Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Like I said before, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is everything that everyone says it is. It's a marvelous entertainment and visual experience, but the script leaves a lot to be desired.

I'm sure you know the story by now, but I'll try to run through it as quickly as I can: Scientists are mysteriously disappearing, giant robots are invading Manhattan objective unknown, and intrepid reporter Polly Perkins has to call in dashing superhero aviator "Sky Captain" (real name Joe Sullivan), with whom she has a history of sorts. Sky Cap manages to cripple one of the 'bots and take it back to his base of operations, but is then quickly invaded by flying (with flapping wings, yet!) ships sent by a Dr. Totenkampf. They ships, with SC hot in pursuit, bomb and seriously damage his base and manage to kidnap his right-hand man and gadget inventor Dex. Complicating things is the presence of a mysterious woman dressed in what seems to be a manta ray inspired black leather costume, who is aiding in the search for whatever it is Dr. T is looking for. SC and Polly track Dex (with the help of Franky Cook, who operates a secret flying base with a full compliment of soldiers) through Tibet, eventually winding up on a tropical island full of giant creatures, and it's there that they eventually discover what exactly the Doctor's mad plan is and are determined to prevent it.

Sky Captain is, more than anything, a film made by a film geek for film geeks, especially those who are geekish about 30's and 40's adventure movies and serials. References and tributes abound; at one point, as Wil Pfiefer points out, they run across a big log spanning a chasm that is exactly like the one that Carl Denham and Jack Driscoll's ill-fated crew got stuck on in the original King Kong. Godzilla makes a cameo appearance in a Tokyo newspaper. Totenkampf's giant robots are tributes to the "Mechanical Monsters" from the Fleischer Bros.'s Superman cartoons. Totenkampf himself is brought to life in a clever, surprising fashion. Besides Kong, we also get homages to Metropolis, Buck Rogers, Things To Come, Raiders of the Lost Ark, of course, and probably a whole lot more stuff- pulp magazines, comic books, etc., that I didn't pick up on. This film is a tribute of style over substance if ever there was one. Everything is sepia-toned, soft-focus, and mesmerizing, like a dream- even when they're in the sunlight, everything seems indistinct and foggy. The effect is a lot like watching a silent film, or looking at old postcards. Sky Captain, no doubt thanks in large part to its CGI backdrops, looks like no film I've ever seen (with the possible exception of The Lady and the Duke, another CGI-heavy film), and that (if nothing else) gets it over the top. More than just eye candy, I think this film is an amazing visual achievement.

Problem is, the script is all surface and expects the viewer to take a lot at face value- Kerry Conran seems to be hoping that we'll be so distracted and entertained by what we're seeing that we don't take the time to question the logic of it all. Totenkampf's master plan, for example- it makes very little sense when you stop and think about it. Or if one wants to know more about Sky Captain as a exactly his whole operation works or how he earned his particular status in this hazy world he lives in. I'm sure Conran didn't want to bog down the flow of the story with constant explanations, which would have indeed been tedious...but still, things just keep popping up which don't make a lot of sense.

The lead performances are all top-notch, especially considering that they were acting in front of a blue screen 99% of the time- Jude Law has just the right amount of panache and rakish charm in the title role- no Errol Flynn (or even Harrison Ford) he but he does just fine; Gwyneth Paltrow certainly looks the part with her relentlessly brown dresses and 1940's coiffure, but she underplays her role a bit too much- odd choice, especially when you'd think a bit more snap would be called for, but it's not that big a problem in the big picture; Giovanni Ribisi is fun as Dex, but doesn't have a lot of screen time. I liked the look and the off-and-on appearances of Bai Ling's "Mysterious Woman in Black", but the actress really didn't get to do much with the character...she could have been a CGI effect for all she was asked to do. Still, it was fun to watch her shoot beams with her staff and kick SC's ass once or twice. Angelina Jolie may have made amends for what seems like a decade of rotten film choices with her nicely done portrayal of SC's comrade-in-arms-and who-knows-what-else Cook; she underplays, but there's always a wink and a eye-twinkle in her no-nonsense demeanor.

In fact, one of my favorite lines in the whole flick comes courtesy of Jolie: as they approach Totenkampf's island and are confronted with an attack, she snaps off a terse "Alert Amphibian Squadron!" command, but does so with a hint of a smile on her face, like she's sharing a joke with you, and it's infectious- you can't help but smile right back. And that's pretty much my reaction to Sky Captain: I'm so charmed by the sheer imagination and spectacle of the thing, that I enjoy being in on the joke even though I know that if I think about it I won't like it nearly as much. Like a magic trick, almost.

Sure, go see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the experience will definitely be better on the large screen than at home on DVD. Unless you have a large screen TV at home. I think the visuals will win you over, especially if you love offbeat genre films, the older the better...but if you're one that has to have everything in its proper place and every plot point and character detail in order and fully logical, you'll be doomed to disappointment. I strongly suggest bringing your disbelief suspension gear along.

No comments: