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'Sky' has its limits

A lovingly rendered visual treat struggles with indifferent direction and torpid plot.

September 17, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Two love stories fill the screen in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," but only one of them has the power to make us care.

The first love story is a traditional romance played out by two of Hollywood 's most glamorous stars looking their glittery best. The second is a lifelong obsession, an intense connection you can almost taste between a shy thirtysomething visionary and the exquisitely wrought universe he initially created inside his personal computer because he wanted to prove you could, as he put it, "make a film of some scope without leaving your room."

Against considerable odds, and despite the allure of Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law (not to mention Angelina Jolie wearing a fetching eye patch), all of this film's life force and pizazz comes not from any courtship but from that young man's hermetic, self-involved mania. That is "Sky Captain's" great strength and, inevitably, a sign of weakness as well.

The man is writer-director Kerry Conran, a major fan of pulp heroes, vintage science-fiction serials like "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon," and the sleek, futuristic look of 1930s and '40s design epitomized by the 1939 World's Fair, whose motto was, yes, "The World of Tomorrow."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Baseball park -- The review of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" in Friday's Calendar section misidentified Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles, as Camden Fields.

Conran was so enamored of these elements that he worked every day for four years on his Mac IIci to painstakingly fuse them into a precious six minutes of film. That tiny shard was enough to convince producer Jon Avnet to assemble the financing necessary to turn the personal vision of Conran and his brother, Kevin (the production and costume designer), into a feature that paired real actors with computer-generated backgrounds complex enough to require the assistance of more than a dozen effects houses.

But despite its scope, the setting of "Sky Captain" is very much Conran's personal dream world. It's an alternate universe animated by a powerful nostalgia for 1939, a vision of a futuristic past where the same hands are as likely to use ray guns as fountain pens, "an idealized vision," in the director's words, "of the future that never quite materialized."

"Sky Captain's" much-discussed visual scheme is grounded in an elegantly burnished retro look that recalls both old hand-tinted photographs and the work of Canadian avant-gardist Guy Madden. Its beautifully modulated shadings are the cinematic equivalent of stadiums like Baltimore's Camden Fields, visual comfort food that makes the old new again for a backward-looking younger generation.

And that doesn't even get into the spiffy specifics of "Sky Captain's" action moments, the way it follows a P-40 Warhawk airplane as it swoops and dives through the cement canyons of Manhattan. Or the fearful tread of a parade of literal Iron Giants, sky-high robots who crunch their way down 6th Avenue, terrorizing everyone but pert and plucky Polly Perkins (Paltrow), a reporter in tailored suit and rakish hat who scampers down the street snapping photos like there is no tomorrow, which may turn out to be the case.

The only reporter in the history of American journalism to have a huge private office with her name stenciled on the door, Polly is determined to get the story, to find out where these destructive behemoths came from and, more important, who sent them.

The same questions bedevil Polly's former flame, intrepid fighter pilot Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Law) as well as the Captain's brainy sidekick, Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi). All leads point to the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf (a computer-regenerated Sir Laurence Olivier, brought back to life just for the occasion) and his nefarious companion (Bai Ling). But can this doctor be found, much less stopped? Would you believe the fate of the world is at stake in that quest? Well, it is.

"Sky Captain's" plot, obviously, is much more yesterday than tomorrow, a hothouse homage to the pulp and serial material of decades past that takes joy in lines like "Send in reinforcements. Send in everything you've got." As costar Law has succinctly put it, "It's not Chekhov."

But just because something isn't Chekhov doesn't mean it has to lack energy and excitement. Just look at "Star Wars." Unfortunately, the drama in "Sky Captain" is something to be tolerated, not enjoyed. The story is sluggish at best, something that lumbers across the screen with the leaden feet of those iron giants. Sincere intentions aside, the director's idea that the Joe/Polly romance recalls "the sensibilities of a Howard Hawks romantic comedy" is as much a fantasy as anything on the screen.

Part of the problem appears to be that, to put it gently, years spent in front of a computer terminal are perhaps not the best preparation for the directing of flesh-and-blood actors. The performers here seem to have been largely left to their own devices, which while not ruinous is not exactly recommended either.

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