'Sky Captain' prevails with bold experiment

Friday, September 17, 2004

Don't let "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" fool you.

Despite a $70 million budget and cast of A-listers, it really falls into the category of an experimental film. Conceptually, it's the kind of project more likely to be shown at indie festivals and film school classes than at the local multiplex.


Jude Law, left, and Gwyneth Paltrow try to vanquish a robotic menace in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."

This is because all of "Sky Captain" is shot against a blue screen. Virtually no real sets or locations are used. Other than the props that the actors physically touch, all images are digitally created.

Rookie writer-director Kerry Conran spent years making a 6-minute movie titled "The World of Tomorrow" that depicted a squadron of giant flying robots attacking New York City. Combining the tone of serials such as "Flash Gordon" with the classic look of the 1940s "Superman" cartoons by Max Fleischer, the short so impressed Paramount execs that they gave the director free reign to adapt it.

While the feature is not entirely without glitches, it does succeed at delivering an old-fashioned, cliffhanger adventure.

Set in 1939, Jude Law stars as Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan. With armies spread thin throughout the globe, Sullivan and his "elite mercenary forces" have been called upon to protect the citizens of the free world with their combination of daredevil skills and gimmicky inventions.

Meanwhile, reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is investigating the disappearance of some noted scientists. When mechanical armies begin looting Manhattan, Perkins and Sullivan team up to uncover the mystery behind these events.


Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow ***


This experimental throwback to the days of "Flash Gordon" is shot entirely with its actors against a blue screen, using no real sets or locations. The production design is so adept at looking both retroactive AND futuristic that the film always has a newness about it even when its plot leans toward the conventional.

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They're aided by Angelina Jolie as an eye patch-wearing British commando, and Giovanni Ribisi as Sullivan's assistant and technical whiz.

It's hard to discuss "Sky Captain" without focusing almost exclusively on its visual appeal. There is a soft-focus glow to the images on the screen, like a black-and-white movie that has been colorized. Yet the manipulation of the compositional elements -- from the tank-sized feet of the invading robots to underwater missile battles -- seems convincingly tangible.

The production design is so adept at looking both retroactive AND futuristic that the film always has a newness about it even when its plot is conventional. (Thematically, the flick is as simplistic as a James Bond installment -- especially the "Moonraker"-like scheme of the villain.)

What's also refreshing about "Sky Captain" is that it remains an original idea. It's not based on a comic book or a TV cartoon. It's not a sequel or a remake. In a summer season filled with take-no-chance productions, this is a welcome addition to theaters.

With so little actual corporeal material on the screen to work with, Conran wisely exploits his Oscar-caliber cast for all its worth. Although the leads are little more than archetypes, Law and Paltrow have a nice bickering chemistry together. As former co-stars in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," they display a love-hate history that gives their unlikely relationship some needed weight.

Some of the film's best moments involve a running gag about Paltrow's character having only two pictures left on her camera. Even though she encounters one incredible sight after another during their quests, the intrepid reporter must keep holding back until she spots the journalistic money shot. (The most ridiculous image is actually that of Paltrow framed through the glass door of her office at the paper. A reporter with her OWN office? Yeah, sure.)

The filmmakers chose the phrase "World of Tomorrow" because it was the theme of the 1939 World's Fair in New York. That bygone event speculated what life would be like in the 1960s: advanced highway systems, a new device called television, healthier cigarettes and a personal robot (nicknamed Elektro) in every household.

It's easy to view predictions of these "technological breakthroughs" with an equal amount of admiration and humorous ridicule.

In a few decades, audiences might look back on the experimental "Sky Captain" with that same mixed fondness.