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The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

    Vaunted ‘Sky Captain’ visual effects can’t get film off ground

    A flying fortress. Skyscraping robots. Dinosaurs. A Doomsday machine. And a digitally resurrected Laurence Olivier?
    Hmmm, is it just me or is it horribly macabre to take old footage of one of the greatest actors to ever walk the earth and re-spool it into a posthumous cameo, in a B-movie heavy role Olivier never would have stooped to in his heyday?
    Never mind. Writer/director Kerry Conran has no qualms about pimping out Sir Larry’s long-deceased visage in the name of a cheap popcorn thrill, so why should you? Right?
    Wrong. And this is just one false note among many in “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” Conran’s loving but vacuous salute to the gee-whiz sci-fi cliffhangers of cinematic days gone by.
    Conran’s script is a giddy grab-bag of fantasy serial hokum, bombarding the audience with everything from exploding zeppelins to Shangri-La.
    It’s 1939, and several of the world’s premier scientists are missing under dubious circumstances. New York City reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) thinks there’s a link between the disappearances and a legion of flying robots that are laying waste to many of the world’s largest cities. The robots are minions of a Nazi genius named Dr. Totenkopf (sigh, Laurence Olivier), a madman bent on harvesting earth’s resources for his own nefarious reasons, one of which happens to be, of course, destroying the entire planet.
    When Totenkopf’s robots arrive in the Big Apple, no one can save the day but Polly’s former flame, ace flyboy/all-around-adventurer Sky Captain (Jude Law). The Captain zooms over Broadway in his souped-up fighter plane, then hightails it back to his secret hideout in the mountains just outside of Manhattan to bicker with his story-hungry ex and drink some much-needed milk of magnesia. What a guy!
    Conran wants to celebrate the innocent pluck of pre-WWII pulp, but he also wants to send it up. Though not nearly as glib as such post-ironic kitsch-fests like “Starsky and Hutch” and the “Austin Powers” series, “Sky Captain” definitely has its tongue in its cheek. Dex, for example, gets ideas for inventions straight out of comic books and chews gum religiously like any all-American boy oughta. And then there’s the campy performance of Angelina Jolie as a one-eyed femme fatale named Franky Cook. Jolie has a blast barking out lines like “Launch the amphibious squadron!” in (what one hopes is) a deliberately flimsy British accent.
    Ultimately, though, Conran’s film suffers from an identity crisis that’s never fully resolved. It’s too overtly plastic to be a serious action film, and yet it’s too earnestly nostalgic to qualify as satire. Wedged precariously between the realms of parody and homage, “Sky Captain” can’t decide what it wants to be.
    It’s obvious that Conran loves and has a serviceable knowledge of ’30s and ’40s science fiction films, but his love of things past isn’t enough to make his film relevant to the present. “Sky Captain” is a skillful emulation of B-movies of yesteryear, and that turns out to be a blessing and a curse. All the technical know-how in the world cannot mask the fact that, at its heart, this is just a big, well-produced B-movie. Nothing less and nothing more. Conran robs liberally from Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (some misguided critics have compared “Sky Captain” favorably to that far superior adventure saga), but he cannot ape that film’s homespun inventiveness, thematic weight, or human-interest factor. Indiana Jones is a great film character, full of personality and irreverent tics (“Why’d it have to be snakes?”); Sky Captain is not. “Raiders” pulsated with the crackling reality of real people using real props in real settings; “Sky Captain” drones along with the dull artificiality of bored-looking actors posing limply in front of an endless bluescreen.
    Jude Law looks the part of matinee idol, and he has a light enough touch to make the woefully silly seem halfway serious. Sometimes, anyway. Other times he seems lost amid all the effects, delivering readings as wooden as Tyrone Power at his glass-eyed worst.
    Even more disappointing is Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow, whose stiff modern pouting doesn’t match the hard-nosed 30’s career dame she’s flailing to channel. She and Law are a sparkless couple, and Conran makes things worse by saddling them with clumsy wannabe Hepburn-Tracy patois.
    Forget all that, you may be thinking. Who cares about the acting in a movie called “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”? What about the effects? Media coverage has emphasized Conran’s use of cutting-edge digital technology to create a live-action film in which every location and most of the props were created on a computer. The actors performed their scenes in front of a blank screen, and effects technicians filled in the blanks later. It was a big gamble on Conran’s part, and one wishes that it paid off as much as it should.
    Sadly, it comes off as more of a failed gimmick than anything else. The juxtaposition of living actors and synthetic environments is often ungainly; Law and Paltrow’s trip to a jungle has especially unconvincing visuals, and Paltrow’s timing in reacting to approaching robots is off just enough to remind you emphatically that the robots never existed, not even as models on a soundstage.
    Also problematic is the faded, near-sepia look of the film. This is an obvious attempt to make “Sky Captain” look far older than it is, a touch that is by turns endearing and confounding. At times the film has the well-worn look of a poorly restored midnight movie from the ’40s or a dusty old photograph, which works well when the action is static but fails miserably when things start to pick up. The visuals are often too dark to make out, the movements onscreen too shrouded in murky shadow to follow with any degree of certainty. Though “Sky Captain” is a fitfully entertaining slice of period cheese, it’s not engaging enough to make one risk eyestrain.
    “Sky Captain” is a failed experiment, the feverish work of an inexperienced kid with an overly neat-o chemistry set. Kerry Conran wants modern audiences to take a happy detour back to the good ol’ days of thick American promise and sunny cinematic naivet, but his blast from the past inspires just as many groans as cheers.
    A missed opportunity, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” remains grounded when it could have, should have, soared.

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    The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University
    Vaunted ‘Sky Captain’ visual effects can’t get film off ground