Almost all of the numerous "early look" features on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow focus on the fact that, aside from the actors and what they are wearing and holding, the production consists entirely of computer-generated images. Interesting information, quite intriguing, actually, but so much hype about technique can only leave one wondering whether the finished product will be any good or just a dud attempting to surf on a gimmick.
Filmmaker Kerry Conran's vision for his debut movie was "Raiders of the Lost Ark filtered through Fritz Lang's Metropolis." Clearly, Kerry's mama never taught her boy about the dangers of overreaching.
The really amazing thing, though, is that he pretty much pulls it off. I have some quibbles with the movie, which I will get to shortly, but the bottom line is that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a sepia-toned marvel; a gorgeous vision sprung from some musty '30s pulp novel to strut once again in the art-deco streets.
Set in 1939, plucky reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow, looking very creamy) continues investigating the disappearance of a number of noted scientists, even though her editor (Michael Gambon) warns her of the danger involved. She meets with a very-worried Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter) at Radio City Music Hall, where The Wizard of Oz is showing. The information exchange begins, but wait - the physicist has been followed.
An evacuation forces them back into the streets. As the Hindenberg III hovers in the snowy nighttime Manhattan sky, a rumbling around them thunders a warning, quickly realized as skyscraper-tall robots appear, lumbering forward through the city. Polly dashes between their massive feet, clutching her ever-present camera, and looks up to see Sky Captain (Jude Law, low key and dashing) flying to the rescue.
The relationship between Polly and Sky Captain Joe Sullivan is prickly - they suffered a bad split three years earlier in Nanjing - but the heat remains. Joe scoops up Polly in his Warhawk, emblazoned with the toothy grin of a shark, and the bickering couple ends up at a secret base, conferring with boyish genius Dex (Giovanni Ribisi, at his most charming).
In case you're concerned that I'm giving away too much, let me assure you that the preceding was solely about the opening scene. As for the rest, suffice to say that the world is in danger and to save it, Joe and Polly will travel to Nepal, with assistance from ace pilot Franky (Angelina Jolie, sexy, sassy and extremely likable), and deal with the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier and don't ask), his equally mysterious protector (Bai Ling), enemy airplanes with wings that flap, smaller tentacle-limbed robots and dinosaurs.
At this point I'm sure some of you are thinking, "Dinosaurs? Most of the other stuff fits, but what are dinosaurs doing in the mix?" This brings me to my first quibble. Through the wonders of CGI, writer/director Kerry Conran can add any visual image he chooses to his movie. Unfortunately, the first-time filmmaker fails to realize that just because you can doesn't mean you should. Sometimes less is more, and the appearance of dinosaurs late in the film should have marked one of those times.
Quibble Two: You know how IMAX documentaries almost always have a shot of a plane flying over a stretch of land, only to abruptly shoot above some incredibly deep canyon? They do this to jar you; to remind you that you are watching an IMAX film, damn it! Conran does something similar here. Because he can use computer graphics to show vast expanses, he does so; again and again and again. A few less vast expanses would make the remaining ones all the more impressive.
Finally, while the movie has a deliberate unreal look which is lovely to behold, that does not excuse certain images that simply look fake. There aren't many, but they are jarring.
Enough carping. Whatever its failings, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow remains a retro-futuristic wonder. The story is simple and clean, the visuals are stunning, the thunderous Edward Shearmur score is effective and Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Giovanni Ribisi and Angelina Jolie make a winning ensemble.