One fine day a few years back, director Kerry Conran had a vision, and most everything in it was fake. Fake sets, fake monsters, fake airplanes?real weird. So he got his crew together, busted out the blue screen, filmed for a measly 26 days and let the computer do the dirty work. And out came Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Now I'm no mind reader, but I have the distinct feeling that I wasn't the only one freaked out just by the idea of this flick. Giant, slow-moving robots marching through a vintage New York City. Our hero saving the day in a fighter jet and leather flight cap. An eye-patched Angelina Jolie manning an airship like some supple-lipped Star Trek pirate. Come now.
And that title sounds more like a bad SNL skit than a film featuring two Oscar-winning dames and that fine, fine future husband of mine, Jude Law. At first glance, Sky Captain looks like it should have been a Star Wars prequel. Forget this sci-fied, bomber-jacket version of 1939 America. Natalie Portman's couture lip-dot might seem natural next to this.
But by the tenth minute of the film?nay, the fifth?none of this even mattered. All these pre-conceptions, not to mention the simplistic story, stocky characterization, and surprisingly thrill-less suspense sequences barely factored in. Who wants to bother with all that, really, when a movie looks this damned good?
The head honcho of the title is Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), an ego-driven defender of the skies who seems to fly more than he walks. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Polly Perkins, a nosy news reporter who shares a romantic history with the good Captain. When genius scientists go missing and New York City is attacked by flying machines, Joe wants the action and Polly wants the scoop. The search for the villain, a man by the name of Totenkopf (Lawrence Olivier. Yes, the Lawrence Olivier. I'll explain later), takes our heroes and faithful techie, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) on a non-stop flight around the world and deeper into this high-stakes caper mystery.
Their lines may be simple and their acting superficial, but boy, does this camera?or this computer?flatter. Each frame of this film is as flattering to the actors as a shopping mall glamour shot is to us commoners. Now I didn't stay for all the credits, but I'm willing to bet there was a full-time powder-puff man on set?as if Jude weren't radiant enough. And the way Gwyneth's perfect golden locks gleamed with the slightest bit of digital light is enough to make the Pantene Pro-V models insecure. Even Giovanni Ribisi looked halfway handsome. And Lawrence Olivier?whose performance is made up of a string of old footage?looks halfway alive. Really, what can't computers do?
As for the digitally animated heaven taking our breath away in every scene, well, the phrase "eye candy" is just not useful here. That's kid stuff. A much better term is eye orgasm. Rather than blurring away shyly behind the stars, these backgrounds snap their fingers and call you over. And they're not fooling around.
The movie's look is a kind of dreamy mist of chrome metal, like the reflection on the hood of a newly-washed car in the sun, or a well-polished shoe on a businessman walking on Wall Street, jacket slung over his shoulder. Above all, it's luminous. Light and shadow make their case and stand unopposed. In a way, this version of pre-WWII America ends up looking way cooler than a row of elves and hobbits galloping across New Zealand?err?Middle Earth, or the last fortress of humanity fighting for its existence against an army of squid-like machines. Sky Captain may be entirely fake, but it digs up a real mood from a real time in American history, and makes it sparkle. In fact, if nostalgia had a high school yearbook portrait it handed out to all its friends, it would look a little something like this: soft, flattering, and nothing short of heart-warming.
For you hard-core film buffs, Sky Captain offers, if nothing else, a test of your movie genius. See how many of the dozen or so tributes to Hollywood classics you can spot. Everything from the original King Kong to Olivier's Marathon Man and George Lucas's THX-1138 shows up somewhere. There's even a tip to Orson Welles and his famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, which no doubt influenced this story. That's Conran giving credit where credit is due. Make a mental note, kids. He may be a rookie, but the man knows to pay his respects.
Overall, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is radiant as an homage and immaculate as a visual experience. It may have only gotten a passing grade on story, but it was only taking it credit/fail. And maybe it's better that way.
I mean, think about it. When you see something awesome, like a spaceship landing in your backyard, you shut up. And you tell people around you to shut up. It's an important visual moment, and it needs all your attention.