Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow wants to do for ray guns and lost civilizations what Far From Heaven did for petticoats and Eisenhower.
First, it wants to re-create the styles, attitudes, and interests of a bygone era.
And second, it wants to put a modern twist on an old film, a twist so subtle as to be nearly undetectable. The idea is as ambitious as it is nuts to re-create an old film genre while applying something like hindsight to the results.
Think of Down With Love and its dead-on impression of a Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedy. Or the way Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes recreates a 50s melodrama like Imitation of Life then shifts the focus until we re watching an old picture from a fresh angle and spotting things we didn t know were there the first time around.
Turns out, doing all that is the easy part the art directors on these movies earn their paychecks. The hard part with films like this is proving their relevance to anyone other than diehard movie buffs.
When I walked out of a midsummer screening of Sky Captain, not surprisingly the first thing another critic said to me was: Who is this movie for, anyway? A good question, and one the film answers with more generosity than expected. Parts of it play so cheerfully loose and visceral that you re ready to convince yourself director Kerry Conran, who s never made a feature before, is the second coming of George Lucas.
He forces the same surprised giggles out of you that Lucas once coerced with his earliest, pulpiest Star Wars pictures. A floating British aircraft carrier is attacked by enemy fighters. Their wings, though, are not stationary. They flap like the wings of a pelican. The carrier s captain, Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie), wears an eye patch and slips on her bubble helmet and leads her all-female squadron (outfitted with identical moon-man gear and rocket packs) to the source of the trouble. That s one lightning-quick sequence.
On the surface, it s all familiar.
Then there s the look of Sky Captain, which is entirely fresh. Conran shot the movie against green screens, filming real actors reacting to battles and enemies and entire landscapes that he filled in later with computers. This is not original; Lucas used similar techniques for his latest Star Wars films (as did to a far lesser extent nearly a dozen of last summer s blockbusters).
What makes your jaw drop is the style Conran applies to these normally routine computer effects moments. The edges of every image take on a soft glow. Every shadow leaves an evocative grain in the air. Colors seem dabbed in by hand. The appearance is that of a silent black-and-white film with tinted sequences, shot around 1925.
The first 15 minutes of Sky Captain are mesmerizing and almost free of dialogue. Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), ace reporter and queen of the long dark overcoat, assures her editor that she ll be fine. Just another clandestine day of meeting up with a world-famous German physicist who is convinced evil forces are trying to kidnap him. Besides, they re meeting in public, in a theater. It s only a movie. I ll buy the popcorn. As she enters Radio City Music Hall, the feature, The Wizard of Oz, is famously gliding from dust-bowl black-and-white into lush color.
Secrets get mumbled. Information exchanged, and as Polly ducks back out onto Fifth Avenue, air raid sirens go off. Above Manhattan, too high to make out much detail, squadrons of enemy planes advance. The camera goes closer, past the skyscrapers, and we realize these aren t planes at all, but giant robots.
Polly cowers in an alley. The robots land and march up Fifth Avenue as if auditioning for the Nutcracker, their wide metal arms swiping the frieze off the townhouses, and all is lost until Sky Captain is summoned.
As seems appropriate, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is visually breathtaking and dramatically stilted. Polly s advice to her editor is a wink at the audience, too: Better to not think much and just settle into that bucket of popcorn. Sky Captain remembers a certain kind of Hollywood: One before too much thought went into the slightest, intentionally shallow characters one before studio blockbusters seemed to weigh six tons.
Jude Law plays Sky Captain. He wears aviator goggles and jumps into whatever fray s before him and when cornered and expected to die, he wiggles away. He s always in the sky when needed. Lucas and Steven Spielberg brought motivation and craftsmanship to old-fashioned, assembly-line Saturday matinees with the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies.
They revolutionized the idea that B-movies could be made with the charm and skill (and sometimes, wonderful acting) of any A-movie. They legitimized the serial.
The drawback is they were too good; their success gave weightless B-adventures a bulk that s only grown bulkier and more self-important as their imitators have multiplied. Sky Captain wants the cheap-o, ham-fisted adventure serial to be slight and hammy again.
Which is admirable and problematic. Law and Paltrow look charming staring up at fantastic wonders. Conran is good at faithfully telling an inch-thick Buck Rogers episode but unable to transcend it the way a Lucas or a Spielberg can, and his cast is only willing to take the make-believe so far.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow began as a test reel Conran made at home on personal computers and shopped around Hollywood to show what he s capable of. He persuaded Paramount to spend $40 million on a feature version. In a way, it s still a test reel brilliant artistry that points a promising new direction for special effects pictures, in search of a movie. And yet as far as shallow acts of youthful showboating go, you have never seen anything like it.