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'Sky Captain' starts soaring, doesn't end so high

Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2004

From the looks of it, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" could have been a dazzling success or a dizzying failure.

It's actually a bit of both -- an ambitious if highly derivative mix of live actors and digital technology, of futuristic sci-fi fantasy and old-school Hollywood adventure.

There's nothing else like it, so for that reason alone it's worth seeing. Yet pieces of it are just like every movie you've ever seen.

For the first 10 minutes or so, "Sky Captain" is an absolute visual marvel, evocatively recalling the look of German expressionism from the 1920s and film noir from the '40s with its soaring skyscrapers and severe camera angles, its dramatic lighting and deep shadows. Like "Far From Heaven," the faithful recreation of those weepy female melodramas from the 1950s, "Sky Captain" truly makes you feel at times that you are watching a film from a bygone era.

Intrepid newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is searching for clues to the disappearances of several worldwide scientists (the moment she steps into the lobby of Radio City Music Hall to meet a source is wondrous) when giant robots invade from the skies above New York City and stomp destructively through the streets.

(Paltrow certainly looks the part, with her flawless flaxen locks, porcelain skin and girl-reporter get-up of raincoat and fedora, which Stella McCartney designed for her. Then she opens her mouth and out crawls the sarcastic voice of a California girl -- a jarring anachronism and a real surprise, given Paltrow's adeptness at accents.)

After scampering away from the onslaught with her hair and her blood-red lipstick intact, Polly seeks the help of a former love, the dashing aviator Capt. H. Joseph Sullivan or "Sky Captain" (Jude Law, looking typically sexy in a leather bomber jacket).

But once Joe and Polly leave New York to continue their investigation (and prevent the world from being destroyed), "Sky Captain" becomes an "Indiana Jones" wannabe -- the trilogy itself an homage to decades-old adventure flicks -- complete with cutesy quips from Law for comic relief at the most cataclysmic times.

They trek to the Himalayas and Shangri-La before landing on an aircraft carrier hidden in the clouds, which is run by another old flame of Joe's, Capt. Francesca "Franky" Cook (Angelina Jolie, wearing a baffling eye patch that actually manages to distract attention from her famous lips). It is physically impossible to avoid laughing out loud when the action stops and the frame centers on Jolie barking out in her fake British accent, "Alert the amphibious squadron!" And that probably wasn't the intended effect.

The film also is overloaded with references to "The Wizard of Oz" -- to which first-time writer-director Kerry Conran says he's paying tribute -- including a metallic version of those menacing flying monkeys and a giant, electronic rendering of a scientist's head that resembles the great and powerful Oz. The result seems stale, rather than sweetly reverent.

If you know the back story of "Sky Captain," though, its collapse after such a promising start makes sense. The basis for the film was a six-minute video that Conran created on his computer, which combined classic images of the Empire State Building from 1939 with the kind of daring, sweeping effects you'd see in a video game.

Once the story leaves New York, "Sky Captain" meanders hopelessly, veering between serious action sequences and borderline camp. Conran seems to want it both ways, both tonally and visually, but never fully succeeds either way.

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG for sequences of stylized sci-fi violence and brief mild language. Running time: 107 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.



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