Friday, September 17, 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow exists as a cross between a classic film noir and a 1930’s comic book. Most comic books are only as good as their illustrations, and Sky Captain possesses gorgeous style. The other side of this coin is that most film noirs are only as good as their characters. Sky Captain is the biggest summer film that was held back for a fall release, and it could have been a wonderful summer action film; it also could have been an intriguing film noir. As it turns out, it’s not enough of either.

The story is set in a fantastic, futuristic vision of 1938. The opening scene shows a massive blimp docking atop the Empire State Building, and the visuals here harken back to classic concepts of the future; everything is sleek, metallic and overly shiny. We meet Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), an ambitious reporter covering the disappearance (and possible murder) of seven scientists. While hot on a trail of newfound evidence, Polly witnesses the invasion of New York City by an army of building-sized robots. Of course, there can now be only one hope for humanity: Sky Captain.

Actual name Joe Sullivan, Sky Captain (Jude Law) flies his plane into the very heart of danger, fighting evil as only a super hero can. As he flies over the city, Joe looks down and sees Polly running through the streets. She sees his plane, and they simultaneously utter each other’s names. These two have a history. Polly desperately wants her news story and holds the crucial piece of evidence concerning the mystery of the invasion, yet can hardly go alone. They suddenly find themselves dependent upon one another to unravel the mystery of the robots and save the world.

Sky Captain is the premiere for writer/director Kerry Conran, and he certainly presents a glorious vision. A computer effects extravaganza, Conran’s film has tremendous style. The action sequences are exciting enough, but the visuals are at their best in the first fifteen minutes. While characters and plot points are being established, the imagined city of New York provides the perfect backdrop. Every element has an unrealistic glow. The picture itself seems dim and murky so that even the brightest colors are reminiscent of black and white film. These scenes are the opening of a movie that never arrives, a film in which the visuals serve the characters and the story, instead of the other way around.

As the characters leave New York to track down the mad scientist responsible for the robotic mayhem, they also leave behind all sense of intrigue. The color palette brightens as the entire mood of the picture shifts away from character development towards typical action fare. The visuals never cease to impress, however, nor do the performers. Angelina Jolie turns up as Franky Cook, an old friend of Joe’s, but yet another good character is only hinted at. After all, there’s no time to consider her character’s motivations when there’s more robots to blow up. With two Oscar winners and one Oscar nominee at the helm, it’s a shame the cast wasn’t given greater opportunity.

The story ends up taking a turn for the ridiculous as more and more action floods the screen, but the characters themselves aren’t bad. In fact, they all show promise initially. Polly Perkins is the kind of woman who’s always scheming and telling half of what she knows. She follows in the tradition of the seductive woman who cons the hero for all he’s worth, but unfortunately, she’s not that woman. Polly is only based on that stereotype, and stereotypes themselves aren’t interesting. Sky Captain is also bound by a stereotype; he would have been much more interesting as a scoundrel capable of mistakes, perhaps even wrongdoing. As it is, he’s far too predictable, and the hardest stuff he ever drinks is milk of magnesia.

Don’t misunderstand; there’s nothing wrong with a fun action movie. In fact, a simple action film can be great. Take Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example. Indiana Jones is an infallible hero who embarks on one great adventure after another, somehow managing to always keep his hat on. The difference between the two films is that Raiders knows what it is: an adventure film, through and through. Sky Captain throws in elements from all sorts of movies and never quite decides if it’s mocking its genre or embracing it. From jazzy film noir to science fiction to all-out action, Sky Captain would have been much better off choosing one and devoting itself fully, rather than dabbling in all three.

Still, Kerry Conran is to be commended for such a valiant first effort. His sense of style shows great promise; his future work should be the payoff.

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