An Art Deco fantasia imagined with all the glee of a gadget-obsessed 12-year-old, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow scarcely bothers with the rudiments of plot before streaking off into the atmosphere—and it’s all the better for it. Set in a sort of alternate ‘30s where the Nazis are a long way off and America looks to have been designed by comic-book artists, Sky Captain is about what happens when squadrons of giant flying robots land in New York and start wreaking havoc for no good reason. Could it have something to do with a recent rash of disappearing scientists? Plucky reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow, more affectless than usual) wants to find out, but she’ll likely need some help from her old fighter-jockey beau, Joe, a.k.a. “Sky Captain” (Jude Law, dashing as hell), whose job seems to involve happily buzzing through the clouds in his P-40.
The opening is clunky, with director-writer Kerry Conran hopelessly trying to whip up a personality for Perkins, making the early expository scenes something of a drag, no matter how gorgeous they are to look at. And gorgeous they are, for practically everything you see on screen, except for the humans, is CGI of such lovingly rendered and painterly quality (imagine a Chris Van Allsburg book animated by Hayao Miyazaki) that it leaves Lucas’s recent work in the dust. Fortunately, not long after Joe shows up, Conran throws together a rip-snorting aerial dogfight with a flock of birdlike robot fighter planes that works like a shot of espresso, after which the plot kicks into high gear, sending Joe and Polly off to Nepal in search of the elusive Dr. Totenkopf, who seems to be behind the robot attacks. The look switches from stylized Metropolis-like skyscrapers to the Shangri-La of Lost Horizon with a dash of King Kong—one could get lost in the thicket of filmic references here—but with no resulting loss in energy.
Unfortunately, Paltrow’s wan performance of an underwritten character is a major let-down, mostly but not entirely alleviated by sideliners like Giovanni Ribisi as Joe’s comic relief gearhead sidekick and Angelina Jolie, who’s just delicious as an eye-patched fighter ace and former lover of Joe’s. It probably wouldn’t hold up to repeat viewings, and it’s hard to imagine that audiences will really get what’s going on, but there’s a lightness and joy to Sky Captain that’s all too rarely seen in big-budgeted Hollywood productions, one of the few films since Spielberg’s Indiana Jones trilogy to effectively tap the frothy, patently-fake buzz of old film serials. Personally, I’m waiting for Sky Captain Versus the Martians.
If shadow delineation ever needed to look bad, it's on this DVD of edition of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which makes sure the film looks every bit as comic book-y as it did on the big screen. But as gorgeous as every visual texture may be, the audio track isn't nearly as fun. Dialogue is crisp and the overall surround work is awesome, but the low frequency effects leave much to be desired.
Two commentary tracks, the first by producer Jon Avnet, who makes sure to tell us where every cent went, and a second by writer/director Kerry Conran, animation director/digital effects supervisor Steve Yamamoto, and visual effects supervisor Darin Hallings. Both are fun, but I actually prefer the first, if only because Avnet proves surprisingly personable for a dude with a very money-minded occupation. Still, you may not want to bother with any of these tracks seeing as chapters one and two of the "Brave New World" featurettes cover all the film's behind-the-scenes bases, deftly mixing footage from the shooting of the film with handsome taking-heads interviews. Equally worthwhile is "The Art of the World of Tomorrow," the original six-minute short that catapulted Conron into Paramount's good graces, two deleted scenes, a funny gag reel (Gwyneth Paltrow says "farting" at one point), and lots of trailers for upcoming DVD product from the studio.
Not every scene in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is as visually or theoretically intoxicating as the "I know we're not in Kansas" scene, but the film is still a lot of fun.