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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Mark's Take)

02/11/2004. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

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The Art Deco future as it was seen from the late 1930s is the background for this super-paced sci-fi adventure. The plot is just a chain of action sequences, one leading to the next, and the characters are one-dimensional. Even the artwork is a little too dark, but the images are genuinely exciting and they are what make the film worth seeing.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: The Art Deco future as it was seen from the late 1930s is the background for this super-paced sci-fi adventure. The plot is just a chain of action sequences, one leading to the next, and the characters are one-dimensional. Even the artwork is a little too dark, but the images are genuinely exciting and they are what make the film worth seeing. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10.

Back in the 1930s people grew tired of the daily grind of the Great Depression and looked to the future for some reason for optimism. People embraced recent large-scale engineering marvels like the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building with its (never used) dirigible mooring at the top. The art style of the future was Art Deco and buildings like the geometrically decorated Chrysler building captured this spirit, as well as the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building.

Capturing this mood is a new film that seamlessly combines realistic-looking animation and live action. SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW gloriously captures the same art deco sepulchral futurism of the original Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. But these images are presented in a style that makes them almost look as if they have come to life. The film is a terrific exercise in art and a visually fascinating film.

The story begins with the kidnapping of a great scientist, one of many who have disappeared. Then suddenly New York City is attacked by a fleet of flying machines that turn out to be sixty- foot-high robots who unstoppably march through the streets of the city with some mysterious goal. Nearly killed in the onslaught is pretty Polly Perkins (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), a daring newspaper reporter who is known to take chances.

Parker was once the lover of Joe Sullivan (Jude Law) who under the name Sky Captain leads a staunch team of great pilots and scientists who offer their services to those who need them. Sky Captain destroys the rampaging robots, but this is only the beginning of his battle to destroy the evil schemes of the nefarious Dr. Totenkopf (German for "Death Head").

The plot is on a comic-book level, but that is part of the idea. The pace of this high-octane adventure is so fast there is no time for a real story. But never do we get a chance to sit back and bemoan the lack of consistent plot. This is a film paced for the video-game generation with just one action sequence shortly after another. There is no character to particularly like. Jude Law's Sky Captain does not have a lot of personality.

He is just a man getting an important job done the best he can. That puts him a point up on Gwyneth Paltrow's Polly whose small deceptions and indignant poses quickly outstay their welcome to become irritating. Characters are not the chief attraction of this film.

This is one of those films that a lot of the fun is finding the allusions to other films. A background setting will be recreated from one film, a sound effect from another. In the course of two hours we visit several of our favorite fantasy films. The images on the screen are nearly all huge. Doorways on Sky Captain's island are twenty feet tall and must be really hard to move. Why does it tweak our imagination to see machines that tower over us and make us feel small? Maybe because we imagine using the power in those huge machines.

Maybe when they are destroyed we feel like powerful Davids bringing down Goliaths of steel. In any case, much of the spectacle is the scale of the robots and the flying machines. The one complaint about the majestic visual imagery is that so much of the film is shown in twilight of semi- darkness. This may make the animation easier and cover over errors, but it makes the images harder to see. What we see is visually terrific, but it might be even better if we could more easily see the detail in those majestic images we are looking at.

This film with the action and pacing of a super science fiction serial on steroids is a unique film and even with some of the story shortcomings is a real entertainment. It is interesting to compare it to another super-science alternate history, the soon- to-be-released anime feature STEAMBOY. And it is even more interesting that these two films were made so close to each other in time.

Perhaps the time is right to look at our past and think about what might have been. I rate SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2004 Mark R. Leeper

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