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'Sky Captain': A Virtual Bomb

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page C01

There's no doubt that "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is the new, new thing, as well as the next big thing. But there's a larger question: Is it anything?

The answer is, probably not.


Gull-winged robo-Stukas buzz the Flatiron Building as Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow fight for life, liberty and the pursuit of blowing things up in Kerry Conran's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." (Paramount Pictures)

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More of a $70 million novelty item, the CGI-sci-fi adventure epic is not without some astonishments. But like so many technological marvels, at the human level it's not only merely dead, it's really most sincerely dead.

The trick, played by writer-director, mega-computer geek and New York Times Magazine cover boy Kerry Conran, is by now well known: He filmed his small cast on a large, blank soundstage, then inserted that footage into a dazzling computer-generated world, a kind of retro-1939, or, say, a "1939" as predicted by Amazing Science magazine in 1932. Everything you see on the screen, except for the people, exists only on hard drive.

Unfortunately, the people seem more phony than everything you see on the screen. The two-seat P-40 Kittyhawk fighter that can double as a submarine, or the giant gull-wing flappity-flapping robo-Stukas that divebomb Gotham? Fabulous contraptions. I believed in them! Jude Law as Sky Captain, better known as Joe Sullivan, a kind of Smilin' Jack for our times, or Gwyneth Paltrow as news hen Polly Perkins of the New York Chronicle, a Brenda Starr wannabe or possibly the stunt double for Lois Lane? These two seemed like Xeroxes of Xeroxes of Xeroxes. And that's before they open their mouths. When they talk, you think, hey, did George Lucas write this?

The visual results are certainly unique, and for many, many moviegoers, that uniqueness will be satisfying enough for them to plunk down their eight and a half more than once. In fact, seeing the movie as an inventory of lost imagery is far more satisfying than paying attention to it as a story.

Conran is a great fan of late-'30s popular culture, of serials and leather-encapsulated flying aces and radio miracles and secret decoder rings and all the stuff that seemed cool in a world where no one could imagine a Holocaust or an A-bomb. It is this tradition he loots in order to provide the film with its extraordinary texture, so that watching it has a weird afterglow of memory; it's like finding piles of '30s rotogravure Sunday magazines in an old trunk and spending a rainy afternoon paging through them. You see things you'd forgotten about, things you may have never seen before, all of it both fresh and familiar at once. Moreover, the palette of the film is a kind of sepia suffused with refracted light, and toned way down from the primary colors, like faded color stock. The movie looks found rather than made.

Meanwhile, the story runs the gamut from A to G or possibly as far as H. It's not much. It's not really anything. Now of course I understand it's not supposed to be anything except a crude replica of the plot patterns of the serials of the '30s, but that doesn't mean it had to be this thin, this dopey. In Lucas's first cycle of "Star Wars" films, and in his collaborations with Steven Spielberg in the "Indiana Jones" films, he utilized almost the identical source material, but the results were much livelier. Those casts -- Harrison Ford seems to be the common denominator -- had a sass, a spunk and a chemistry completely lacking among these handsome, hip young people. Paltrow's perky Polly never has the pizazz of Carrie Fisher's spitfiery Princess Leia, and Jude Law's dull boy of a hero pilot couldn't hold a match or a candle to Ford's two pulp masterpieces, Han and Indy.

Lucas was also wise enough to understand that the key to the sort of popular fables he was telling wasn't the hero, it was the villain. We need an object of hatred, someone to absorb our anger and whose destruction we can truly, deeply, madly enjoy. Watching bad guys get killed is one of the secret pleasures of movies. But Conran never really conjures up a Professor Evil. Sky Captain's nemesis, a German named Totenkopf (i.e., Death's Head), never comes to life and never attracts our righteous indignation as did, say, the wondrous Darth Vader. He's a cipher.

Okay, here's the plot. Big giant robots that look like Hoover uprights combined with Mark IV Panzers attack New York. Sky Captain, in his trusty P-40 submersible pursuit ship, drives them away; his pal, the radio genius Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi), tracks a mysterious radio beam to Shangri-La, located, according to the helpful map, in Nepal, and so perky Polly and unsmilin' Joe visit the spot and encounter the missing reels from "Lost Horizon"; then they blow it up. But it's too late or something. So they head off to King Kong's island, aided by Angelina Jolie of the Royal Air Force (that would be the Royal Air Force that perfected the giant flying aircraft carrier loaded up with amphibian planes piloted by Mayfair hostesses) and blow it up, too. Oh, wait, maybe they don't blow that one up. I'm not sure. There's so much blowing up it's hard to keep it all straight.

Regardless of what gets blown up, what remains is, er, unusual. As a visual artist, Conran loves gigantism. Everything is giant: Doors, for example, are 60 feet tall and solid iron, with battleship rivets holding them together. This seems to be the golden age of machine tooling: Nothing is plastic; everything is welded, bent, screwed or melted into place. Conran loves fanciful machines of the piston and diesel age, as all his planes are prop-driven.

The concept of the streamline is just coming in, but hasn't taken hold quite yet. He loves the sound of metal, too, of giant pieces of metal clanking against each other, or the screech of metal surrendering to physics in a collision. As a creator of a world that never existed, he's absolutely first-rate.

Actually, come to think of it, he's good at everything except directing movies. He's a much better engineer than artist and he can't get the intangible aspects of the story -- believable characters, the rhythm of the editing, the idea of metaphor, the very things that give a story life and independent reality -- to work. He's good at objects, things, that's all. The giant attack on New York and another air raid on Sky Captain's air base are full of violence and explosions, but curiously unrefreshing. They don't seem to be cut together with any rhythm, and the movie almost never achieves any true suspense, because it's so artificial, it's such a toy, you automatically disconnect from it. Kerry Conran turns out to know everything about '30s stories except how to tell them.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (107 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for big battles and other violent stuff.


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