When giant robots attack New York City, the military calls in "Sky Captain" Joe Sullivan (Jude Law) to save the day. Armed with his trusty plane and his weapons inventor, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), Joe is forced to team up with Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a spunky newspaper reporter who holds a clue to the man behind the attack: evil Dr. Totenkopf (played by Sir Laurence Olivier, which is an astounding feat, since the actor died in 1989). The two make their way around the globe, getting into all sorts of scrapes and running into old friends (including Joe's former flame, Franky, played by Angelina Jolie), on a quest to prevent Totenkopf from destroying the world.
Much has been made of the technology found in Kerry Conran's debut feature, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" (IMDb listing). Everything in the film is synthetic, from the locations to even one of the actors; the whole film has been fabricated to retrieve a consistency and mood from the past, submerged in soft-focus photography. A rollicking, gorgeously realized adventure yarn that will satisfy hunger pains while the world waits an eternity for Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford to get up off their behinds and make another "Indiana Jones" movie, "Sky Captain" captures lightning in a bottle.
Conran's influences are varied, but the expressive look of "Sky Captain" falls somewhere between the Max Fleischer "Superman" cartoons of years past and a 1930 serial tribute made fashionable by "Star Wars" and Dr. Jones. Since every shot was created with CG, Conran goes for a super-stylized world where every step Joe and Polly take finds an iconic pop culture reference of the era ("King Kong" and "The Wizard of Oz" are heavily favored references), and their adventures become bigger than life, found in a sequence where the duo land on the appropriately named "Monster Island." Conran manipulates the entire film into one big old Hollywood thrill ride, with the action reaching into the skies above New York, the cold mountains of Nepal, and heading into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, where Joe's plane converts easily into a makeshift submarine. Conran keeps the mood light and contagious, never falling into the abyss of self-acknowledgment. He maintains a playful humor that is never broken. This is a film strictly for audiences that love going to the movies.
In the title role, Jude Law fills the heroic boots laid out for him very well. Stepping into Errol Flynn territory, Law acquits himself nicely to the linage of strong jawlines, soft features, and a blind eye toward danger. He's great here, but the women are even better. Conran won the lottery by convincing both Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie to play the female leads (though Jolie is more of a glorified cameo), with both actresses bringing just the perfect amount of sass and pluck to their performances. Paltrow matches Law wink-for-wink, and she sells the period garments like few others could. Jolie is given the militaristic role as the captain of a flying aircraft carrier, and she can barely contain her glee ordering around her "amphibious squads" and sporting a mysterious eye patch that, hopefully, will be explained in the sequel.
The greatest achievement of "Sky Captain" is how it proves that an avalanche of special effects can be used to create the atmosphere and texture of a motion picture, and not just a series of studio money shots. While nothing can beat actors running around an actual location, the artificial feel of "Sky Captain" works in its favor, evoking an idealized era with love, and, in the process, fashioning an exciting, mannered adventure that has long since gone out of style.
Filmfodder Grade: A