Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

written and directed by Kerry Conran

starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Sir Laurence Olivier


review by Stephen Notley


Sky Captain, huh? Well, it's not bad. Not great, but not bad.

We've seen the commercials, we know this movie has an awesome cool look, a tinted black-n-white 30s style pulp feel, with fat-ass huge zeppelins and enormous sci-fi robots clumping down 5th Avenue. We know it's got that going for it. Now all it has to do to be okay is not suck in some obvious way. And it doesn't suck, so it's okay. But it's *just* okay.

The look is as good as advertised. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow represents the ultimate extension of the George Lucas school of filmmaking -- that is, the use of computers to create as much of the world of the film as possible. In Sky Captain, pretty much everything except the actors, their costumes and the things they hold in their hands comes out of a computer. The difference between Sky Captain and Lucas's films is that where Lucas uses the computer to cram the screen with bizarre "real" objects and backgrounds in an attempt to outdo reality, Sky Captain director Kerry Conran pulls the computer imagery and the actors forward into a slightly unreal screen, more like a movie poster than a movie. There's a lot of iconography, propaganda-poster images rather than scenes in locations. Gwyneth Paltrow has the same muted, tinted black-and-white glow as the phalanx of eight 150-foot robots crunching in perfect synchrony two abreast down the street towards her. It doesn't look real, exactly, but it does look unified, distinct, internally consistent, like a world.

So it looks good. Now all it needs is a dose of something else, a little wit, some charm, some style, maybe some nice pacing, cool characters, possibly an interesting idea or point to make, if we really want to stretch and hope. If it gets any of that right, we've got a good movie, and if it gets a bunch of them right, we've got a great movie.

And? Well, on these fronts Sky Captain succeeds, but not wildly. Better to say it passes, but just barely.

Once we're done appreciating the look of the movie, which we're given ample opportunity to do in the opening sequence of the grand Hindenburg 3 making a scheduled stop at the 115th floor of the Empire State Building, we're introduced to Gwyneth Paltrow as Polly Perkins, intrepid reporter. Then robots attack and we meet Jude Law as Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan, intrepid freelance pilot-hero. Polly tracks down Joe and glues herself to him to get the story, and the rest of the movie is the two of them exchanging banter as they move from one computer-generated fantastical environment to the next.

As far as wit and style go, Polly and Joe are drawn in broad strokes, as characters. They're pulp-style people, static, with simple personalities and few surprises, basically maintaining the same style and emotional tenor for the whole film. For Gwyneth, that means being slightly smarter than Joe, worrying about her camera and pestering Joe. For Jude, that means issuing handsome declarative statements and lightly teasing Polly. Supposedly Joe and Polly used to date though it's hard to fathom; Jude's just so pretty, and everything about his demeanor towards Gwyneth says either "older brother" or "gay man who hasn't told his ex-girlfriend that he's gay." So their relationship is pleasant, never aggravating, but never really crackling either, and it takes us a while to warm up to them.

So too with the style, the pacing, the thrills. The robots and flyplanes and legwalkers look good, the explosions curl with crisp blacks and oranges, the British air-carriers gleam in the cloudtop sunlight; many times you'll think "Yeah, that's all right," even if you never really think "Wow!" or "Holy shit!" The film is dotted with little pleasing touches here and there, enough to keep you along with it, but never quite firing the heart or the imagination either.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is at heart a pretty but insubstantial movie. There's a flutter of a theme about out-of-control mechanization, but since it never touches any of the characters it doesn't have much punch. So we see this world, this dull-metal glow world, filled with huge mechanisms and wry mechanical people, and we watch it, and we smile a few times, and we like some of the pictures, and then the movie ends and we go on about our day.

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