In opening shots literally spun out of digital magic, a zeppelin floats into New York City during a snowstorm and berths alongside the Empire State Building. It's a wordless and beautiful bit of retro-futurism with a slightly ominous air that one hopes signals a fantastic and moody thriller.
Fresh out of the gate with his first film, screenwriter and director Kerry Conran is sure to receive plenty of notice for how his highly stylized sci-fi actioner, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, was made. Employing virtually no sets or location shooting, Conran shot his actors against a blue screen and then digitally filled in the backgrounds later. This trick saved no time -- the film took more than six years to complete -- but it did let Conran span the globe, safely blow things up and create eye-popping set pieces. Unfortunately, all the high-tech bells and whistles in this brave new world can't raise Conran's film above the level of an interesting experiment, because while it doesn't lack for beauty and a certain vintage charm, it is sorely missing a good story.
Our zeppelin has docked in a shadowy Gotham ostensibly in the year 1939, but it's really the sort of alternate universe where people wear rakishly cocked hats at all times, and nobody mentions the war in Europe. After disembarking, a worried German scientist begs intrepid newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) to stop some dastardly international crime. Almost immediately giant robots stomp down the streets of Manhattan, and somebody cries out, "Call Sky Captain!"
Enter Joe "Sky Captain" Williams (Jude Law) and his trusty P-40 Warhawk. Twisting and diving through the canyons of Manhattan, he single-handedly stops the robots and waves hello to Polly, who is snapping photos of the felled metal men. Soon after, Joe's mechanic, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), is kidnapped from the Sky Captain HQ by a different set of robots. Polly and Joe must now fly around the world to rescue Dex; track down the robots' creator, the mad German scientist Dr. Totenhopf; hook up with British ally and aerial whiz Frankey (Angelina Jolie); and basically save the world from total destruction.
This is all played straight as an arrow; the film just plunges through every cornball comic-book and serial-matinee crisis without pausing to take a breath, and with nary a wink in sight. Yet while Sky Captain isn't a slavish homage -- the zillion-dollar effects make the damn thing more luminous than any B-reeler -- the film nearly breaks its neck nodding to earlier works. By the end of Sky Captain I felt exhausted -- not from all my vicarious on-screen adventures, but from piecing together all the film's antecedents, from H.G. Wells and Lost Horizon right up through Star Wars and The Iron Giant. It's as if Conran were so ecstatic that his late-night fantasy got greenlighted that he put everything -- everything -- that ever visually thrilled him into one movie. Hence mind-benders like the images of Nepal by way of Maxfield Parrish.
Sky Captain has a storyline that only an 8-year-old could totally embrace. There are germs of interesting ideas scattered throughout -- the promise of modernity mutating into something dark and fascistic; miraculous machinery turned toward destruction; a world ravaged by a man of science playing god; the fate of mankind in the hands of itinerant armies for hire -- but nothing is developed. One gets the sense that Conran skimmed most of these skeletal ideas from the pages of comic books or other pulpy media where a worldwide menace can be summed up in 10 words or less.
And then there are those effects. Gorgeous backgrounds, all cast in a gauzy sort of haze of history, necessitate that the literal edges of the actors be softened and their scenes be shot in sepia tones. This overt use of murky artificiality proves quite distracting. A cracking good story will carry one's mind right past such incongruities, but here, when Joe and Polly, who never seem in actual peril against false skies, again turn upside down in their plane, my mind found plenty of time to fret about what was and wasn't real.
Spectators will cheerfully sit through ludicrous plots if they care about the bedeviled souls stuck in them. Conran's protagonists are one-dimensional characters, though they snipe and bicker endlessly, which must be the new shorthand for hardboiled dialogue. Paltrow's take on Rosalind Russell-style wisecracking is a failure: If her line readings aren't flat, they're whiny, rendering Polly as a petulant, not-very-funny brat. Of course, delivering dialogue like "I'm in Shangri-la and I only have two shots left on my camera" can cause even Academy Award-winning actresses to stumble. Law seems more in the swing of the game, though I dare you not to laugh when he tells Paltrow: "I spent six months in a Manchurian slave camp because of you."
Leave it to Angelina Jolie to kick it up a notch. Her fetish fans will be drooling when she turns up clad relatively demurely in a form-fitting, neck-to-toe pilot's outfit with ... dear God ... a matching leather eye-patch. Severely arched eyebrows. Voluptuous lips. Phony English accent. A job cracking robot heads. At least when Jolie barks out nutty dialogue like "Alert the amphibious squad," it sounds like naughty fun.
A film like this should end on an exhilarating note, but the resolution here is far too silly to take seriously, and by now Conran's pulled out so many look-at-me gimmicks that the story has become secondary. Sky Captain contains neat visual trinkets, but they're buried beneath the hollow mish-mash of a hundred stories we've seen, and cared more about, before.