STARRING: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Bai Ling

2004, 107 Minutes, Directed by Kerry Conran

First, let’s take the marketing hype down a notch. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow advertises itself as the next evolution of motion pictures.

Wow, heady stuff. Sky Captain’s biggest novelty is that most if not all the sets were CGI-generated. The concept isn’t new – this goes back to the first painted backdrop that fooled audiences to believe that the actors were actually on location rather than on a soundstage.

From a technological point of view, Sky Captain is very sophisticated and stylish, light years ahead of its early forebears like Tron (1982) or evil the then highly-touted Bespin Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back (1980). It’s is a lovingly made movie that’s like a languid cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Rocketeer and The Hudsucker Proxy.

Set in the early 1940s before the invention of the jet engine, Sky Captain takes place in an alternate world where there has not been a Second World War. In the opening credits, we see “Brooklyn Films Productions” – an ode to the very origins of the film industry, which began in Brooklyn before the moguls moved to sunnier Southern Californian climes.

In the gorgeous opening shot, the airship Hindenburg III majestically docks at the top of the Empire State Building – a nice historical touch as such a docking device was indeed going to be built, but later scrapped when the real Hindenburg blew up, ending the Zeppelin era. The look and feel of the movie is like a hand-tinted photo – sepia tones and Art Deco machinery and dashboards. That glossy look suits Sky Captain’s 1940s setting and it also helps to smooth over blending live action with the CGI elements.

"An enjoyable movie that wants to be the Raiders of the Lost Ark for the new millennium . . ."

Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is like a blonde Lois Lane – an aggressive ace reporter for the New York Chronicle. Just when a mysterious German scientist (the alternate world setting means no Nazis!) warns Polly about a sinister plot to terrorize the world, giant robots storm Manhattan, raiding the city for spare parts.

The call is made to summon help from Sky Captain Joe (Jude Law), a pilot with a private arsenal of secret weapons. Together Joe and Polly must track down the evil Totenkopf (a disturbing computer reanimation of the late Laurence Olivier) before he can destroy the world.

Sky Captain is an enjoyable movie that wants to be the Raiders of the Lost Ark for the new millennium. There are so many homages to Raiders which itself was a reinterpretation of old Tarzan and Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s and 1940s that all ended on cliff-hangers. From the plane travelling across a map to a battle in Nepal (that had some uneasy racist overtones) to the German (not Nazi!) Zeppelin, I was half expecting Jude Law to plop on a fedora and crack a whip.

But Sky Captain never really takes off – it doesn’t have the energy of an Indiana Jones movie because first time writer/director Kerry Conran is no Steven Spielberg. Conran is too busy filling the screen with slowly rotating special effects shots, showing off the incredible intricate detail of his computer animation. The end result is that it’s all about the scenery; not enough about the story.

Before Sky Captain, there have been a number of video game debuts, which mixed live action actors with a CGI world. I couldn’t help but think that Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow were a couple of actors in a role-playing game.

Though Sky Captain goes for some witty stylized banter from the 1940s, you’d be better off watching Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy or the unforgettable Jennifer Connelly in The Rocketeer than watch Paltrow plough through the serviceable dialogue.

And while you’re oohing and aahhing over the CGI sets, you might notice that Paltrow doesn’t run very fast. Buildings can collapse around her head and giant robots can be teetering to crush her, but she barely breaks stride when she’s running away – perhaps a clue that an entirely CGI set lacks something for actors to react to? Jude Law is in his element in this throwback of a movie as he’s often compared to suave Golden Hollywood stars like Cary Grant. But disappointingly, the usually tart Angelina Jolie has little screen time and Chinese actress Bai Ling (Anna and the King) doesn’t even have a line!

I’ve always maintained that Hollywood has its priorities backward. Studios pour money into special effects and forget that it’s all about the storytelling. Sky Captain’s gorgeous technology should serve the story, not vice versa. It's like the supreme anti-Dogme flick. Though this movie will pave the way technologically, hopefully, the next movie that uses CGI this extensively will also have a gripping story to go along with it.

- Harrison Cheung


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