In creating “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” writer/director Kerry Conran spent 29 days filming his cast before a blue screen and a year-and-a-half filling in the backgrounds with elaborate computer generated effects. Unfortunately, it feels as if Conran wrote the screenplay to this film during a lunch break. “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is a slapdash mix of ideas and images from at least 25 different and better films, all crammed into a chaotic, patience-fraying package. The only reason to see this film is not the special effects, but because of the human element.
Set in 1939, the film finds New York under attack from an army of giant robots. A careful ear will pick up snatches of dialogue lifted from Orson Welles’ broadcast of “War of the Worlds” and cartoon fanatics will recognize the design of the robots as coming from the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. The Man of Steel is not present, but a Lois Lane clone in the guise of ace reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyenth Paltrow) is on the ground covering the invasion. Meanwhile, Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law), sort of an RAF version of Flash Gordon, is flying his airplane frantically about to halt the metallic monsters from destroying the city.
While this is going on, another odd caper is afoot: someone is kidnaping the world’s greatest scientists. Joe and Polly, who were one-time lovers, reunite to crack this case. It seems the missing scientists and the robot invaders are the work of the notorious Dr. Totenkopf. Joe and Polly wind up traveling to the Himalayas in search of this dastardly villain. In the course of their adventures, they wind up in a uranium mine, in Shangri-La, and even on a rocket into outer space.
“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” constantly batters the viewer with heavy slaps of deja vu. Pieces of “The Wizard of Oz,” “King Kong,” the James Bond and “Star Wars” series, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Fritz Lang’s silent epic “Woman in the Moon” and “Psycho” have been borrowed and dropped into this flick. There is even a bit of “Plan 9 from Outer Space” here, with the use of old footage in which a long-dead star is resurrected as a central member of the cast (Laurence Olivier as Dr. Totenkopf â€“ the surname is German for “deadhead”). Composer Edward Shearmu also gets into the act by taking what seems to be every John Williams score and stuffing it all into a wall-to-wall anvil symphony that clobbers the film at ever opportunity.
Yet for all of the commotion, the film is a sloppy story. On three occasions the plot is advanced when the heroes discover documents conveniently left behind by characters who abruptly disappear from the proceedings. Airplanes turn into submarines twice in the film. Prehistoric creatures turn up, but their presence is never explained. There is a reference to World War I, but nothing is said of World War II (which is supposedly going on simultaneously to the events here).
Complicating matters is the film’s look. Conran tinkered with the film’s color palette to create a look that is reminiscent of the soft visuals associated with the two-color Technicolor process. At first this creates a bit of eyestrain, but over the running time it is easy to adjust to this odd visual style.
If there is a reason to see this film, it would be due entirely to the human cast. Law and Paltrow have a winning rapport, mixing uneasy partnership with flickers of a not-dead-yet romance. Hopefully this pair will join up in more films. Angelina Jolie, sporting an eyepatch and a fruity British accent, injects some much-needed camp into the proceedings as the commander of a floating aircraft carrier. Her role is relatively small, but she carries off the film with her brilliantly hammy presence; in a way, it is a shame she is not the villain of the piece since she would easily go to town as a latter day Ming the Merciless. Giovanni Riblisi is also here as Joe’s sidekick, a wacky inventor who gets his inspiration from comic books. He has a great comic flair and it is too bad there isn’t more of him here.
In many ways, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is the cinematic equivalent of a tribute band. It reminds you of the greatness of the original artists receiving the tribute, but on its own terms it has absolutely nothing original to offer.