Straight Out of the Past 

Visually dynamic Sky Captain is no Raiders of the Lost Ark

Visually dynamic Sky Captain is no Raiders of the Lost Ark

Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow apes old movie serials in an unironic way and stands as a tightly controlled, visually dynamic adventure in a market filled with slapdash, thoughtless action. As a result, some critics and fantasy fans have been rushing to anoint Sky Captain as the second coming of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But that crate won't fly. Writer-director Kerry Conran's bold exercise in art deco escapism has a lot to recommend, but for the most part the movie's all-digital environment keeps the audience shielded behind thick glass.

It's certainly not the actors' fault. Conran's cast is capable of both fleetness and gravitas: Jude Law plays the mercenary flying ace Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan, Gwyneth Paltrow the intrepid reporter Polly Perkins, and Giovanni Ribisi the comic-book-reading gadgeteer Dex Dearborn. The story is a reverent mosaic of classic sci-fi concepts and images, with a shadowy villain and his army of giant robots constructing a doomsday device on an uncharted island. Conran slips a few in-jokes into the corner of the frame—a picture of Godzilla in a Japanese newspaper, an office suite numbered 1138 after George Lucas' feature THX 1138—but most of his references are more direct. Since nearly all the scenery is computer generated, Conran can take his robots and rocketships from the pages of old pulps and give them not just the same design, but the same color and shade and feel.

Sky Captain has moments of real awe, like the first appearance of the giant robots as they stomp down the streets of Manhattan, and a sweet throwaway moment when Polly Perkins conducts an interview at the movies while watching The Wizard of Oz. The smaller works better than the bigger. Paltrow and Gambon swapping lines of dialogue in an office that's all chiaroscuro and no discernible furniture, or Paltrow's character worriedly checking her camera, has more zing than the umpteenth shot of tiny figures silhouetted against an enormous doorway. The difference between Conran and filmmakers like Lucas, Steven Spielberg or even Quentin Tarantino is that these directors imagine what's going on just beyond the pages of the pulps they love. They add the parts that were always missing, while Conran only takes what's already there.

The main reason that Sky Captain is no Raiders is that it stays doggedly neutral and secondhand. Even the time-honored B-picture tradition of indicating global travel by moving an airplane model across a globe only reminds the audience that this environment is constructed solely out of pasteboard pieces from old movie sets. Conran's world is well-imagined, but it's just a map.

—Noel Murray


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