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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow


Paramount. Running time 1:47.

Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi

Roger Ebert must be more of a geek than I am, which is saying something. Ebert gives Sky Captain four stars, writing that it reminded him of the first time he saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. I think Sky Captain is a fine movie, but it did not grab me by the lapels the way Raiders or Star Wars did on their opening days. Nor are the characters as well-developed as those in the Spiderman franchise.

Nevertheless, Sky Captain is a remarkable achievement for first-time director Kerry Conran. On the technical level, Conran had a hand in the software that made possible shooting the picture almost entirely as bluescreen and adding computer-created sets and characters later. The technical innovation allowed Conran to fully realize a retro-futuristic world of the 1930s, the look of which is simply stunning -- as even critics who have not liked the movie will concede.

Conrad's single-minded devotion to that vision is evident throughout the movie, as he gleefully runs decades of science-ficition movies and pulp adventures through his cultural Cuisinart. In addition to the Indiana Jones and Star Wars trilogies (especially The Empire Strikes Back), Captain Midnight (and I suspect maybe Biggles also), 1930s Superman cartoons, George Pal's War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Frank Capra's Lost Horizon, The Bride of Frankenstein, Forbidden Planet, You Only Live Twice, Goldfinger and King Kong are among the more obvious influences at work. In fact I'm going again just to see whether I really saw Kong for a fleeting second. [UPDATE: I still could not verify my Kong sighting, but Godzilla is definitely in one shot.] The Wizard of Oz appears, and is also an influence.

Although the characterizations in the script are no deeper than those in a movie like Raiders, the actors generally rose to the challenges of acting only with each other, having only crudely-animated animatics available on set to show them what the sets and dangers they are to face. Jude Law, who also has a production credit, clearly enjoys himself and is thoroughly likable, though that niceness conflicts with what you would expect from a mercenary fighter pilot. It's as if Lucas had cast Mark Hamill as Han Solo (though overall Law is a better actor than Hamill or Ford). Paltrow is probably the weak link here, as her character is intentionally annoying, and there are times early in the picture where she should be running much faster, especially after ripping her skirt to allow for it. I largely agree with those who have written that Jolie nearly steals the show in the role of a naval officer who is a combination of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and P*ssy Galore. Bai Ling handles the role of the Mysterious Woman, an apparent cross of Darth Maul from The Phantom Menace and Trinity from The Matrix. I was pleasantly surprised to not mind Giovanni Ribisi as Sky Captain's tech support, as his mere presence is usually a red flag for any movie. And if you have not heard, I will not spoil the surprising identity of the villainous Dr. Totenkopf.

I have asked myself why Sky Captain did not have the same effect on me as Raiders or Star Wars did, given that the special effects, writing, and acting are as good (or bad) as in those classics of the genre. Part of the answer may be -- as suggested above -- that I have grown up in a culture which expects the hero of this sort of flick to fall into the more cynical antihero mode of a Han Solo, an Indiana Jones or, going back decades, Rick Blaine in Casablanca. For some reason, we are not as attracted to Victor Lazlo (Harry clearly beat Sally on that point).

Another reason may be that Sky Captain does not have the sort of tightly-machined, thrill park attraction, videogamer's ADHD pace of Raiders and its progeny. In that sense, Conran is adhering to the tone and pace of earlier films, though it may be at his commercial peril with the teen set. Similarly, there were moments where I was thinking that the music should be louder, whereas I'm normally a little put off by the aural assault waged upon my ears by other recent action pictures. That Sky Captain is not as loud or hyperkinetic as other movies again goes against expectation, but may prove to be more of a virtue in the long-term. [UPDATE: The second theatre was louder, and the movie was the better for it.]

Since I've gone a bit theoretical here, I should make clear that Sky Captain is a fun film. There are moments -- I am thinking of Jolie's Frankie Cook ordering and leading an assault -- that carried the same sort of charge you got the first time you saw a rag-tag squadron of X-Wing fighters lock their foils in preparation for their run at the Death Star. I just wish there were more of them, because I'm greedy.

Also, you parents out there should not have a problem taking the kids. One person gets zapped into a skeleton, but otherwise the violence is about on a par with Star Wars (in fact Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru end up as BBQ in that one, but you don't see it happen). And there's a little romance, but no sex; though three characters do end up under bedcovers in one scene, it's not what you might think. [UPDATE: I forgot that there is a nipple joke, but you don't see any. And the joke is subtitled.]

In sum, I liked Sky Captain quite a bit. If you visit Rotten Tomatoes, I think you'll see that most everyone is making the same points, becoming a matter of how each critic weighed them.

Added:  Sunday, October 31, 2004
Reviewer:  Karl
hits: 5711
Language: eng


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