Sleek, evanescent, shadowy, with a low-gloss platinum luster reminiscent of Wender’s Wings of Desire, Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a grand ride, full of whiz-bang gimmickry and homage to the glory days of retro-Science Fiction. An attempt to refine, fulfill, and exceed the spirit of wonder and astonishment that permeated comic books, novels, and movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Flash Gordon, and Metropolis.
Funny though, once you start making a list of Sky Captain’s numerous visual allusions, it’s hard to know where to stop — Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Star Wars, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Veronica Voss — with its expressionist use of high relief, dusty sunlight, and columns of smoke. It’s all tossed into the mix, with no attempt at concealment. And all things considered it works surprisingly well. Despite the borrowed structures of its milieu, there are no apparent seams. It has a look all its own. Many of the establishing or epiphany shots are stupendous, with a depth of field that is mesmerizing – rich, muted, elaborate backdrops you could gaze into forever.
The film opens with the arrival of enigmatic German scientist Dr. Jenkins and the invasion of flying robots in New York City. Reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) acquires some mysterious vials in a rendezvous with Dr. Jenkins and seeks out her ex-boyfriend and fighter pilot, Joe Sullivan a.k.a. Sky Captain. Joe (Jude Law) is still pissed at Polly for sabotaging his plane in an act of jealousy, but she uses blueprints as leverage to secure a “sweetheart” deal.
Equipped with souped-up flight transportation spiffier than the Mach-5, Joe and Polly set out on the trail of the nefarious Dr. Totenkopf. Along the way they are assisted by Jenkins, Joe’s protégé, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), and Captain “Franky” Cook (Angelina Jolie). Jolie is well cast, delivering the goods with wry gusto. Ribisi did not get top billing (a crime in my book) despite the fact he has more screen time than Jolie. His incredible talent often gets overlooked, because his subtlety doesn’t pull him over the top. He lets the camera come to him.
A film of this sort hinges on special effects and salient impact and when Sky Captain falters — when it lapses in judgment — the problems are with these aspects. There’s an air-battle scene, pretty early in the film, where Joe (with Polly tagging along) returns to New York to subdue airships that resemble birds of prey. In the midst of this harrowing struggle, Polly nags and antagonizes Joe, in an attempt to heighten an already tense event and add some comic relief. It doesn’t work. Which isn’t to say it couldn’t.
For some reason, the rhythms are all wrong. This kind of sequence is like a symphony, balancing visual information with dialogue, sounds, music, and so on. When it doesn’t hold together, the effect is discordant, queasy. Conran throws so much at us, we end up being distracted rather than consumed. Fortunately, as the film continues to unwind, he begins to find his balance.
There’s a certain degree of hokiness (part and parcel of this genre), an irresistible corniness that Conran makes no apologies for, making Sky Captain that much more giddy and gleeful. The gaps in logic, ominous musical cues, flying robots, and “Mysterious Woman“ (dressed like a dominatrix seal with goggles) all seem perfectly acceptable, because it’s consistent with the loopy tone.
But the acting technique used by Law and Paltrow feels completely out of sync with the rest of the film. You can tell by the content the writing is funny, but there’s no snap, no timing. Compare it to the work of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy. Or Loy And Powell in The Thin Man series. Law and Paltrow (or Conran) don’t have the first clue about veiled romantic banter; they deliver it like they’re doing Chekhov or Shaw. It may sound more natural, but it’s inappropriate for the material.
I want to give Kerry Conran credit for the women’s roles in Sky Captain. To use the current terminology, there’s a lot of empowerment built into the script. You can tell he’s using Paltrow’s looks in an ambiguous way – she’s capable without losing her “damsel” appeal. But there’s something else too, the use of makeup and Paltrow’s semi-crooked mouth, that make her look almost boyish. Captain (Francesca) Cook and “The Mysterious Woman” (Bai Ling) deliver an even stronger message. Cook leads an all-female squadron with aplomb and Bai Ling is menacing and formidable. In a sense Conran is re-writing the sci-fi film genre, but it seems plausible. It gibes with the visionary nature of a dream of life in the future.