With three blue-screen sets, 2,100 computer-animated effects shots, $70 million, and top-notch Hollywood talent (all delivering believable performances, despite having few props and zero sets to work with), comic-book aficionado-cum-auteur Kerry Conran has re-imagined the past in a way that is uncannily new, making a film with a visual style that is impressive even in the immediate wake of Hero’s luscious beauty. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a thoroughly stylized, ’30s-style comic-book adventure complete with dashing hero, intrepid girl reporter, faithful sidekick, super villain, giant robots, the end of the world, and — of course — Gotham City.
The film opens with a German doctor handing off a package as passengers disembark from a zeppelin moored to the spire of the Empire State Building; he’s being followed and doesn’t expect to survive. Enter gutsy reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), shown pecking away at a typewriter. “SCIENTIST,” the opening of a headline, crawls across the full height of the screen, jarringly followed by a stationary “MISSING.” Polly is determined to figure out what’s going on. A cartoonishly charming cab delivers her to an unreally picturesque Radio City Music Hall. The Wizard of Oz projected behind them, the last of seven German scientists to have participated in the evil Dr. Totenkopf’s Unit 11 tells Polly that once he’s found, the world will end.
Conran subtly clues us in on the period: 1939 — the year of The Wizard of Oz, the year the New York World’s Fair was named “The World of Tomorrow,” and the year Wuthering Heights was released, starring Sir Lawrence Oliver, whose image was used to create images of Dr. Totenkopf. A bit of chatter about World War I, two German scientists predicting doom, and a crowd pouring into a Manhattan street as sirens blare and dozens of oddly shaped planes fly overhead, all foreshadow the impending second World War.
The whole city trembles, and suddenly the planes aren’t planes at all but colossal robots, crushing everything in their path. Paltrow’s performance, running in her knee-length skirt, rushing out of harm’s way, is unlike anything we’ve seen from her before. She combines a starlet’s distressed glamour (her perfectly coiffed hair starring as Veronica Lake’s famous tresses) with the resourcefulness of Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane; it’s a surprising, thrilling performance — all the more so when she reaches down and splits a seam for freer movement, when she’s rolling out of the path of a giant robotic foot, and particularly when she’s saved — just in the nick of time, of course — by Sky Captain Joe Sullivan (Jude Law).
As Joe flies off, he says, simply, “Polly” to no one but himself, and she, to herself, watching from the street: “Joe.” The story’s romance is off to a lovely start.
Back at base, where Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi) is busy creating comic-book-inspired gadgets, Joe and Polly playfully put aside past skirmishes — just enough details of a love triangle are present to establish the uneasy relationship between the larger-than-life characters — to save the world.
Before they can do that, though, Joe has to fight the character credited only as Mysterious Woman (Bai Ling), whose initial scene briefly shows her floating up to a window, resembling a Dementor from the latest Harry Potter installment; the last scientist has to give Polly two vials, telling her that should they fall into the hands of Totenkopf, the world will be destroyed; and Dex has to be abducted by the Mysterious Woman and her robotic minions, these looking rather like a metal version of something from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
The full plot is in place: Joe and Polly are off to save the world and rescue boy wonder Dex.
One of my most vivid memories of the Indiana Jones movies is of the archaeologist boarding a plane for a far-away land, when the plane would disappear as a map filled the screen and a line arched from one exotic place to another. Conran has taken that a dazzling step further. As the duo fly over the ocean and over white-capped mountainscapes, the map is imprinted on them, as though Mother Nature herself had suddenly taken up cartography.
Further astounding us, Conran and the 11 special-effects facilities that created the splendor of this film recreated a Himalayan landscape as pure as one might imagine Heaven but as treacherous as George Lucas’s Hoth, placing in its heart Shrangi-la — “To the Hebrews, Eden” — that rivals the utopian splendor of Peter Jackson’s Rivendell. Between entering the Himalayas and finding Shangri-la, Polly and Joe have a scrape with death in a mine full of explosives. The lighting in these scenes is unlike anything ever put on film: The faces of Law and Paltrow glow as though each frame were prepared as the cover of a Christmas card.
After discovering that Totenkopf has left Shangri-la, the duo continues on their adventure, eventually running out of fuel. This provides the opportunity to introduce Angelina Jolie’s Captain Franky Cook, for whom Conran and his crew have devised mobile airstrips that look like a Defense Department wet dream. Jolie was born to play this sort of dominatrix role, leading her all-female amphibious squadron. When the carrier is attacked and she calls the squadron to attention, the excitement is intense. As the planes dive toward the ocean, the propellers moving from the front of the wings to the back, this movie is all there is in the world, and when the planes break the surface of the water and glide through its depths, Conran’s creation is a truly magical experience.
The remains of ill-fated Atlantis have the feel of actual Greek ruins, submerged beneath a tropical island with creatures as odd and terrifying as any Jurassic Park was able to conjure. All this culminates in the mountain lair of the villainous Dr. Totenkopf, which combines the high-tech austerity of the Death Star with the volcanic ruggedness of the Thuggee cult’s Temple of Doom to great effect.
Besides the realistic scenery, the team engineered Fleischer-inspired humanoid robots with believably stilted movement, soaring avian robots, scampering robotic crabs, and worker robots that seem like nothing so much as streamlined Rosies (“The Jetsons”’ acerbic but reliable maid) — every one of which are more convincing than the zillion Agent Smiths in the extravagantly funded Matrix.
The pace is intense — you barely have a moment to absorb the latest plot twist or awesome effect before it’s gone, but composer Edward Shearmur has created a score that keeps up, complementing the film’s action. Though John Williams’s influence is undeniable, the score never takes over, announcing the action as Williams is wont to do; Shearmur’s score flows smoothly with the movement, weaving itself a part of the larger whole.
The film has its flaws: There are several visual quotations whose sources are excessively transparent. World War I is referred to as such, which at the very least seems pessimistic, as World War II had not yet fully begun. And there’s a crude, easy joke in Tibetan with subtitles to rub it in that’s only made worse by the scenes in which Tibetan is used without subtitles, but in the face of all the film’s imagination and beauty, such nitpicking simply fades into the background of blissful disbelief.
Ryan Lindsey previously wrote political commentary and the occasional movie review for Pajiba.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow / Ryan Lindsey
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()