Giant robots are attacking New York. It’s 1939, the cars are shiny and the buildings are stunning spires into the sky. Though policemen valiantly line up to take aim, their guns upright and perfectly in sync, nothing can stop the onslaught. As citizens scatter, the monsters mash cars and crush concrete, stomping down the streets as an ominous unit, all choreographed to the same beat.
Into this mess steps intrepid New York Chronicle reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow). Determined to get her shot, the beautiful, exquisitely coiffed Polly stands in the path of the robots, aims and clicks. As she turns to run, she falls, her camera skipping across the street and into the gutter. Undeterred, Polly reaches for the camera, her fingers stretching, stretching, and finally grasping her precious instrument. Just then, one of the robots comes clunking dangerously near. Oh dear. What will happen?
Zoom zoom: here comes Sky Captain, also known as Joe (the perfectly cast Jude Law), the nose of his P-40 Warhawk painted with ferocious fangs. Calculating just what he needs to do, Joe spins and shoots, taking down precisely the robot most immediately threatening Polly, stopping the rest of them with ingenious use of cable, firepower, and nerve. As he zooms away, he looks down and recognizes the girl he’s just saved: “Polly!” he whispers. At the same time, she looks up to the sky and sees the jaggedy-faced plane. “Joe!”
This gonzo good-fun start of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow sets a pace that can’t quite hold up for the duration. And yet, it hardly matters. Kerry Conran’s film isn’t much concerned with action, or even plot, which might be summed up as follows: Joe and Polly seek the terminally evil Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier, his image lifted and digitized), who has kidnapped the world’s top scientists and Joe’s tech-boy sidekick Dex (Giovanni Ribisi). Time is running out, for Polly has been told by another scientist, just before his murder, that soon, “the countdown will start.” Sky Captain doesn’t spend much energy developing characters, either, though the relationship between Polly and Joe retains a certain tension, even amid all the distractions (they share a history, during which she may or may not have sabotaged his plane and landed him in a slave labor camp, seeking retribution for his affair with another woman).
Sky Captain‘s primary interest is emulation. At the most obvious level, this has to do with Conran’s already infamous “vision,” his obsessive dedication to computer imaging. Though the actors worked only 26 days, in front of blue screens, to make their parts of Sky Captain, Conran labored over the conception and rendering for some six years, supported by producer Jon Avnet to the tune of $70 million. While it dreams up a past that is also “futuristic” (with smoothly cylindrical rocket ships, an assortment of killer robots, and a sleek assassin played by Bai Ling in goggles and head-to-toe black bodysuit), it also taps the nostalgia nerve, increasingly profitable in this age of anxiety and distrust (that such yearning for “simpler” times omits the very real uncertainties and doubts of 1939 is par for the nostalgia course).
Combining well-known images and ideas from a range of sources—Buck Rogers, King Kong, Metropolis, Superman, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, among others—Sky Captain burnishes and refines its look to a kind of resplendent sheen. At times, this effect can be lovely. Early in the proceedings, Polly meets one of the scientists (whose escape from Totenkopf’s forced-labor “Unit 11” project in Berlin has sent them in different directions and apparently to varying fates). She finds Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter) in a loge at Radio City Music Hall, where he fretfully reveals his secret (they made “terrible things”) and warns her of the coming danger, all the while The Wizard of Oz, runs behind their intensely profiled close-ups, such that Glinda’s pink-bubbled arrival and Dorothy’s exclamation, “Now I know we’re not in Kansas.”
Quite. If the glorious surprise offered up by Victor Fleming’s 1939 film was its depiction of a world beyond any known material reality—the bubble, the flying monkeys, the wizard’s big floaty face—the agreeable gimmick of Sky Captain is its imitation of what’s come before. Not to improve on the past, or supersede or replace it; Conran doesn’t appear to be interested in creating a humanless CGI world, à la Final Fantasy, but to evoke and pay homage to old school moviemaking, via processes that have evolved and allow more, and more specific and much grander, fantasies to be realized.
Joe and Polly pursue their target through all sorts of digitized environments, from stations in the air to undersea strongholds to the deepest jungles to the snowy mountains of Nepal (it’s not a little ironic that creating these locations on a computer is so incredibly expensive). In Nepal, they’re aided by Joe’s old friend Kaji (Omid Djalili), who provides a couple of comic doubletakes, but is primarily along to play the conventional third wheel for the combative lovers-to-be. Though Joe’s brilliantly capable former flame Franky (Angelina Jolie) comes up with the film’s best line (“Alert the amphibious squadron!”), she’s not a spoiler so much as an exemplary girl-who’s-one-of-the-guys, the sort of character who made 1940s films pulse with vital life.
That Sky Captain doesn’t trouble itself with an especially clever plot or even an interrogation of conventions (the big violent robots are pretty clearly bad, as is the Asian fighter girl, suggesting the film is not much interested in correcting past imagery either) does at times seem a lost opportunity. It’s ironic, of course, that even as the actors don’t have to busy themselves with managing minor stunts or actual locations, they have been talking to interviewers about how difficult it is to perform without such “realities,” to focus instead on the pretending part of acting; and it’s true that such awkward pretending is also distracting for viewers. Still, Sky Captain something like it is the eventual future of movies, as virtual environments become “real” enough so as not to be distracting, to viewers or performers. Whether it will seem old or new then is less obvious.