Flying High

From its plucky heroes to its breathtaking visuals, there's hardly a cloud in `Sky Captain'


September 17, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Robot monsters wreaking havoc on the streets of New York. An evil villain whose German name translates to Deadhead. A dashing hero and a plucky heroine.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is gloriously retro, unashamedly celebratory of the joy of moviemaking and the love of old-fashioned heroism. True, it's not perfect, with a tendency to plod when it should soar (especially in the first third) and an inclination by the actors to let the special effects do all the work (the banter between leads Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law is forced, the chemistry barely there). But the joy and inventiveness with which everything was put together, by a first-time director no less, make up for a lot of sins.

The plot of Sky Captain is right out of a 1940s-era pulp magazine (or perhaps a Blackhawk comic book), your basic battle between good and evil, with the fate of the world in the balance - nothing terribly complicated. But director Kerry Conran, working almost exclusively on computer (only the actors in the film are real, everything else is software-generated), fashions a beautifully textured world that has the look, feel and even the cheesiness of Golden-Age comic books.

The opening shots are as breathtaking as anything to come out of cinema this side of George Lucas. High over the skies of New York, a German zeppelin glides noiselessly, carrying within it a mysterious figure who seems nervous about ... something. After the airship docks atop the Empire State Building (a use originally envisioned by its owners, until they realized high winds would make such a use perilous, if not downright deadly), he scampers onto American soil and disappears.

Cut to the nearest big-city newsroom, where ace reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow) is being chastised once again by her overprotective editor for taking too many risks. Of course, his fears fall on deaf ears. Polly is already working on a story about disappearing scientists and a name that certainly sounds full of dread and foreboding: Totenkopf!

Polly's attention is diverted, however, when giant robots invade the city, stomping up and down Broadway and smashing everything in their path. Things look dark indeed, until salvation zooms through the Manhattan skies in the form of ace aviator H. Joseph Sullivan (Law), better known as Sky Captain.

Soon, Sky has things under control - thanks in part to the help of his indispensable right arm, gadget wiz Dex (Giovanni Ribisi). Everything, that is, except for Polly, with whom he seems to have had something of a fling a few years back in Nanjing. He wants no part of her, but Polly didn't become an ace reporter by taking "no" for an answer.

The robots strike again, and Sky and Polly join forces to get to the bottom of all this evil. Where did these monsters come from? Are there more of them? What dastardly fate does their assuredly evil inventor have in mind for the world? And what, exactly, is/was the relationship between Sky and leather-clad British Capt. Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie, chewing scenery with great relish)?

Conran, who originally wanted to shoot Sky Captain in black and white, opts instead for a muted color scheme that appears to have been lifted right off the covers of the old pulp magazines he devoured as a kid (Conran is only 37, but his storytelling tastes run much older). The choice gives his movie an otherworldly quality that only helps separate it from the rest of the adventure-film pack.

He's also an unregenerate movie geek; glancing references to such movie classics as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Stagecoach abound; watch closely during an underwater scene, and you'll spy the boat that ferried King Kong from Skull Island to Manhattan resting on the ocean floor.

Cartoonish in only the most positive ways, Sky Captain celebrates and updates old-fashioned storytelling, giving in without resistance to the allure of easily identifiable good and bad guys who wouldn't know irony if they stepped in it, but wrapping it all in a covering every techno-nerd in the world will appreciate. True, the technology here has its limits; let's all pray this film isn't used as an excuse to have every computer in Hollywood turned into a soulless, but endlessly adaptable, movie director. Gadgetry, megabytes and a bottomless hard drive may have given Sky Captain its look, but the movie would be just a curiosity without the passion and imagination of Conran.

Sky Captain

Starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie

Written and directed by Kerry Conran

Released by Paramount Pictures

Rated PG (sequences of stylized sci-fi violence and brief mild language)

Time 107 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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