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.