrow's languid, self-assured Polly feels too modern for the context, lacking both the spunk and the sexual ill-confidence of her go-getter-girl forbears. Ribisi is more fun as boyish Dex, just managing to keep a straight face every time he refers to Joe as "Cap'n." But it is simultaneously odd and telling that it is Olivier--the creepiness of his brief, ghostly appearance notwithstanding--who seems most at home in the film.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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