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With: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi
Written by: Kerry Conran
Directed by: Kerry Conran
MPAA Rating: 106 minutes
Running Time: -99
Date: 09/14/2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The 'Sky's' the Limit

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow re-invents the idea of cinema as we know it, taking it into a brave new future while remaining refreshingly steeped in the past.

Conran famously created most of this ripping adventure yarn on computers, filming the live actors and a few props against a green screen and plopping them into the already-completed pictures.

But even this computer genius understood that without some kind of human interest, his film would be as lifeless as a silicon diode. He went so far as to insert live human beings in extreme wide shots, even if their images were too small to be seen by the naked eye.

The humans in this story include the heroic Sky Captain (Jude Law) and fearless reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), who both hit the pavement when giant robots appear out of nowhere. The robots thunder down the streets of New York, dig up a power generator and disappear.

Sky Captain's gum-chomping sidekick Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) finds the source of the robots, and so our hero takes off with Polly into exotic lands to solve the case. When Sky Captain's plane runs out of gas, gorgeous, ultra-cool Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie -- with an eyepatch) lends a hand. You'll never guess who turns up as the villain. One hint: he hasn't made a movie in a long time because he's dead.

Of course, Sky Captain, also known as "Joe," and Polly share some kind of sordid history that makes them bicker all the time, even though they're clearly made for each other.

If he were real, Ribisi's character Dex would be the film's biggest fan. He's the type of gee-whiz kid who reads comic books and constructs neat-looking ray guns that sometimes work and sometimes don't. Anyone who still adores King Kong or the Flash Gordon serials or Max Fleischer's WWII-era Superman cartoons can join his club. In fact, Conran deliberately pays visual tribute to some of these classic influences.

As the film moves on, it becomes clear that Conran is a child of the 80s, as obvious echoes ofStar Wars, Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park turn up. Conran even made the film in some of the same London studios that George Lucas once occupied.

But even if the images in Sky Captain have been used before, they've never been used quite like this. The digital pictures have a gleaming look, as if someone living in the 1930s were imagining a bright future.

The film is almost in black-and-white, concentrating far more on lighting techniques and shadows than on a color scheme. And though these effects represent the movie's biggest selling point, they do, in fact, eventually regress and become secondary to the story. This is not a film about showing off.

If only the story itself had felt as modern or as sophisticated as its presentation. It's a delightfully enthusiastic adventure, but at the same time, a bit creaky. It's not hard to guess what's coming next, nor do we ever worry about our heroes getting out of their latest scrape. Spider-Man 2 worked so well because the hero faced some very tough, everyday problems. It's a snap to save the world, but what happens when you can't pay the rent?

Nonetheless, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is an exciting debut that seriously takes the wind out of nearly every other ordinary-looking film.

(This review also appeared in the San Francisco Examner.)

DVD Details: I was as surprised as anyone when this film flopped at the box office, but at the same time, nearly everyone I spoke to who saw it complained of its lack of humanity. Still, it's a nifty little cult item, and plays nicely on the small screen. The digital effects now don't seem so overwhelming, and the comic book story comes more to the forefront. Paramount's new DVD comes with two commentary tracks, one by Conran and his crew and the other by producer Jon Avnet. "Brave New World" is a fairly interesting behind-the-scenes documentary, running about an hour. It has its usual share of takling heads, but also lots of footage of the shoot itself. The disc also comes with the much-discussed original 6-minute short that Conran made in his living room. An 8-minute featurette talks about the film's artwork, and other extras include deleted scenes and a gag reel. It also includes trailers for other Paramount releases (Aflie, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and Without a Paddle).

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