This review was written by Rebecca Scott.
The hype began months ago. The first I knew of it was the full-page ads in my monthly comics. Then I caught the teaser on Apple’s site. The concept caught me immediately: a movie in which everything but the actors themselves was created by computer. The more I found out, the more intrigued I became. Most of my friends were fascinated, too. We all agreed that, visually, this would be a terrific movie if things had been done even half-right. It was too much to hope for that the story would be good on top of it, especially since no one knew anything about it. That’s never a good sign.
So I walked into a theater on opening night with high hopes that my eyes were in for a treat. Soft-focus forties styles, dark and impressive. Towering metal robots and wing-flapping planes. Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie. I was determined to ignore the story if necessary.
Amazingly, the story was good.
Now, admittedly, it’s pulp, but some of us like pulp. Furthermore, it’s good pulp. We have the Smartass Hero (Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan, played to the hilt by Jude Law); the Spunky, Intrepid Reporter Dame (the alliterative Polly Perkins, pulchritudinously portrayed by Ms. Paltrow); and the Villainous Looking but Trustworthy Ally, who just happens to also be the Woman with a Past (a piratically eyepatched Angelina Jolie as Capt. Franky Cook of His Majesty’s Navy). Throw in the Evil Scientist (Dr. Totenkopf, and I’ll let the actor’s name be a surprise) and his Mysterious Henchwoman (Bai Ling), their Giant Robots and Nefarious Plot which could Destroy the World, and you have a perfect recipe for a classic pulp story. What makes it a good story is the details. It’s not enough that Polly Perkins is sent a mysterious note telling her to meet someone who has information about the missing scientists; in Sky Captain, the note is tucked into a copy of Mathematical Principles by Newton. The movie playing in the background while she meets with her informer is carefully chosen and paced. Every aspect of this movie seems to have received the same attention to detail that the animation itself did. Along with a wry sense of humor, a willingness to play with the conventions of the genre, and a finely tuned sense of when to stop twisting those same conventions, it’s that attention which lifts Sky Captain above a movie that’s purely eye-candy to an excellent all-around film.
Visually, the movie was everything I’d been led to expect. It isn’t that Sky Captain has stunning special effects, it’s that the whole thing, from beginning to end, is one big special effect (which is, yes, stunning). It isn’t so much that the giant robots and other fantastical elements are made to look absolutely real as that everything in the film is all of a piece; each piece of it looks as real as every other piece of it. Some of this is due to the soft focus is which the entire film is shown (which serves the dual purpose of adding to the atmosphere while also hiding pixilation), but I’d attribute even more of it to the same attention to detail which I was praising earlier. Incidentally, while the soft focus is very kind to all of the actors, it is never more beautifully applied than to Ms. Paltrow, especially her hair.
The world of Sky Captain is beautifully realized, coming across not as a literal place, but as the mental landscape in which any or all adventure stories might take place. Lines of latitude and longitude and compass roses are prone to appear on the land and sea over which Sky Captain flies. Radio towers of cartoonishly large size stand out from the globe. Buildings tower darkly, and Shangri-La is a place one can visit. It’s truly amazing, and it’s often difficult to believe how little of it was ever physical.
The acting, from everyone, is believable and dead on, if never stunning or outstanding; it doesn’t need to be, really, not for an adventure story of this type. Jude Law is is pulp hero, here, and apparently enjoying the hell out of every moment. Gwyneth Paltrow not only perfectly plays a spunky reporter, she plays one I can’t even begin to hate; she genuinely has guts and a strong will, not the slightly bratty stubbornness I’ve seen too often in pulp-style movies. Ms. Jolie is even more likable, wryly humorous and uncompromisingly straightforward in any circumstance. Giovanni Ribisi plays Dex Dearborn as the sort of fun, entertaining technical-boy-next-door that any geek girl might be happy to take home (seriously, who can resist a guy who builds superweapons for his boss based on what he saw in his comic books?). And, of course, the movie benefits briefly from the talents of one of the finest actors of the modern age as its villain. (No, I’m still not going to tell you. Knowing who the actor is gives you a clue about what’s up with the villain. Go watch the movie and see what I mean.)
The score for the movie is effective and well applied, and went mostly unnoticed by me. The theme song, though, played over the closing credits, was stunning. Jane Monheit lends her sultry voice to the classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (you can find a music video of it here), giving it a yearning that surpasses Judy Garland’s. It fits beautifully with the theme of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a theme of longing for something that is always just out of reach. The wonderful thing about the world of Sky Captain is that you still feel that you might, someday, finally catch it.