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Dustin's Review

Sky Captain and the
World of Tomorrow (2004)

3 Stars

Directed by Kerry Conran
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Giovanni Ribisi, Angelina Jolie, Michael Gambon, Bai Ling, Omid Djalili, Sir Laurence Olivier
2004 – 107 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for stylized violence and brief mild language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 14, 2004.

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" stands as a testament that, with a clear-cut, original vision and a whole lot of unfailing persistence, first-time filmmakers can still be given the chance in Hollywood—along with a riskily large budget—to see their dream projects reach the silver screen. Such is the case with Kerry Conran, who had always fantasized about a grand-scale ode to rousing '30s serials and old-fashioned, adventuresome epics, but with a twist: his human actors would be filmed entirely in front of a bluescreen, and only in post-production would he fill in the rest via extensive CGI effects. Working from home on his crusty, old Macintosh computer, Conran created a six-minute test reel of what his extravagant world would look like, and based solely on that he was able to find financing and big-name acting talent.

The completed cinematic work that is "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is an utterly mesmerizing, boundlessly imaginative achievement, perhaps—and I do not use such terms lightly—the most visually astounding motion picture ever made. Set in, and seemingly made in, a semi-futuristic version of 1939, the only giveaway that the film is a modern production is its nearly seamless computer-generated effects. The film stock gloriously takes on the appearance of being grainy and sharply vivid all at once, while the monochromatic color scheme is only one shade away from full-blown black-and-white. As for the actors themselves, they are specifically shot in soft-focus, their lusciously romanticized, dreamlike images moodily lit like the screen idols and sirens of seventy years ago.

The world's most famous scientists are systematically disappearing one by one, and following an attack on Manhattan by an army of giant, mechanical robots, ambitious reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) decides it is time to investigate the culprit behind these phenomena. Enlisting the help of ace aviator and wiseguy ex-boyfriend Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), Polly and Joe set off on a voyage across the globe in search of the mysterious madman responsible, Dr. Totenkopf (Sir Laurence Olivier, in an ingenious posthumous performance). The stakes are further heightened when they must also save Joe's right-hand man Dex (Giovannni Ribisi), who is captured by the robots during an attack on their air base. As Polly and Joe bicker and trade sarcastic remarks as only destined lovers do, they discover that Totenkopf's goal is larger and more potentially disastrous than they could have possibly expected: he is planning to end the world.

From the opening moments of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," in which the Hindenburg makes its way across the New York City nighttime skyline amidst the gentle fall of snow, it is instantly clear that the viewer is in the hands of true, honest-to-goodness artist. Writer-director Kerry Conran has envisioned a remarkable feast for the eyes, its accomplished indelibility matched shot for shot by its sheer inventiveness. He, along with composer Edward Shearmur (2004's "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!"), pay fond tribute not only to the aforementioned adventure serials of the '30s, but also to the likes of "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones," and even "Jurassic Park." Ingeniously cementing its specific era to a further degree, Conrad uses a screening of "The Wizard of Oz" as his backdrop for an important early scene set at Radio City Music Hall.

Gwyneth Paltrow (2001's "Shallow Hal") and Jude Law (2003's "Cold Mountain") make for a dynamic on-screen couple as Polly Perkins and Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan, their romance airy but exceedingly charismatic. Paltrow is especially in fine form—sweet, determined, and charmingly clumsy. In a smaller role than her third-billing would indicate, Angelina Jolie (2004's "Taking Lives") enters the action during the third act as Captain Franky Cook, a fast-tongued commander of a British amphibious squadron who shares some sort of past with Joe—much to the chagrin of begrudgingly jealous Polly. Jolie's part is brief, but she owns the role, her every line spoken a chance to snatch the spotlight away from the two leads. It should be noted that, while the performances are strong across the board, there is an off-and-on stiltedness to them that may or may not be another intentional homage to the style of classic cinema. It works within the context, but one wonders how much of this is due to the fact that all of their scenes were filmed in front of a bluescreen, acting off of nothing but their imaginations.

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is akin to a painting come to life—visionary, gorgeous, and a couple steps away from reality. Because this is science-fiction, one couldn't ask, or hope, for anything more. Amazing, too, that the plentiful action set-pieces, including the robot invasion of Manhattan, an underwater battle, and the finale at Totenkopf's fortress (its inhabitants should remain a mystery to be discovered), are as stimulating and energetic as they are. There is palpable suspense built throughout, for once at the service of the story rather than merely to show off what can be done with today's technology. Furthermore, director Kerry Conran blends his actors into their surroundings with such a sure hand that, after a while, the viewer forgets altogether that what he or she is watching is the product of digital effects. "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" has to be seen to be believed, and likely will be studied in-depth for years and years to come as an example of transfixing visual artistry and how far one's creativity can take them in the world of cinema.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman