(Originally published in Rocky Mountain Bullhorn)
As modern filmmakers continually prove, computer-generated images (CGI) can be a double-edged keystroke. On the positive side, technological advances in cinematic special effects grant directors the freedom of limitless imagination, allowing inventive artists to create the impossible and ingenious at the click of a button. The flipside, however, is that the boundless potential and gee-whiz coolness of big-budget effects-work frequently detracts from (if not wholly obliterates) the presence of an engaging dramatic foundation comprised of richly drawn characters and spellbinding storytelling. CGI spectaculars offer plenty of bang but – as the summer movie season annually illustrates – often far too little brains for your moviegoing buck.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Kerry Conran’s stylistically unique blend of the authentic and artificial, is the epitome of CGI’s best and worst attributes. Utilizing expressionistic art deco environments which were painstakingly created entirely by digital artists, Conran’s adventure is a visually electric homage to Fritz Lang, H.G. Wells, Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons, and pulp serials and comics from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Swathed in midnight blacks and silvery whites, the film tracks plucky reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her former fighter pilot sweetheart Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) in 1930s Manhattan as they investigate an invasion of giant robots and bird-like warplanes linked to a Doomsday plot orchestrated by the enigmatic Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier, resurrected via clever use of archival footage). As Sky Captain and Polly navigate a hyper-real Radio City Music Hall, the snow-bound utopia of Shangri-La, and a Dr. Moreau-style island of prehistoric wonders, the film – bolstered by Edward Shearmur’s rousing Indiana Jones-ish score – supplies a continuous string of dazzling action sequences. On a purely aesthetic level, Conran’s gorgeous debut is nothing short of remarkable.
If only such scrupulous attention to detail had been bestowed upon the film’s human element. Law and Paltrow’s bickering heroes strive to generate a Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell romantic contentiousness, but Sky Captain’s archetypal characters (which also includes Angelina Jolie’s eye-patched British air force commander and Giovanni Ribisi’s good-natured techie sidekick) never develop more than a single monotonous character trait. While this simplicity – also apparent in the script’s corny stilted dialogue – is a deliberate attempt to replicate the anachronistic hokeyness of its influences, the end result is that the swashbuckling narrative becomes inconsequential except as a means of propelling the derring-do Polly and Sky Captain from one astonishing locale to another. Law and Paltrow’s argumentative chemistry eventually gets off the ground during the finale, and there’s an amusing recurring joke about Polly’s inability to record her amazing exploits due to a shortage of camera film. However, with a dearth of compelling drama to complement its “wow factor,” Sky Captain’s feast for the eyes ultimately leaves one feeling famished.