Modeling itself as the next big thing to happen to cinema, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” looks to the past for its inspiration. Drawing on the handful of films that changed the movie-going experience — “The Wizard of Oz,” “Star Wars,” and “Indiana Jones” to name a few — “Sky Captain” climbs onto the shoulders of these greats, confident that more is better. In most cases such a philosophy ruins a film, but here originality takes a backseat to the admirable goal of the entire production. “Sky Captain” aims to activate that gleeful melting point where adult gives way to inner-child and in large part it succeeds.
Moving far beyond digital effects, the film takes place in an imaginary version of the 1930s almost entirely designed by computer. From the epic opening shot of a zeppelin docking with the never-used landing pad at the top of the Empire State Building to a new performance from the long-dead Sir Lawrence Olivier, the concept of impossibility is systematically vaporized. Unlike the cutesy cartoon style of other digital creations, “Sky Captain” has the arty feel of a ’30s film told with the exaggerated visual flair of a comic book. And with comic-book-sized ambitions, director Kerry Conran shows off his technological muscle, taking classic scenes from cinema and outdoing them, as in one scene in which the famous “Indiana Jones” map is updated into glorious 3D.
Only the actors are flesh and blood, but oh what flesh! Hidden beneath a cascade of golden tresses that refract light like a Brancusi bronze and seeming only to cease at her frequently-revealed garter, no-nonsense newspaper photographer Polly Perkins is Gwyneth Paltrow transformed into a long-lost cinema goddess. Equipped with a camera and the stinging wit of Betty Davis, Polly is summoned by a mysterious letter to Radio City Music Hall where she is met by a frightened scientist. They hide in a screening of the “Wizard of Oz” no less, where he reveals a plot of apocalyptic proportions being carried out by an evil German scientist. Suddenly, flying robots attack New York. A reporter to the end, Polly runs out of the theater to take pictures. Narrowly escaping death, she is saved by Sky Captain (Jude Law) “and his armies for hire” that patrol the skies from their plush island base. It turns out Perkins and Captain dated before but had grown apart recently. But not to worry, united in saving the world, they quickly fall in love again.
Paltrow and Law are the perfect pair for the job, showing genuine chemistry while delivering their retro cliched dialogue with wit. Giovanni Ribisi shows up as Sky Captain’s Double-Bubble chewing partner, Dex Dearborn, who, despite being a brilliant scientist, has a “gee-whiz” sort of personality that fits perfectly with his boyish face. On the girl’s side, there is Captain Franky (Frances) Cook, an eyepatch-wearing British aviator who is Polly’s chief competition, as well she should be, for Angelina Jolie plays the part with a stiff-upper lip to die for.
Steeped in atmosphere and innocent fun, this film is a welcome break for adults from the fear and complicated responsibilities of everyday life. Although the film does not achieve the pure, ecstatic pleasure of an “Indiana Jones,” instead finishing with something more self-conscious, Conran has delivered a strong scouting expedition into a new world that will likely change cinema as we know it. Soaring into theaters with its star-studded cast, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” seeks to delight and amaze you. I am glad to report: “mission accomplished.”
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