If Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow had been discovered in some abandoned storage vault, next to original prints of Metropolis and The Wizard of Oz, it might be hailed as a masterpiece. Using all the computer power he could get his hands on - a MAC IIci for the first few years, Hollywood's full arsenal of CGI since then - newcomer writer-director Kerry Conran has constructed a futuristic sci-fi epic that might have opened in 1939, when the future looked a lot like the "World of Tomorrow" exhibit over at the New York World's Fair. Art Deco was the reigning style - Machine Age chic, with bullet-nosed rocket ships and Manhattan's zig-zaggy skyline. By the looks of it, Conran is in love with yesterday's tomorrow, the Saturday-matinee glitz of "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon." And Sky Captain, which has Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow hanging from one cliff after another, would like nothing more than to recapture the hopeful/wary spirit of a country poised between the Great Depression and the Second World War.
All I can say is, close, but no cigar-shaped zeppelin. Sky Captain may be the landmark in cinema history that everybody says it is; no one's ever completely done away with sets and locations before, filming the actors in front of blue screens and then filling in the backgrounds later. And Conran definitely has the vision thing, reportedly sifting through 240 ray-gun drawings before landing on one he liked. But the movie's strengths are also its weaknesses. It seems dated, for instance. (George Lucas, drawing on many of the same sources, made sure to set his futuristic sci-fi epic in the future.) And the movie's look, though often gorgeous, seems dated too, like a black-and-white film that's been hand-tinted or, gulp, colorized. Some viewers will be carried along by the neo-retro design; I was for a while. But the story, such as there is, has all the strengths and weaknesses of the old sci-fi serials - all the weaknesses, anyway. It's too episodic, too out-of-one-jam-and-into-another. And the script, which seems to embrace clichés, also wallows in them.
Law is Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan, a daring aviator who's supposed to evoke everybody from Errol Flynn to Indiana Jones. Paltrow is Polly Perkins, a girl reporter who's supposed to evoke everybody from Lauren Bacall to Lois Lane. (At least I think it's Bacall's tigress-purr that Paltrow is reaching for but not quite grasping.) Despite their iffy romantic past, these two team up to save the world when an army of giant robots descends on New York, followed by an aerial battle between Joe's P-40 Warhawk and a squadron of hawk-like robots that swoop through the sky, wings aflutter. Someone's up to something, obviously. But who? And what? And who cares? The twists and turns of the plot seem like an excuse for Conran to work up whole new drawings on his $70 million Etch-a-Sketch. His original plan, before Hollywood got hold of him, was to make the entire movie without leaving his apartment. And he was going to try to pass it off as an unearthed film by a protégé of Frank Capra.
Maybe he should have stuck with his original plan.