Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2004 at AMC Fenway #12 (preview)

"Sky Captain causes happiness." - Matthew Seaver, immediately upon the movie's finish

I don't know where to begin with what I loved about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, so I'll start with the opening credits, which have a wonderful 1930s look that required twenty-first century computer graphics to create. The soundtrack is perfect, borrowing from the same sources that John Williams used for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Superman. Speaking of Superman, the general feel of this movie brought to mind those great Fleischer Superman cartoons. In the real 1930s, animation was the only way to create this kind of bigger-than-life adventure on the screen, but writer/director Kerry Conran has incredible tools at his disposal to build a world directly out of his imagination. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's got Jude Law and Gwynneth Paltrow, either.

Paltrow, in particular, is perfect here as Pollly Perkins, the kind of thirties career girl who could handle anything the men could while also looking gorgeous in her red lipstick and high heels. She's perfect glammed up for the period, able to toss of wisecracks, wither men with a look, and take the wonders around her in stride. She's an icon but also an individual.

Law's character is iconic, too; his Joe Sullivan is the courageous playboy adventurer who finds the girl initially annoying but falls into an easy rapport with her. During the period in which Sky Captain is set, the "superhero" hasn't yet been codified, and there's a feeling that any kid could grow up to be him. He's as quick-witted as Polly but not as sharp-tongued.

Also on board is Angelina Jolie as Captain Frankie Cook, who doesn't appear until halfway through the movie but manages to crank the tension between Polly and Joe up a notch and is a commanding presence in the midst of a fantastic anachronism.

It's worth bringing up the cast first because they are the ones who sell this world to the audience. The world of Sky Captain is almost entirely created inside a computer, even more so than the last two Star Wars movies were, and though I'm one of those movies' staunchest defenders, it's this cast that displays the most comfort with their unreal (and non-present) surroundings. They're good enough that they can react to a swarm of CGI robots and banter wittily at the same time. Heck, Conran even ends the movie on a joke, letting our last impression be how these guys play off each other.

But this movie's got more than just characterization; any movie with a decent script can do that. This movie's got some of the most stunning visuals committed to film, and it just keeps coming. From the giant robots invading New York, we move on to other robots, incredible air battles, monsters, gigantic flying fortresses that would make Nick Fury jealous, an incredible underwater battle, and the astonishing inside of the sinister Totenkopf's private island. I realize I'm talking like the front of a 1935 pulp magazine here, but it's fitting. Kerry Conran and his brother Kevin, the film's production designer, swipe liberally from old comics, Old Hollywood, and old pulps to construct a consistent world, and then have great fun pitting Joe, Polly, and Frankie against Totenkopf's forces.

By now many have seen the way the Conrans filmed the actors against blue screen and then built the movie around them, and it's got a somewhat surprising effect - even in cases where the special effects aren't absolutely perfect, it's okay, because that's in line with the rest of the movie. By building the movie as a patchwork, they manage to make it cohesive. And they clearly love this genre and period. Even as the movie is frequently very funny, it's funny in a genuine 1930s manner, not mocking the trappings at all. That's why when the movie serves up cliffhanging adventure, it can get away with trapping Joe and Polly in a room stuffed to the rafters with dynamite. And when an action sequence finishes with an improbable escape, the audience doesn't sneer, and doesn't just laugh - the preview audience responded with actual mid-movie applause. You'll know which sequence when you see it.

The applause rule alone would get Sky Captain a perfect rating, but that's just the point when everyone in the audience expressed their joy. I had a foolish grin on my face for the entire hundred-five minute running time, and not just because I love the comics, pulp sci-fi, and movies that the Conrans borrow from so liberally. Sky Captain doesn't just borrow; it knows what makes a fun movie and delivers it in its purest form.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this, but this is the one flick I really regret missing.