The most distinctive thing about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is the thing you need to forget right away. It’s the thing you probably know already (even if Dan Rather doesn’t): Everything in this movie is a fake.
That’s not unusual, of course; there’s a reason “Hollywood” is an adjective. But this movie is faker than most. The action was shot in just 26 days on a sound stage in London, the actors standing before a bluescreen and emoting in a visual vacuum. Everything else, apart from the props actors actually touch, was generated in a computer. The tiny, live elephant inside a glass dome, the airplane dashing along under the sea, the 90-foot robots stomping down Fifth Avenue, all were computer-drawn.
Maybe you weren’t in danger of thinking such things were real anyway. But while we’ve gotten used to movies that include monumental CGI effects, and even movies that mix animation with live action (Who Killed Roger Rabbit?), Sky Captain is the first to pour almost entirely out of a hard drive.
You might expect that an anxious director would overcompensate and make the images defiantly realistic, since that trick is as easy for a computer as any other. But Kerry Conran, who pioneered this technique on a Mac in his garage, is not just a geek but an artist. The images are muted and dreamy, soft-focused and shadowy. The colors are those of a hand-tinted photograph. The lovely 90-foot robots are gray as thunderclouds and lightly burnished; they look introspective and melancholy while they flatten the parked cars.
In every frame you see Conran’s love of old sci-fi and fantasy movies. He told Entertainment Weekly that his goal was “‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ filtered through Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis.’” Viewers will agree that he fulfilled that goal as well as it could be done. The question is: can it be done?
The visual accomplishment of the film is so amazing that it takes awhile to get around to the plot. It’s a good plot, a satisfying, comprehensive romp through every sci-fi and fantasy convention a lover of those genres would wish. As you read over a summary, little points of recognition light up in your memory with a happy “ding!” First, scientists are disappearing, and better yet, they’re Germans. Turns out they did “terrible things” at an experimental laboratory “before World War One” (one of the movie’s few anachronisms; in 1939 nobody knew there would be a Two). Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a fearless gal reporter with a hat cocked over one eye, is on the case. That’s about when the giant robots take their stroll down the avenue. I couldn’t figure out later what purpose this plays, since the evil scheme that is finally revealed didn’t require destruction of Manhattan. But, really, who cares? The movie’s dreamlike mood of all-purpose foreboding accommodates any familiar-looking elements without asking too many questions.
Naturally, Polly’s one-time heartthrob Joe Sullivan, a.k.a. Sky Captain (Jude Law), comes buzzing through the canyons of Manhattan strafing robots. Their romance is perfectly calibrated; he is suave and has a warm British accent, she is brash and fumbly and makes the best comic use of a flat, grating voice since Lucille Ball. The music swells or threatens masterfully as needed, the characters move from one astounding setting to another, and the evil genius, Totenkopf (Sir Laurence Olivier appearing in splendidly employed archival footage), is revealed to be less evil than tragically deluded.
So what’s missing? For one thing, though the action effects are extraordinary, the muted look and mood made these seem less like real danger and more like a dance. It’s telegraphed and safe, though undeniably gorgeous. The “bad guy,” unseen through most of the film, is not bad enough–not sufficiently threatening in advance, and somewhat complex when he finally arrives. With a clear-cut, un-nuanced hero and heroine, the dramatic balance is off.
Also, Conran made good on his desire to include a dose of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it usually pops up in the form of jokes. These are mostly good jokes, but they’re sharp in a way nothing else here is; they break the careful retro mood with sudden intrusions of contemporary-style humor. Both Metropolis and Raiders are fine movies, but perhaps they are destined never to blend but must always appear in sequence. The very last moment of the film gives an example. It consists of a Raiders-style joke, a good one, but the immediate blackout and credit roll is a regrettably abrupt conclusion. We’ve been luxuriating in a leisurely mood for two hours and deserve to be let go gently.
That’s such a small complaint, considering that this film is not only thoroughly enjoyable, but has a PG rating; only an occasional “damn,” some stylized fighting, and one humorous-yet-proper bed scene must have kept it from a G. You can take any kid old enough not to be frightened by stomping robots. In fact, this film is so satisfying, so grand and lovely, that I expect you’ll want to see it more than once, and that the eventual DVD will be a family-room favorite. But catch it now, on the big screen, where it can fully surround you. This is what movies are meant to be–even when they come out of a computer.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.