Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

There’s pulp and then there’s bad pulp, and the extravagantly dull Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is like an old comic book that deservedly turned gray with neglect in someone’s basement. The movie is obviously a labor of love, but what it loves isn’t the old adventure serials of the ’30s and ’40s — it’s the idea of them. Sky Captain is a fussy abstract ode to an ancient mode of storytelling, in which our heroes went from one death-defying encounter to another. But it genuflects so heavily and self-consciously to other movies that it never becomes its own movie. If there’s any sensibility within the film other than a voracious geeky adoration of cliffhangers, I wasn’t able to locate it.

Giant robots lay waste to much of New York, under the bidding of a remote madman named Totenkopf. This diabolical villain is killing off the world’s top scientists. Why? To get rid of the competition, I guess. Anyway, ace fighter pilot Joseph “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) is called in to save the day. His scientific-tinkerer buddy Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) has just been kidnapped by the robots, and his former flame Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), one of those spunky reporters you meet only in ’30s movies, insinuates herself into the quest because she wants to get the Big Story. If she’d read the script, though, she’d realize there is none.

The backstory of Sky Captain is more compelling than anything on the screen. Writer/director Kerry Conran wanted to make this movie for years; he showed a six-minute demo reel to producer Jon Avnet, who set about securing a cast of actors willing to perform on huge soundstages and in front of green screens, to which computer-generated sets would later be added. But the passion it must’ve taken to get this project off the ground is nowhere evident in the film itself. I’d love to respond to Sky Captain as an idiosyncratic vision adoringly crafted by a guy who’s smitten with ’30s culture, but the finished product is very much a product — cold, bland, as soulless as anything else rolling off the Hollywood assembly line.

Kerry Conran might be able to concoct a pastiche in a computer, but he isn’t a director. The elaborate action set-pieces in Sky Captain have all the grace of a pile of pots and pans tumbling downstairs, and about as much visual interest. (Would it have killed Conran to sprinkle some color here and there? If you want to make a black-and-white movie, make one; don’t make some fashionably desaturated, ostentatiously dreary mish-mash.) The movie has about a hundred climaxes, which cancels out whatever force any one sequence might have. Things blow up all the time; gray airplanes roar ear-splittingly over gray buildings.

And Conran is most decidedly not a writer. It’s no compliment to say that he may be another George Lucas. But Lucas, in the original Star Wars, went to Tunisia and sweated in the sand, and had all those sets built (this was before he went back and tinkered with them on a Mac, of course). Star Wars has a clunky tactility that Sky Captain can’t get near. And the other Lucas pulp pastiche that Conran strains to duplicate, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was directed by Steven Spielberg, who knows how to pace and angle an action sequence for maximum adrenaline, and written by Lawrence Kasdan, who got some honest, resentful sparks going between Indiana Jones and his former flame, Marion Ravenwood.

Star Wars and Raiders, the two obvious comparison points, were equally head-over-heels in love with the old serials. But Lucas and Spielberg didn’t take those oldies all that seriously (it wasn’t until later that the dual weight of profits and fan worship compelled Lucas to treat Star Wars as a deathless reiteration of Joseph Campbell). Their pastiches were served with an affectionate wink. Sky Captain reads like an homage from a generation once removed — Conran digs that old stuff, but he only gets the surface, which is why the movie devotes itself more to its look than to anything that might engage an audience, like character or story.

Like many another geek dream, too, Sky Captain is resolutely sexless; how do you hire Angelina Jolie as a one-eyed fighter pilot (paging Dr. Freud!) and then maroon her with no one to seduce? Few directors have quite known what to do with Jolie, who may be too hot for most directors to handle, but Conran just uses her for her Tomb Raider accent and smug insouciance. It’s as if she’s being punished for her bad-girl attractiveness; the movie seems to have eyes only for Polly Perkins, who’s all about capturing a perfect image with the last two shots in her camera. That, at least, Conran can identify with: Screen out everything except visuals.

Explore posts in the same categories: one of the year's worst, science fiction

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