A shimmering zeppelin named the Hindenburg III docks at the tip of the Empire State Building in the ravishing opening moments of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Passengers disembark; the men, in their fedoras, look particularly elegant and faintly disreputable, the way only men in fedoras can to moviegoers for whom Raiders of the Lost Ark is old hat. The entire city looks as if it were designed by Norman Bel Geddes for the 1939 world’s fair – streamlined, sophisticated, and besotted with the power and promise of modern machines. The giant, glamorous metropolis is sepia-toned, shrouded in shadow and fog. The time is a futuristic past located somewhere in the zone of Buck Rogers, early DC Comics action heroes, and Fritz Lang – a time when monstrous robots stomp the streets.
The threat, as we soon learn, isn’t just those robots (iron-giant terrorists as massive as the New York buildings so recently leveled by real-life destroyers) but the hidden Oz-like power who has programmed all those lethal automatons, as well as other incoming winged and streaking weapons of mass destruction. And the fate of the citizenry rests on the derring-do of one reedy girl reporter, and the dashing flying ace who’s also her old flame. Can they stop a nefarious doomsday plan from wiping out civilization? And can they stop bickering and just, you know, kiss already?
If we think we’ve seen something like this before in a melodramatic, sci-fi-saturated ripping yarn, well, we haven’t – not exactly. Which is what writer-director Kerry Conran has in mind. His shimmering zeppelin of an entertainment, born of his own cinematic and technological obsessions, is, as they say in crossword puzzles, a oner-as singular in its vision and wit as Wallace & Gromit or The Road Warrior is. Sky Captain is the very opposite of a committeemade Hollywood production. It’s the creation of one talented guy making his first feature film who has been given once-in-a-lifetime, bigbudget backing and cartoonishly famous movie stars to make his dream come true. The investment is optimistic and wise; Sky Captain is a gorgeous, funny, and welcome novelty.
Which is not to say that the raffish, mercenary hero of the title (who goes by the off-duty name of Joe Sullivan), played with charming, silk-scarf nonchalance by Jude Law, is likely to linger in the memory with any of the staying power of Indiana Jones. Or that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Polly Perkins, the spunky, camera-toting newshound with a cascading Veronica Lake of blond hair and a rakish chapeau of her own, has any of Lois Lane’s enduring appeal. In their own ways, the characters are interchangeable with the appliances they battle, each a collection of attitudes and foibles. (Joe cricks his neck manfully before engaging in combat; Polly is prone to pouting as an expression of sexual tension.) But while they’re busy saving the world – an assignment that takes them to Nepal, Shangri-la, and beneath the sea – Paltrow and Law fit snugly and happily in front of the bluescreen on which Conran and his production designer (and brother), Kevin Conran, have built their entirely CG dream universe, in which actual sets are obsolete. They’re disposable action figures but collectible ones.
And when they’re joined by Angelina Jolie, sporting a kinky black eye patch and a fetishcompatible tight uniform as a kick-butt naval captain ambiguously named Franky Cook, the confection is irresistible: three of Hollywood’s most polished stars, assuming the contours of 2-D characters without irony or condescension.
And they never forget their silver-screen roots. I’m late for a movie,” Polly tells her editor (Michael Gambon, in a sly tip of the felt brim to his noir masterpiece The Singing Detective) as she hurries off to interview a source at Radio City Music Hall. On the Music Hall screen, Dorothy is just realizing that she’s not in Kansas anymore. This couldn’t have happened; The Wizard of Oz never played in Radio City, another smooshing of fact and fiction, as is having the late Laurence Olivier ”play” the evil wizard Dr. Totenkopf through the magic of pixels.
Indeed, for all the grandeur of Sky Captain visible on screen, hidden in behind-the-scenes technical specs, and audible in the stirring, enveloping score of Edward Shearmur, it’s the little, low-tech grace notes that stand out. I love that Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), Sky Captain’s trusty, tinkering sidekick, chews gum like an all-American boy. That Polly’s charm bracelet becomes a liability. And that Franky barks ”Alert the Amphibious Squad!” Ooh, yes, please do! we reply, bouncing with happiness.