WATCHING "SKY CAPTAIN and the World of Tomorrow," an homage to old movies that was made over the course of six years by some no-name film geek hunched over a computer in his garage (or, more likely, a hundred geeks on a hundred computers), I couldn't help wondering, to paraphrase the old joke, just how much it cost to look this cheap.
Hold on. That didn't come out quite the way I wanted it to. For starters, it sounds as if I didn't actually like the thing, which isn't totally true. "Sky Captain," which famously uses real actors -- Gwyneth Paltrow! Jude Law! -- against the virtual backdrop of a 100 percent CGI universe, and which only began life as a six-minute short done on director Kerry Conran's home Macintosh laptop, is quite the technological achievement. If it doesn't ever feel completely real (and it doesn't), that's because it isn't supposed to.
Angelina Jolie as Franky, Jude Law as Sky Captain and Gwyneth Paltrow as Polly in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," a sleek -- but not too sleek -- sci-fi adventure that recalls the days of old Hollywood movies.
It's supposed to feel like a movie. And a semi-cheesy one at that.
The world of tomorrow, of course, is actually the world of yesterday. Drained of almost all color, the story of a mercenary flying ace, Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Law), and his intrepid gal reporter ex-flame Polly Perkins (Paltrow) in pursuit of a Teutonic villain has the look of an antique, hand-painted sepia-print photograph, with hazy coronas of light around the edge of every frame. Meant to evoke the inferior camera lenses of yore, I suppose, it's a clever touch, especially in a film that hardly required any real lenses.
True to form, many of the characters, inexplicably, appear to be Brits, even the German bad guy. Polly's rival in love, for example, an eye-patched aviatrix named Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie) and Polly's editor (Michael Gambon) both have English accents -- in that way that American actors of the 1930s so often did, demonstrating, you know, something like class. And when fanciful beasties appear, as they inevitably must in a film that takes as much of its inspiration from comics as from cinema, you might almost convince yourself that special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen were still alive.
In other words, the movie's way cool . . . but not entirely credible. It's as if Conran wanted it to look good, but not that good.
Set between the world wars, in a world of dirigibles and men who wear fedoras indoors, "Sky Captain" teams this airman-for-hire with an enterprising newspaperwoman on a globe-trotting adventure straight out of the serials. Former lovers, they become re-entangled when a fleet of giant flying robots (Japanese tin toys on steroids) invades Manhattan, and when a string of famous scientists start mysteriously disappearing. Their trek eventually takes them from the photogenic concrete canyons of New York -- through which Joe's P-40 Warhawk leads us on an aerobatic tour -- to a Nepalese uranium mine, then to the island lair of a madman called Totenkopf, whose radio-controlled machines appear to threaten the future of the planet. All this, naturally, is facilitated by what seems to be a single tank of airplane fuel and a never-ending supply of dashing wardrobe changes (courtesy of designer Stella McCartney).
Plausibility -- not to mention continuity -- be damned. "Sky Captain" makes no more attempt to make sense than you would expect from a movie with a bad guy whose name translates as "deadhead." It's a silly, joyful paean to the celluloid imagination, made all the more ironic by virtue of the fact that it's almost all done with pixels.
Which, in the end, makes for a movie that's not just cool, but disappointingly cold.
Sure, it's unabashedly in love with old Hollywood. With the snappy banter and gum-popping optimism and reliable old sidekicks named Dex (Giovanni Ribisi). That's what best about it. But I don't mind saying that it's also a mite too much in love with itself for its own good.
When you think about it, after all, "Sky Captain's" anti-technology message couldn't exist without technology. Which is strange, until you remember that you're not supposed to think about such things at all. This is a sophisticated movie, but one whose sophistication is surprisingly simple-minded.
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (PG, 107 minutes) -- Contains some sci-fi/action violence. Area theaters.