By Vic Holtreman
The short version: Visually intriguing tribute to serial movies of the 40's and 50's, but in the end it's just a pretty good popcorn flick.
Once again it has been proven that trailers can be misleading. Back in July (in the prior link) I stated my thoughts that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow looked like it might be really fantastic. I am ashamed to admit that I even mentioned Lord of the Rings within the same post...
Sky Captain isn't a bad movie, it's just not a great one.
The film opens aboard a zeppelin (the Hindenburg III), preparing to dock atop the Empire State Building, and is photographed in such an unusual way that it took some time for my brain to adjust to what my eyes were seeing. The colors were very muted, and there was a softer focus than I've ever seen onscreen (and that's including shots of Barbara Walters during her interviews). It was actually a bit distracting, and to compound the confusion the scene was spoken in German with subtitles translating.
It would have been better to have opened the film with some sort of introductory scene which allowed us to take in the visual style of the film and get used to it before moving on with the story. Perhaps along the lines of the opening sequence in any James Bond film.
Having said all that, at least initially the visuals are mesmerizing and if you are a fan of classic films of the 40's it will give you a warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia. I really felt transported to another time, not only through the visuals but the acting style and the pacing. The down side of that is that yesterday's pacing can seem a bit slow by today's standards. Films are usually edited a bit tighter these days and one gets used to that.
The story follows Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a spunky newspaper reporter/photographer who comes across information which will give her a "scoop" as to why a number of prominent scientists are being killed one by one. The last surviving scientist contacts her, leaving her with blueprints for what looks like a robot, along with the cryptic name "Dr. Totenkopf" as the man behind it all. Immediately after this giant robots attack New York City, and her newshound instincts overrule any thoughts of personal safety as she places herself directly in the path of the mechanical monsters so she can get a great photograph.
The police are ineffective against the behemoths, so a call goes out to "Sky Captain" (Jude Law): apparently a "Buck Rogers on earth" type of guy who is called in when all else fails. Some deft flying skills are demonstrated as he tries everything he can to bring these things down, and in the process of course he keeps Polly from being crushed to death. If you're a movie buff you'll notice all sorts of nods to great films, as in this scene where the laser beams shooting out of the robots eyes sound quite a bit like the Martian death ray from War of the Worlds.
It turns out that Sky Captain (aka Joe, a good, solid all-American name from old war movies if I ever heard one) and Polly have a rocky romantic history. Unfortunately for him, she has information that he needs to help find this elusive Totenkopf, and she refuses to help unless she can accompany him and get an exclusive. We also meet Joe's sidekick scientist/inventor buddy Dex (Giovanni Ribisi, playing the most intelligent character I've seen him play to date). Another interesting decision was to use archival footage of Laurence Olivier as Totenkopf.
More attacks and the journey to locate Totenkopf ensue, with lots of witty repartee between Joe and Polly. We eventually meet "Frankie", an old partner of Joe's who helps them considerably in a series of exciting scenes. Frankie is played by Angelina Jolie, who melted into the role very nicely. I'm not a huge fan of Jolie (by a longshot) but she was perfect for this particular role of a veteran commander with a dry, sly sense of humor.
I really appreciated that another tip of the hat to older films was how the film had no offensive language or blatant sexual innuendo, except for one scene where a comment was made concerning nipples getting hard in cold weather. My first thought was "What the heck was THAT all about?" as it did not fit in the movie at all and it seemed like one of those lines stuck in after the fact by some snickering "Beavis and Butthead" mentality exec.
The final plan turns out to be a bit silly as far as I'm concerned, but it makes for some great scenes towards the end of the film, with more homages paid to Star Wars and all those old sci fi movies that used those sleek tripod finned spaceships.
This was Kerry Conran's directorial and writing debut, so it's no surprise that this was not better. He initially spent four years making basically the first six minutes of this film, and when he showed that to producer John Avnet he was given the green light to complete it. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is impressive visually, especially considering that all the sets are CG, but it doesn't have the punch needed to knock you out of your seat.
On a side note: As I sat in the theater I kept thinking how great it would be if Peter Jackson (writer/director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) applied a similar look to his upcoming remake of King Kong.
Sky Captain is definitely worth watching once, but it's not the type of film that warrants repeat viewing.