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Sky Captain
and the
World of Tomorrow

Metal monsters threaten the city. A plucky reporter finds herself in the thick of it, barely escaping being crushed. In the midst of chaos, a cry goes out for a hero. Luckily, one answers, arriving to save the day with some difficulty but without our really worrying that he won't.

It probably sounds familiar, and indeed, it looks a lot like an old Max Fleischer Superman cartoon. In writer/director Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, though, everything old seems new again…for about ten minutes. Then the wonder of it all, meaning that everything has been digitally created and manipulated, wears out its welcome and you start looking past the effects and into the story.

Clearly drawing from just about everything that ever influenced him, Conran creates an old-fashioned story of heroism with all the raw energy of pulp magazines, '30's comics and movie serials. Unfortunately, once you get past the flash, the film also has all the story weaknesses of those sources, too.

Fulfilling a filmic destiny, Jude Law finally plays a superhero, the eponymous Sky Captain, who still usually goes by "Joe." After a rousing and improbable battle with the giant metal men in Manhattan, a voice-over implies that our heroic Sky Captain is actually somewhat of a mercenary, running a squadron of fliers that exist in this film just to show up and get killed.

At least he has more allegiance to Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi), his child-like genius technician capable of bringing "comic book" ideas to life. Though the movie owes much to old comic books, Conran still uses them as a reason for slight dismissal of Dex - he utters "Shazam!" as an expression of surprise and steals a ray gun concept right from the pages of Buck Rogers. Even converting Sky Captain's plane so it has submarine capabilities earns a manly snort from the hero after the trick saves his life.

To make Sky Captain's life difficult, he also has two women in his past: ace reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Angelina Jolie looking strangely alluring in an eyepatch. During this adventure seeking to stop the mad Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier - yes, Laurence Olivier), both women come back to bedevil the hero. And sorry, Jude, but both women are also far more interesting than the hero.

Meant to be reminiscent of classic (and somewhat forgotten) characters like Blackhawk and Captain Midnight with a little Don Winslow thrown in, Law has the square jaw but not really the commanding presence to fill the outline of charismatic hero. It's always seemed like the actor resisted traditional leading man roles in order not to get typecast, but it turns out that he's just wrong for such a thing. He's really a creepy character actor stuck behind a leading man's face. For long stretches of the movie, you can lose that in the digital mayhem, but the overall effect isn't quite satisfying.

At least the supporting cast can hold onto the focus, even if it's a maddeningly constant soft focus.

Paltrow plays tough thirties dame without resorting to a bad Katherine Hepburn impression, creating a character that may still be a two-dimensional pastiche, but at least it's her own. The actress displays great talent in the weirdest projects; known for her dramatic skills, she's really at her best in broad entertainments like this. Matching Paltrow in an all-too brief role as her rival, Jolie smirks and sneers with gusto.

Toning it down for perhaps the first time ever, Ribisi ends up as one of the most normal characters. Though he still has that strange hollow-eyed look, he makes Dex an easily identifiable character whose respect for Sky Captain doesn't need much explanation. Though why he stands for the Captain's apparent catchphrase being "good boy, Dex" will remain a mystery.

Perhaps such weak recurrences come straight out of Conran's memories. And he's right; pulp heroes may be brave and amazing, but they're also often condescending, a point easily lost when the action gets heavy. In The World of Tomorrow, it often does, with all the regularity of a cliffhanger, but Conran also keeps stopping to admire his scenery.

Yes, it's amazing scenery - to a point. If you haven't heard by now, only the actors, costumes (well done by Stella McCartney, Paul's daughter) and a few select props are real. Everything else is computer generated. It's an astounding achievement, right up to the touch of almost making you believe a long-dead actor can make a cameo.

But after the initial eye-pop, you have to wonder why go to the trouble of making everything intentionally look as fake as the old movies looked when they were trying to seem real? Quite a few CG matte paintings could go toe to toe with the best of Chesley Bonestell, but it begs the question: why not just hire a painter, then?

Such questions are best left unanswered. Conran has clearly got talent as a director, and never dwells too long on any one of the weaknesses of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to let you get bothered by them. His affection for the material, though, threatens to overwhelm the whole thing. Granted, geeks like me will have a field day spotting the references, but how does that play among the normals?

The overall effect is one of a fairly entertaining movie, with a great opening and closing. But like having Law as the hero, the movie may look good, but it leaves you wishing there was a little more to it.



Derek McCaw

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