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The spectacle of the 1930s


The appearance of the highly publicized Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow suggests some of the peculiar problems troubling the familiar combination of the technology and the art of film. Ideally, of course, the two should meld seamlessly, supporting each other in the expression of subject and theme, but in the real world of contemporary cinema, too often the mechanical and chemical overwhelm the emotional and intellectual elements of a motion picture. Such mediocre efforts as the Star Wars prequels, the Matrix trilogy, and even the portentous twaddle of 2001: A Space Odyssey demonstrate the chasm separating technical ingenuity from creative imagination.

In Sky Captain the great technological advance consists of employing ancient blue screen techniques for an entire picture, with the performers acting against a blank wall, so to speak, and the clever technicians at their computers, later painstakingly filling in by digital means all the spectacular backgrounds and special effects. The action and characters occupying the foreground, not surprisingly, tend to dwindle in power and significance in comparison with the artifice, which ultimately overwhelms them. The sets dominate the movie, in effect becoming its real subject, so that for all its visual splendor, it displays all the emotional depth and range of a comic book.

A work of highly conscious anachronism, as its title echoing the theme of the naively hopeful World's Fair of 1939 suggests, the picture is the equivalent of a science fiction-fantasy flick of that time. It draws its inspiration from innumerable sources in the era's popular culture, including comics, pulp magazines, fantasy novels, dozens of 1930s movies, and the optimistic visions of a nation enduring the Great Depression.

Filmed in a smeary and virtually monochromatic sepia, it also celebrates the art deco architecture, furnishings, and machinery of its time, including such iconic artifacts as the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Radio City Music Hall, and the Hindenburg. Many of the most fanciful machines, like huge robots, airplanes with flapping wings like birds, and massive flying landing fields, resemble the cover art of the old sci-fi magazines.

Set in 1939, the utterly nonsensical plot involves one of those tiresome spunky newspaper reporters, Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), her romance with Sky Captain Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), and their battle against a mysterious criminal mastermind named Totenkopf (he appears only as a photographic and holographic image with the face of the late Laurence Olivier). Sky Captain, who seems a good deal like the comic book hero Blackhawk, commands a squadron of mercenary pilots and flies a P-40 decorated with the famous Flying Tiger shark's teeth. Along with Polly and his assistant Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), he travels all over the world in search of Totenkopf's lair, encountering numerous dangers and having loads of fun.

Throughout their adventures, the picture luxuriates in a sort of tour of its cinematic sources and inspirations. In a Manhattan that now and then looks like the city of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (the capital of the futuristic imagination) Polly meets a mysterious man at Radio City Music Hall, where The Wizard of Oz plays in the background, a Technicolor movie providing a contrast to the dark brown lighting of the foreground. Another theater marquee shows Wuthering Heights, establishing the date as 1939, perhaps the greatest single year in the history of Hollywood. Later, flying over an animated map rather like Indiana Jones in his movies, the trio ends up in Tibet, where they enter a set copied directly from the Shangri-La of Lost Horizon.

All the mammoth artifacts and spectacular compositions dwarf the actors and the action, so that while the movie often absolutely enthralls the viewer, it also diminishes the characters and the actors who play them. With their similar pretty, smooth, stylized features, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law at times look like brother and sister. If either could project even an iota of sex appeal, or even act, their relationship might seem a touch incestuous, but they generally simply deliver their lines with a campy self-consciousness that mirrors the juvenile tone of the silly script. The only actor who engages any attention, oddly, is Angelina Jolie, who makes the most of her exaggerated pulchritude and fills out her tight leather flying suit like a sadomasochist's dream.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, however, provides a quantity of harmless thrills and some really splendid visions of architecture, machinery, and spectacular action. If it manages to show a good deal of the 1930s without even a hint of the Great Depression, and if its characters refer to World War I when II hadn't yet begun, well, once again technology apparently allows as little room for actual knowledge as it does for imagination. At the same time, the movie provides a grand introduction for those who may not realize the excitement and creativity of a still neglected decade.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (PG), starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Giovanni Ribisi, Angelina Jolie; written and directed by Kerry Conran. Cinemark Tinseltown; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Greece Ridge; Regal Henrietta.