Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow Movie Review

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Good science fiction is so hard to come by. Usually reserved for big Memorial Day and Independence Day releases, what are the odds that a film snuck into the middle of September is going to be a great one? Pretty good, as it turns out: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow isn't just the best sci-fi flick since Minority Report, it's also one of the best films of the year, making wannabe event movies like Spider-Man 2 look like chump change.

Drawing from pulp, noir, and classic comics for his inspiration, director Kerry Conran - in his film debut - creates an entire new universe for us to soak up, based right here on earth. Ostensibly set in an alternate version of the late 1930s/early 1940s (and notably pre-WWII), the film is filled with the technological promises of many a World's Fair. Planes can turn into submarines. Entire cities can float in the sky. Robots 100 feet tall can parade through the streets. And everyone wears a hat. (As an aside, Conran really wants to disorient you with the setting; look closely at the newspaper in the beginning and you'll see it's clearly dated sometime in the 2000s.)

In this geek's fantasy resides crack reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose big story is the disappearance of the world's leading scientists. The vanishings could have something to do with the aforementioned robots and attack airplanes, which regularly strike the world's cities in search of critical equipment. The implication is that whoever's controlling the robots is looting the world to build something enormous and dangerous... but what?

Enter Joseph "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Jude Law), a mercenary pilot who saves the day like any superhero would, only he's a mortal man possessed with an uncanny flying ability. Polly is his old flame, and together they uneasily join up to get to the bottom of the mystery, taking a globetrotting path to uncover the truth about "the world of tomorrow."

The plot is simple and straightforward, and it's not what will have you talking at the water cooler come Monday. Rather, its Conran's use of computer animation that strikes new ground in cinema. The actors are real. Everything else is not. Paltrow, Law, and several supporting characters were shot against a blue screen. Everything else you see (with the exception of a few props the actors needed to hold) was created by computer. The film was then washed in a grainy, color-drained sheen, giving Sky Captain an original and startling look that is difficult to describe and simply begs to be experienced.

Computerized backgrounds are nothing new, but an entire film of photorealistic ones is. This gives Conran the ultimate freedom to do take his movie just about anywhere he wants, without having to set foot off the sound stage. And indeed he does - the film's "flying fortresses" are stunning, as are the landscapes and giant sets, some of which are intentionally cartoonish, some of which look indistinguishable from reality.

One might think that Sky Captain's unique technical system could be stifling when it comes to integrating actors into the field of vision, but it doesn't. Conran mixes together close-ups and wide shots, quiet interludes and cast-of-hundreds action scenes, just like any action movie would. He transcends the limitations of shooting on a small stage, even though it's not nearly as flexible as plopping a camera down on a real set.

Sky Captain has a simple but solid story that owes a debt to both Indiana Jones and Flash Gordon (and watch for numerous homages to sci-fi classics from The Wizard of Oz to King Kong to THX 1138), but the film's sense of humor really elevates the movie to classic status. Jude and Paltrow spar as well as Tracy and Hepburn, and Conran's frequent one-liners are excellent at providing comic relief right where it's needed. Later in the film, Angelina Jolie (appearing here, criminally, in an eye patch) shows up as an ally for the cause and a competitor to Polly, which adds further to the romantic subplot.

Conran's script drags in the first act and his animation technique is far from perfect - watch for several other films in the works that are adopting the same animation conceit - but for a first-time director, the guy has really pulled off something special. Highly recommended for any moviegoer.

The DVD includes two commentary tracks (heavy on the F/X), deleted scenes and outtakes, Conran's original six-minute "proof of concept" short film, and an extensive two-part making-of documentary (revealing, among other things, that less of the film is digital than I'd previously thought).

Elephant under glass.

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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: PG, 2004

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