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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Unfinished business

Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow culminates years of exacting labor to bring to life the heady "world of tomorrow"-era portrayed so imaginatively on the covers of science fiction pulp magazines of the 1920s and '30s. All those foreseen wonders (and terrors) of the future -- compact ray guns, gargantuan robots, floating platforms in the sky big enough upon which to land airplanes, zeppelins mooring atop the Empire State Building -- come to life with stylized realism in this alternate 1939.

Shot entirely on blue-screen sets, actors appear digitally inserted into lavishly rendered scenes that evoke not only famous covers from "Amazing Stories" magazine but also the famous Hindenburg disaster newsreel footage. Along the way there are nods to numerous classic films: Metropolis (a compelling cityscape), The Wizard of Oz (a mysterious leader whose power is illusory), Lost Horizon (a snowbound plane in the Himalayas followed by a visit to Shangri-la), The Third Man (lots of Dutch angles), Max Fleischer's 1941 Superman cartoon, Mechanical Monsters (tall robots that terrorize), as well as the "Captain Midnight" serials of early radio (a heroic flyer).

Sky Captain begins in stunning fashion with an attack on Manhattan by mysterious flying robots of enormous proportion. Intrepid reporter Polly (Gwyneth Paltrow), in the midst of investigating the disappearance of several prominent scientists, gets caught up in the devastation wreaked by hundreds of automatons marching through Midtown. Suddenly a small airplane swoops down to trip up the invaders. It's Joe (Jude Law), also known as "Sky Captain", ace aviator with a mysterious past and heroic present.

Things get off to a great start as our heroes search for the mastermind behind the terrifying robot attacks, the elusive Dr. Totenkopf (a digitally resurrected Laurence Olivier). After Joe's technical wizard and friend Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) is kidnapped by the robots, and Joe gets beaten up by a mysterious cloaked woman (Bai Ling), Joe and Polly pursue them in his plane, thanks to a clue that Dex leaves behind.

As they leave the muted sepia tones of the New York winter, they encounter the lush Technicolor world of the Himalayas, Shangri-la, and the midair flight deck of an all-female (!) amphibious squadron stationed high over the ocean, headed by a swaggering, eye-patched gal named Franky (Angelina Jolie). Finally their adventures take them to the ocean floor and a lush island where science runs amok.

This film noir science-fiction mystery is the sort of exciting stuff that compelled millions of boys and girls -- and presumably some adults -- to return to the movies (or their radios) before the age of television. It harkens back to stories of adventure in faraway lands and of daredevils capturing bad guys with evil-sounding names.

It's OK that as Sky Captain's plot becomes more and more farfetched, the laws of physics (especially gravity) get stretched beyond recognition. But what harms the film is its insistence on visually upping the ante in scene after scene. After viewing one amazingly realistic depiction of a location, you're whisked somewhere else equally marvelous. If you think the computer-rendered snowstorm looks great, wait till you see the underwater scene, followed by the dinosaur-like critters. By the film's end, the care that seemingly went into rendering the tiniest details -- radio waves emanating from a tower in concentric circles to call Sky Captain to the rescue, or the gentle bounce in a checkered cab as it comes to a stop in front of Radio City Music Hall -- are abandoned entirely.

In a recent interview, director and screenwriter Conran told me that the beginning of the film is more satisfactory than the end of it: "The last fifth of the movie suffers the most because we simply had no time to spend on it."

Of course, it's not like the film ends with animated pencil sketches or anything. But what's missing after all the heroic globetrotting is a richer, more satisfactory development of character. Who exactly is this Sky Captain who operates a massive hangar full of expensive equipment and technicians? What is the nature of Joe's previous relationships with Franky and Polly, to which the film constantly alludes? Who is the mysterious, super-strong masked woman who commands the robots? It's one thing to weave plot devices out of thin air -- creating scenes that serve little purpose than to elicit momentary drama that is quickly forgotten -- but asking two-dimensional characters to save the day is not the answer.

Sky Captain would make a greater impact on moviegoers if it were serialized. To stay true to its cliffhanger roots, the story could easily be segmented into fifteen-minute installments that would allow greater character development while still delivering a visual wallop. According to Conran, this was his initial intention. In fact, the script is divided into five chapters. However, the time crunch at the end precluded creating the necessary title cards and musical cues to end one chapter and begin the next. Maybe when the DVD comes out he'll be able to finally attend to that unfinished business.

Stars: 2 out of 5