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Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2004
Captain goes down with the ship
"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is yet another of those gazillion-dollar event flicks that's 90 percent art design and 9 percent plot, with everything the actors do crammed into that last meager percentile.
Yes, I know there are people who like this, just as there are people who prefer Sony's Aibo to a real dog. But I don't get it. Trust me: You watch enough of these films, and you'll be well on your way to a Ritalin prescription.
1 Actually, some might say that a better solution would be a dose of Ecstasy, which many users say has empathy-inducing effects. If so, it could be just the thing for director Kerry Conran, because, judging from "Sky Captain," the man has a much greater affinity toward robots than human beings. Let's call it "otaku-itis."
This is a film that was created entirely digitally except for the actors, who worked in blue screen. You wonder why they bothered: I've met mannequins with more personality than Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow or Angelina Jolie are able to bring to their roles here. Conran, who also wrote the script, seems about as good with actors as George Lucas, if you know what I mean.
It's a shame, really, because the film starts off looking like something quite fun out of the Terry Gilliam/Jean-Pierre Jeunet school of retro-futurism. Conran sets his world in 1939 or, to be precise, the science-fiction pulp fantasies of 1939, of Edgar Rice Burroughs' giant flying battleships and "War of the Worlds"-style tentacled robots, paired up with warplanes and zeppelins.
Conran gives his entire film an almost sepia tint, placing it somewhere between faded color and black-and-white. The dominant hues of steel gray, deep browns and blacks and pale light only add to the effect. It's got the drab, muted trench coat and fedora look of the 1930s down just right, and makes extensive use of period cinematic cliches to further the effect. When ray guns fire, they emit oval pulse beams while making a cheesy, proto-electronic bleep ("pyoo-pyoo-pyoo-pyoo!") that would have seemed right at home in 1941's "Superman" serial.
With tongue thrust firmly in cheek, this sort of deja-vu nostalgia is fun for a while, but it starts to wear thin once you realize that "Sky Captain" is little more than a fistful of "samples" from other films, with "The Wizard of Oz," "Jurassic Park," "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones" and "Psycho" its standout sources. It's the same sort of laziness and lack of originality posing as "clever" postmodern "intertextual referencing" that also plagued recent messes such as "Van Helsing" and "Kill Bill."
Plotwise, we've got a bunch of giant flying robots attacking New York and other large cities around the world to steal their power plants -- all part of a plan by the nefarious Dr. Totenkopf to (you guessed it) conquer the world. Defending freedom, justice and The American Way is a British fighter ace known as Sky Captain (Jude Law.) Also on the trail of Totenkopf is Sky Captain's lover/rival Polly (Gwyneth Paltrow), a proverbial "tough dame" reporter who wants her story so bad she'll take any risk to get it. (Notably when she wanders under 200-ton robots destroying Manhattan to take photos, then flees for her life . . . in heels.) They follow the mad scientist's trail to Shangri-la, a lost city in Tibet, where even more ludicrous plot twists occur.
Don't get me wrong: If I had watched this film when I was 10 years old, it would have been the best thing I'd ever seen, right up there with "Destroy All Monsters." Giant robots stomping Manhattan are "cool," and airplanes that can fly underwater are "wicked." But just as you don't send a boy to do a man's job -- as the saying goes -- you can't expect a man to do boy's job.
Unless you're one of these people who pay $500 on E-Bay for 1963 "Thunderbirds" lunch boxes, skip this feast of folly.