Friday, September 24, 2004

'Sky Captain' soars on digital wings

—Originally published 9.24.04

The innovation and craftsmanship of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" dramatically enhance what would otherwise be a tepid action flick.

Filmed entirely against a blue screen in essentially one room, the movie from first-time filmmaker Kerry Conran is unlike anything you've seen before. More than 2,000 digital effects (yes, that is not a misprint) comprise most of the shots, allowing the stellar cast to come fill in the blanks. The result is a nearly seamless mix of next-generation technology and classic melodrama and noir that works pretty well, if a little strange.

Jude Law stars as Joe Sullivan, a.k.a. Sky Captain, a mercenary fighter pilot called upon to save the world from a sinister scientist, Dr. Totenkopf. Set in 1930s New York, the city is under attack from skyscraper-size robots and curious mechanical flying machines of death. They serve little purpose other than to look cool and provide Sky Captain an excuse to fly stunts through the city, but those two reasons are good enough.

The good Captain is joined in his quest by ex-lover Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a plucky metro reporter for a New York newspaper. She's been tipped off about the mad scientist's plan -- information Sullivan desperately needs once his sidekick, techno-wiz Dex (Giovanni Ribishi), is kidnapped by the evil genius. So the two work together to save the world, sparring with each other as much as the baddies.

While Angelina Jolie shares equal space in the credits with the other two stars, she has more of an extended cameo than a lead part as another of Sullivan's ex-lovers. She portrays eye-patch-wearing Franky Cook, a captain in the British Royal Navy who helps the Captain in his quest, allowing Conran an opportunity to showcase more aerial and aquatic acrobatics with machines that in no way could have existed in the '30s.

But that's the nature of this ambitious film. Sure, some of the lines and jokes get a little old by the end (a quick 100 minutes) and the plot is rather formulaic, but everything plays second-fiddle to the look and feel of the movie, which is anything but typical. Rather than deride it as unrealistic, celebrate "Sky Captain" for its joyous surrealism and imagination -- something like "Casablanca" meets "Batman" meets "Star Wars."

Speaking of, there's been a lot of discussion lately concerning the artistic merits of the "Star Wars" trilogy, now that those classics are out on DVD. Creator/director/Hollywood emperor George Lucas said he never intended for his movies to be seen several times over and especially not on a television; they were meant to wash over the audience in a big theater, where nit-picking details the first time around is overrun by the overall experience.

We may look back on "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" the same way. Seeing it again from the couch won't be nearly as fun, but the first time around it's a sight to behold -- on the big screen, anyway.

Grade: B+

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