Movie Review


Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Production Company: Paramount
Director: Kerry Conran
Principles: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi
Rating: PG for comic book violence and mild innuendo

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom) -- Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow soars onto the screen as a visually dazzling, immensely entertaining curiosity – a high-tech tribute to the low-tech, cheap entertainment of old Hollywood: the movie serial. Whether you view this souped-up potboiler is a revelation or piece of retro escapism depends on what kind of “film geek” you are. But since most of us recognize the names Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones, we probably won’t have trouble flying along with Sky Captain.

Shooting all his live actors in front of blue screens, Sky Captain’s director, Kerry Conran, used techniques he perfected at home on his Macintosh computer to digitally paint the rest of the scene. Photo © Paramount
Unless you’re a student of old films, you may never have seen a “serial.” In the days before television, Hollywood churned out scores of cheap adventure films spread out over multiple short episodes, each coming a week or two apart. These continuing stories usually featured a dashing hero fending of fantastic villains to either save the world, the girl, or both. Superman, Flash Gordon, Batman and Dick Tracy all made their first appearances in serials. Sky Captain takes its inspiration from these, and it’s not the first to do so. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark also were inspired by serials. 

But where those films improved upon the genre with special effects and production beyond the originals, Sky Captain tries to recapture their nostalgic look. It’s how first-time director Kerry Conran achieves this look that has people talking. Shooting all his live actors – and there aren’t many – in front of blue screens, Conran used techniques he perfected at home on his Macintosh computer to digitally paint the rest of the scene. His palette is breathtaking. His shimmering pastel images have the look of a colorized black-and-white film, and his art-deco buildings, crafts and machines perfectly capture yesterday’s version of the world of tomorrow, epitomized by the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Jude Law, is a mercenary fighter pilot called on to save the world when giant robots attack, tagging along is reporter Polly Perkins, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Photo © Paramount
Sky Captain, played with suave confidence by Jude Law, is a mercenary fighter pilot called on to save the world when giant robots attack and Earth’s greatest scientists begin to vanish. Tagging along is reporter Polly Perkins (think Lois Lane) played to intrepid perfection by Gwyneth Paltrow. Joining them is sidekick and gadget master Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) and Frankie Cook, the enigmatic leader of a squad of girl commandoes. If Law and Paltrow seem too vanilla in their roles, Angelina Jolie adds spice, playing Cook with an English accent, patch over one eye and mischievous look in the other.

Our villain is a mad genius (is there any other kind?) who sees himself as a modern day Noah – even quoting from the Bible – bent on saving the Earth’s animals in a spaceship while “cleansing” Earth of hopeless mankind by scorching the globe. This villain is ingeniously portrayed by a computer-animated version of the long-dead Lawrence Olivier. This Noah motif highlights a tendency among moviemakers to use religious concepts as disconnected plot devices, usually an object of self-delusion that drives a villain’s apocalyptic schemes. One would wish a hero of righteousness and faith could match the fanatical, quasi-religious villain. All too often in popular culture, religion is portrayed as a source of evil and fanaticism, not hope and salvation.

Giovanni Ribisi plays sidekick and gadget master Dex in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Photo © Paramount
The film does have strengths. It presents a clear-cut sense of right and wrong, a courageous hero willing to risk his life to save others and a good portrait of loyalty and unity between those fighting for the right cause. But like many movies, it portrays an over-simplified version of good and evil where all villains are bent on world destruction and all heroes are dashing warriors dedicated to saving the planet. In real life, good and evil are rarely so grand or so obvious.

With all its fun and gee-whiz visuals, I only wish Sky Captain felt a little more human. At its best art, including film, is a reflection of the human condition, a window into our souls, relationships, struggles and faith. Because it was inspired by other films, Sky Captain feels distant – a reflection of a reflection of life too far separated to be anything more than entertaining. Now just being entertaining is a hard enough feat, and I applaud any film that keeps me captivated for two hours. But let’s hope that for his next spin, Sky Captain or his talented creator aim more for the heart. After all, the clashes between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader have more to do with emotions than light sabers.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.

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