Jude Law, producer Jon Avnet and Angelina Jolie on the set of Paramount Pictures' Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow - 2004.
Photo Copyright Paramount Pictures
Something essential is missing in Hollywood, but it's not always easy to pinpoint what it is until it's pointed out to you. Ambition. It may seem odd to say that ambition is the missing element in a town that specializes in greed, money, and ego, but I'm thinking of a slightly different definition. The ambition I speak of is that drive to create something new, something wholly unique, or at least a new way to look at an old story. This week, something new has arrived, though the packaging is very old indeed. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is an exciting and beautifully realized look at the spectacularly imaginative adventure tales of the 1930s. If only it had the full strength of its ambition.
Set in a luminous and nostalgic 1930s New York City, Sky Captain asks the question, "What would happen if a mad scientist unleashed an army of giant robots on the world, for purposes so nefarious they can hardly be mentioned?" Well, they'd have to be stopped, of course, by the Sky Captain, Joe Sullivan, and his heroic army of mercenaries, searching the globe for evil-doers. And by Polly Perkins, intrepid investigative reporter and our hero's ex-girlfriend. Together they must uncover the plot, a task that will take them from the streets of the city to the mountains of Tibet, to the steamy jungles of a mysterious tropical isle, all the while fighting off giant robots of every description as well as a shadowy assassin bent on achieving her master's dastardly goals. Sky Captain is exciting, funny, and mesmerizing to look at. It's also just a little frustrating.
There are plot holes, requisite in thirties serials, and no less present here. But they are not a major flaw in a film whose very existence screams out "good old-fashioned fun at the movies." There is no real requisite for historical accuracy or plot consistency here. There is, however, a level of artistic consistency that one would hope for, though one would be disappointed. Writer/director Kerry Conran had a very specific and ambitious vision. He wanted to make a film that had the feel and look of those wonderful old adventure tales while utilizing modern animation techniques to achieve something that could not have even been hoped for by filmmakers from seven decades back. Trained as an animator, Conran spent four years in his garage making a six-minute clip, utilizing blue-screen technology, as well as old photographs and computer animation. In the end, the clip was enough to convince producer Jon Avnet that the vision was real and could support a full length feature. Without the money or the stifling influence of a major Hollywood studio, Avnet and Conran went on to write a script and create a technical and cinematic marvel. What you are seeing is essentially Roger Rabbit in reverse, though don't let that goofy and somewhat antiquated image throw you off. In Sky Captain there are no sets, no location shoots; only the actors and the props they touch are real. Everything else has been created out of old doctored photographs or, more often, thin air. It is truly incredible to look at, but it is here that the problem occurs. The first episode of the film showcases Conran's vision marvelously. The look and feel of the people, the landscape and the action suggested nothing less than the fertile imagination of the 1930s come to life before our very eyes. It was as if art deco itself were alive and breathing, right up on the screen. However, as the film progresses, that vision becomes harder and harder to contain. In the interests of plot and action, the vision slowly gets supplanted for convenience sake. Suddenly, alongside the oh-so-retro ray guns, we are subjected to rocket launchers and homing missiles. Things start to get sleeker, more modern, and, while the film never totally loses it's vintage look and feel, the brilliance of that first episode is hard to lose.
That said, it's hard to dampen the fun of a movie like this. Jude Law is excellent as the dashing Sky Captain, and Gwyneth Paltrow is winning as ever as his old flame Polly. Angelina Jolie even shows up in a small role as British officer ready to lend a hand with her fleet of flying fortresses, giant airborne runways proudly emblazoned with the Union Jack. The real star, however, truly is the look of the film, a look that Conran and over one hundred computer animators worked day and night to achieve. From the first scene, a snowy docking of a massive zeppelin at the tip of the Empire State Building, to the last, I was in awe. The film's great look, combined with its complete earnestness and optimism, and with its complete lack of the grating self-referential cynicism that we so often find in recent movies, give it something too rarely seen in theaters around the country today: real fun. And at least that's one ambition that makes it all the way through. Grade: A-
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is rated PG for sci-fi action and mild scares.
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