By Pete Vonder Haar | September 18, 2004

George Lucas might have a reason to make those “Star Wars” sequels after all, once he sees the work Kerry Conran has done on his debut feature, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” The film was shot entirely against a blue screen, with everything digitized except for the actors. The end result is both a loving homage to the pulp and adventure films of the 1930s and an engaging (if far-fetched) tale in its own right.

“Sky Captain” opens with the zeppelin “Hindenburg III” docking at the Empire State Building, where a nervous man disembarks. The man, Dr. Walter Jennings, arranges a meeting with intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow). There, Jennings informs Polly of a sinister plot involving German scientists from a pre-WWI organization known as “Unit 11.” Created by a fellow with the friendly name of Totenkopf (“death’s head” in German, Unit 11 was tasked with performing sinister scientific experiments, and Jennings is the last (the rest having mysteriously disappeared), but before
Polly can start looking into who is kidnapping the great scientists of Europe, New York City is besieged by an army of giant robots and the fun, as it were, really starts.

The robots are seeking power generators buried under the streets of the city, and they abscond with them, but not before the titular Sky Captain, Joe Sullivan (Jude Law) of the Flying Legion, makes his largely ineffectual appearance. Joe’s a trooper, but even his customized P-40 Warhawk is no match for the giant automatons. Polly tails him to the Legion’s base, conveniently located in a mountain lake mere minutes from the Big Apple, where we learn a little of their rocky history. The two visit Jennings in the city, just in time to see him killed by a mysterious assassin (Bai Ling). They then return to the base, just in time for it to be attacked by more machines, these resembling a cross between manta rays and Cylons from “Battlestar Galactica.” The base is destroyed and Joe’s mechanic Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) is kidnapped, but not before he traced the machines’ place of origin. There’s nothing left for Joe to do but fly to Nepal, rescue his friend, and thwart the evil Totenkopf’s mysterious plans. All with Polly in tow, of course.

Telling more about the film would be spoiling some of the fun, though I’d be lying if I said there was anything very original about the plot: dashing hero sets off on a dangerous quest to defeat evil supervillain with spunky female love interest and trusty sidekick in tow. It’s about as dated as Paltrow’s Veronica Lake haircut.

But no one is going to see “Sky Captain” for the nuanced allegory. Kerry Conran is an obvious fan of ‘30s period cinema, and the influences are all over the screen. The robots are straight out of Max Fleischer’s cartoons (while watching them lay waste to downtown NYC I couldn’t help wondering when Superman was going to show up). While the advanced technology on display is inspired by the likes of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon (Dex also keeps his comics on his drafting table). “Metropolis,” “Lost Horizon,” and the old Republic serials are all represented, and to good effect for the most part. New York City is rendered in an almost noir fashion, with sepia tones and muted palates throughout, while the later, more exotic, locations are lush and vivid. The animation in uniformly superb, even if the assimilation with the live actors isn’t always seamless. The one complaint that could be made about the CGI is just how overwhelming it is, and how much this annoys you will go a long way toward determining your enjoyment of the film.

And then there’s Gwyneth. I realize that pulp era heroines are supposed to be spunky, but Conran unfortunately decided to use Kate Capshaw from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” as a partial reference. Polly, the film’s ersatz Lois Lane (right down to the alliterative name) may be more competent and less of a shrieker than Capshaw’s Billie, but she’s no less obnoxious. Paltrow emotes like she can’t believe she’s actually doing this, rolling her eyes and reacting to things like 80-foot robots and imminent death with pained nonchalance. Worse (from a plot perspective), she’s deliberately dishonest with Joe on more than one occasion, endangering both their lives. Law is also a little reticent about adopting the role of square-jawed hero, but he expresses an appreciable amount of awe at some of their discoveries. If anyone in the cast is having a good time, it’s Angelina Jolie as Captain Franky Cook, a former “acquaintance” of Joe’s. Franky commands a squadron in the British Air Force that could only have been developed in a world where World War II never took place, and where England had nothing better to spend money on than flying aircraft carriers and amphibious commando squads. Resplendent in jackboots and eyepatch, she’s also every fanboy’s Ilsa fetish come to life.

Much has been made of Conran using old footage of Laurence Olivier to portray Totenkopf, and I admit to being a little queasy with the idea myself (I still have bad memories of that Fred Astaire vacuum cleaner commercial). However, once you see it in the film, in the context of another of “Sky Captain’s” more obvious inspirations, it makes sense. I won’t lie and say the idea of digitally exhuming our great actors doesn’t still make me itchy, but Conran does it about as well as I think you can.

Besides, I’ll forgive anyone who throws bones (the log bridge and Denham’s ship from “King Kong,” a silhouetted Godzilla in a Japanese newspaper photo) to classic monster movie fans, or includes the line, “Is it safe?” in a scene with a dead Laurence Olivier. “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of its own production, but all in all it’s an exhilarating experience, and raises the bar for the use of digital technology in film.

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