The craftsmen who add the names of winners to Oscars can begin the engraving on the statuettes for next year’s technical awards now. “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is a piece of visual wizardry that creates a 1930s art deco wonderland through computer graphics alone; the only real props in the film, we’re told, are those that the actors actually touch in the foreground, and everything else is pure software. Unhappily, the lustrous blue-grey images, with elegant colored highlights and a prominent sheen, are about all the movie has to offer; writer-director Kerry Conran, who nurtured this project from its beginnings in his garage, has a much surer touch with his computers than with his typewriter or his actors. The plot, a series of gung-ho action episodes and flat romantic interludes drawn from the conventions of 1940s serials, is a pretty empty affair, driven by dialogue that’s basically a conflation of groan-inducing cliches. And the characters are caricatures from the same source, played with a detached knowingness by the good performers who inhabit them–their curious coolness probably deriving from the fact that they had literally nothing to hold onto while the shooting occurred. The result is more Rocketeer than Indiana Jones, more admirable exercise than actual fun.
There’s both a lot and a little to the script of “Sky Captain”–a lot in the sense that there’s plenty of incident, but very little sense of progress or depth. The comic-bookish premise is that 1930s America–the military and police both being oddly absent–must rely for its ultimate safety on a so-called “mercenary army” led by the eponymous daredevil pilot (Jude Law), decked out in flight jacket, leather helmet and goggles. As the decade nears its end, he’s called upon to do battle against an army of giant robots that are attacking New York, part of a murky world-wide plot to abduct a group of scientists who, as ace newshound Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a combination of Lois Lane and Veronica Lake, learns, once worked together with an evil genius named Dr. Totenkopf. The Captain and Polly have a history, of course: he blames her for sabotaging his plane during an earlier adventure, leaving him in a foreign jail, and she blames him for being unfaithful to her. Now they’re forced to work together again, constantly bickering along the way. Their investigation first brings them up against Totenkopf’s evil emissary (Bai Ling), a real kick-ass type who works with grim determination, and then takes them to a remote region of Nepal where, after briefly visiting Shangri-La, they find their way to Totekopf’s huge complex, where they discover the purpose behind his machinations and struggle to derail his plot. In the course of their trek they’re aided by three others: the Captain’s chum Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), a gum-chewing scientific genius who provides him with all sorts of cool gizmos; Kaji (Omid Djalili), who serves as their guide in Nepal; and most notably Franky (Angelina Jolie), a super-buff British naval commander with a fleet of flying airstrips, who not only has a past with the Captain (something that makes Polly understandably jealous), but puts all her command at his disposal for old time’s sake. One last performer has to be mentioned in the ensemble: Sir Laurence Olivier. True, the actor might have been dead for more than a decade, but computer manipulation of old footage and photos allows him to appear–sort of–as Totenkopf, and given the doctor’s own state the effect seems appropriate, if also more than a trifle creepy.
Throughout all the mindless hubbub “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is continually entrancing on the visual level. An opening sequence of the Hindenburg docking at the Empire State Building is striking, as is another in the Radio City Music Hall, where “The Wizard of Oz” is supposedly playing(although having the characters hold so loud a conversation while the picture is showing isn’t a message that should be sent to contemporary viewers); the sight of those Gort-like robots lumbering down the streets of Manhattan is impressive; and the later huge Shangri-La settings are magnificent. (Oddly, the last-reel stuff set in Totenkopf’s lair is much less effective–either because by that time the effect is beginning to wear off or the energy of the filmmakers is drying up). But what happens against the splendid backdrops isn’t nearly as praiseworthy. The story is a ridiculous muddle that seems constructed merely to allow for as many cliff-hangers, hair’s-breadth escapes and odd monsters and mechanisms as possible, and the fact that despite the care taken by the makers the actors rarely seem really to mesh with the environment–and that they don’t really bring much to the stock roles, anyway–causes the picture to be far less engaging than similarly serial-based classics like “Star Wars” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (or even “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” which pulled a comparable trick in reverse–animated figures on real backgrounds). Law is too soft-grained and reserved for a figure of such derring-do, but perhaps no one could have breathed life into a purported rescuer who seems himself in need of rescuing more often than not. Paltrow nails the shimmering physical perfection of Polly, but can’t make the character–with her self-serving agendas and habit of keeping secrets to herself–any less annoying. Unfortunately, it’s hard to muster any emotional connection with either of them–at least as difficult as it obviously was for them to interact with the morass of blue screens that surrounded them during the shoot. Ribisi is all empty nervousness as the brilliant Dex, and Michael Gambon almost anonymous as Polly’s editor (who curiously seems always to inhabit cavernous offices totally alone). The most fetching performance, in fact, is pulled off by Jolie, who seems to have adopted Paltrow’s British accent and combined it with Lara Croft’s imperturbability.
There is one moment of wit in “Sky Captain,” which is otherwise fairly thin on the humor side (except for the usual juvenile barbs drawn from the Hollywood screwball tradition). It comes when the hero and heroine finally approach Totenkopf’s lair, after being confronted by a spectral image of the evil doctor that calls to mind the first appearance of the Wizard of Oz, when the real thing is still behind the curtain. The image, of course, is of Olivier, and while that’s not particularly clever, one has to smile when the first line of dialogue heard after the electrically-created face is disposed of, is, “Is it safe?”–which should certainly resonate with fans of “Marathon Man.” But otherwise the picture, for all its visual splendor, recalls the old line that used to be employed, in pre-PC times, to describe some stunning blondes: it’s beautiful but not very bright.