A real curio that represents a big roll of the dice for Paramount, Kerry Conran's hybrid of old Hollywood conventions and advanced digital technology is arresting at first but trails off under weight of its derivativeness. Pic wants to be the next "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but if kids don't connect with its vintage trappings, will be limited to this one mission.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” stands as an escapist enterprise in many senses — escapist entertainment, escape from reality into an entirely fabricated movie world, escape from traditional filmmaking locations and sets, and even escape from the need to use actors to interpret their roles. A real curio that represents a big roll of the dice for Paramount, Kerry Conran’s hybrid of old Hollywood conventions and advanced digital technology is arresting at first but gradually trails off under the weight of its hyper-derivativeness and anxiety to please. Pic desperately wants to be the next “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but if kids don’t connect with its vintage trappings, Sky Captain will be limited to this one mission.

Beautifully wrought picture is being touted as a landmark, the first studio feature in which actors worked exclusively against a blue screen and backgrounds were entirely created digitally with more than 2,000 effects shots. Result is absolutely gorgeous, with sepia-toned images that often resemble gauzy art photographs inhabited by actors glorified by dramatically shadowy ’40s-style lighting and decked out in fantastically evocative Stella McCartney period costumes.

Opening sequence is enough to seduce anyone happy to succumb to the iconography of late-’30s-early-’40s design and the hokey pleasures of wartime melodrama. A magnificent Hindenburg III airship approaches New York City and docks at the tip of the Empire State Building. Cloak-and-dagger mischief quickly ensues, with ace reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) summoned to Radio City Music Hall in a stunningly rendered sequence that unspools during a showing of “The Wizard of Oz” (Metro classic never actually played there).

Six eminent German scientists from a pre-World War I group called Unit 11 have gone missing, and the seventh, Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter), enlists Polly’s help. But, an air raid interrupts, presaging an attack on the city that sees several Iron Giant-sized robots trudging through Midtown with mayhem in mind.

The only thing to do is call for Sky Captain (Jude Law). Eponymous mercenary hero has a very cool airbase located in a lofty mountain range close to Gotham, a facility dotted with blimps and futuristic fighter planes and maintained by an obsessed engineer, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi). Sky Captain takes to the skies at once, battling the robots and bringing a “dead” one back to his base.

There’s plenty of sexual tension between Sky Captain and Polly: Their story dates back three years to China, where Polly says she was dumped by him and he says she sabotaged his plane. But they’ve got to work together, as she’s got some crucial blueprints and he’s got the means to take on the enemy.

The hidden hand behind the mechanized invasion belongs to a Dr. Totenkopf, the long-ago head of Unit 11. Suddenly, Pearl Harbor arrives for Sky Captain when his base is attacked and destroyed by dozens of bat-like flying wings, triggering a mad aerial chase through the caverns above Manhattan’s streets.

Up to this point, “Sky Captain” is graced with the hazy glamour of film noir, a reasonable feel for hardboiled fiction, stunning “futuristic” design elements drawn from sources as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” DC comics and the “Flash Gordon”/”Buck Rogers” serials, and shimmering surfaces that most prominently include Paltrow’s lustrous golden locks, her slash red lips, slouch hat and trench coat, along with Law’s flight outfit and growling warplane. It’s a 1939 New York World’s Fair view of urban American life as seen through an RKO lens.

But once the dashing couple leaves the city, pic starts losing its spell. Having discovered that the signals guiding Dr. Totenkopf’s mechanical warriors are coming from Nepal, Sky Captain and Polly fly to the mountainous realm that hides a technological Shangri-la. As the script throws one peril after another in their way, it jettisons the consistent tone of the earlygoing and feels increasingly like a checklist of favorite adventure movies, beginning with the Indiana Jones series (itself a homage to vintage serials) and moving on to “King Kong,” “Lost Horizon,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” James Bond and “Star Wars.”

Climactic sequence, which involves the launch of a giant rocket, proves irksome due to its bad account of time — Sky Captain must do too much and cover too much ground in what’s supposed to be 10 minutes — and because it gives him the ability to withstand space travel while wearing only his normal flying gear. Being able to execute tight turns around a Manhattan street corner in his P-40 Warhawk is one kind of license, but suddenly becoming Superman is quite another; with no rules or limits, the action becomes arbitrary and rather meaningless.

Along the way is a nifty interlude during which Sky Captain and Polly stop at a most unusual outpost of the Royal Air Force; from one of a series of giant platforms suspended in the air — they resemble a cross between an aircraft carrier and a helicopter — a black eye-patched woman named Franky (Angelina Jolie) presides over a squadron of amphibious planes. Franky, it turns out, also knew Sky Captain in China, and one can see why he might have left Polly for her; she’s as capable a soldier as one could imagine and a knockout to boot. Jolie socks over the role, bestowing Franky with a crisp, high-toned English accent that would make anyone snap to attention.

Otherwise, however, second half imparts the sense of trying to cram too much into one feature in an effort to impress.

Furthering this notion is the rather creepy use of the late Laurence Olivier as Totenkopf. Glimpsed early on in a couple of snapshots (and indirectly referenced via a New York theater marquee advertising “Wuthering Heights”), the actor later turns up as a disembodied head in a Wizard of Oz-like apparition apparently made up — visually and vocally — of slivers from existing films. It’s not as if this really represents a new Olivier “performance” as such, but it does perhaps indicate, in embryonic form, things to come in movies.

The more the film soldiers on away from its initial setting amidst the concrete of New York, the more the script’s lack of wit becomes apparent, as the characters rarely say anything that isn’t entirely obvious and predictable.

Still, the visual splendor may be enough to engage audiences. Conran began the project as a computer-made six-minute short that took years to make and engaged the interest of producer Jon Avnet. The enormous technical crew and special effects hands have done an exceptional job, and many of the shots combining the idealized backgrounds with the beautiful actors are breathtaking.

Paltrow hits the right note of resolve and vinegar as the enterprising reporter. Law cuts the perfect physical figure of a devil-may-care pilot; all that’s missing is the sort of inborn insolence of an Errol Flynn. Other perfs, notably by Ribisi and Omid Djalili as the couple’s guide in Nepal, are agreeably energetic.

Edward Shearmur’s vigorous score captures and furthers the spirit of unfettered adventuring.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Production

A Paramount release of a Paramount Pictures, Aurelio De Laurentiis and Jon Avnet presentation of a Brooklyn Films II/Riff Raff-Blue Flower/Filmauro production. Produced by Avnet, Marsha Oglesby, Sadie Frost, Jude Law. Executive producers, Aurelio De Laurentiis, Raffaella De Laurentiis, Bill Haber. Co-producers, Hester Hargett-Aupetit, Brooke Breton. Directed, written by Kerry Conran.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Eric Adkins; editor, Sabrina Plisco; music, Edward Shearmur; production/costume designer, Conran; art director, Kirsten Conran; supervising art director (live action), Pier Luigi Basile; art directors (live action-U.K.), Dave Warren, Mike Stallion; set designers, Judy Bradbury, Michael Tresaugue; costume designer for Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law, Stella McCartney; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), David Crozier; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Todd Toon; special photographic process, Stephen Lawes; senior visual effects supervisor, Scott E. Anderson; visual effects supervisor, Darin Hollings; animation director/digital effects supervisor, Steven F. Yamamoto; CG lighting director, Michael Sean Foley; additional visual effects, Rising Sun Pictures, the Orphanage, Industrial Light & Magic, Hybride, SW Digital, Cafe FX, Pixel Liberation Front, Pacific Title & Art Studio, Riot, Ring of Fire/Engine Room, Luma Pictures, Gray Matter FX; associate producer, Robert Gordon; assistant director (live action), Marcia Gay; second unit camera, Christopher Probst, Tim Wooster; stunt coordinators, Franklin Henson, Franklin Henson Sr.; casting, Rick Pagano, Sheila Trezise. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, Sept. 8, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Polly Perkins - Gwyneth Paltrow Sky Captain - Jude Law Franky - Angelina Jolie Dex - Giovanni Ribisi Editor Paley - Michael Gambon Mysterious Woman - Bai Ling Kaji - Omid Djalili Dr. Totenkopf - Sir Laurence Olivier Dr. Jennings - Trevor Baxter Dr. Vargas - Julian Curry
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