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Saturday, June 15

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Airbags

4 of 5 stars
Directed by Kerry Conran.
Starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Giovanni Ribisi.

Much of the press about writer and director Kerry Conran's debut feature, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, revolves around the fact that it was filmed entirely in front of a blue screen, like many scenes from the Star Wars prequels. Conran shaved a huge chunk of change off the film's budget by eliminating the need for costly on-location shoots and trimming the principle photography to a relatively short 26 days -- $50 to 60 million saved, by producer Jon Avnet's estimate. This technique worked surprisingly well, and more often than not, Sky Captain allows you to forget that almost everything you see on-screen does not exist and, in fact, has never existed in any physical form.

Computer generated imagery has rarely felt real; it is usually too plastic, too crisp to be believable. It's not that computers can't create believeable imagery, but that the animators just don't do it effectively very often. With CGI, much of the time, you get the impression that the animators think showing off what they've created is more important than telling the damned story. By piling on blurs, film-noir-inspired shadows and other effects, Conran's team has made quite possibly the first digital film that usually lets you forget that you're watching what amounts to a computer animated movie with a few actors and props composited in. The previous high-water mark for integration of computer generated imagery and live-action footage was George Lucas' $115 million Attack of the Clones. But the CG imagery in that film tended to look too crisp and clean to look like anything other than a cartoon -- which was strange, considering that Lucas' own, original Star Wars was one of the first science fiction films to treat its backwater bars and heroes' ships to some abuse, lending them a lived-in feel that provided some visual, as well as thematic, contrast to the justifiably antiseptic look of the Death Star corridors.

Another of the innumerable flaws with the Star Wars prequels is that the actors often seem not to be talking not so much to each other as in the general vicinity of each other. This is largely because of Lucas's overuse of technology in piecing together the films. Terence Stamp's scene opposite Natalie Portman in The Phantom Menace, for instance, was shot with a post standing off-screen in place of the actress, no doubt contributing to the perception that her performance was "wooden." I don't mind actors appearing a little bit unbelievable when they're interacting with non-existent CGI monsters -- we can't all be expert mimes -- but when they're supposed to be talking with other flesh-and-blood actors, it's just plain annoying. Movies routinely edit footage to make a set of shots appear to be a continuous sequence, but acting is not just in how an actor saunters about and emotes his own lines; it is also in how an actor reacts to the other actors' performances. This is one reason I find the typical Hollywood style of directing so annoying: with its incessant use of close-ups, you rarely get to see the other characters in a scene reacting to what the speakers have to say. Whether or not they actually were in the same room together in Sky Captain, at the very least, all of the actors seemed to be. Indeed, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow banter back and forth charmingly in a way that characters in Lucas' newer films only dream of.

Stylistically, Sky Captain channels the same adventure movie serials that inspired Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the Fleischer brothers' Superman cartoons from the early '40s seem to be the strongest influence -- and that's both a good and bad thing. Far more slavish in its imitation of those films than any of the more recent homages, it takes both the exciting, breakneck pace of the movie serials as well as the lack of sense that I associate with those films. Like Raiders, which was consciously scripted to have something major happen every 20 minutes or so (roughly the length of one episode of a movie serial), Sky Captain starts the action almost immediately and plows ahead with only a few breaks for comedy or character development. After a brief but elegant opening sequence, a fleet of giant flying robots suddenly swoops down on New York City to steal some electric generators and we are speedily introduced to the two main players, Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Law) and reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow). Joe fights the robots off single-handed in his souped-up World War II fighter plane while Polly traces the disappearance of some notable scientists, which (naturally) ties in with the robots' appearance. The clues soon pile up and point to a shadowy Dr. Totenkopf, whose lair, they discover, is somewhere in Nepal. Tracking him further, they meet up with Capt. Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie), commander of a top-secret British flying airstrip, who helps them out in a somewhat silly, video game-like underwater action sequence as they make their way onto Totenkopf's uncharted island.

Jolie plays Franky with an infectious glee that helps round out her character so well that she feels like a major character, despite only being on-screen for perhaps fifteen minutes. (the film's weak $16 million opening weekend makes a follow-up unlikely, it would be nice to see Jolie and Law headline a prequel that grants Captain Cook some more screen time.) The rest of the supporting characters, played effectively by talented actors, are all pretty much riffs on characters from other films, though: we have Kaji (Omid Djalili), who is essentially Sallah transplanted from the Indiana Jones movies; Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi) is the Q of Sky Captain's crew, adding a few comedic moments (not to mention a sweet raygun) into the mix; and Bai Ling as "Mysterious Woman," the Darth Maul of the film -- a minor villain who enlivens the proceedings in her few moments onscreen, yet never gets fleshed out and is eventually dispatched a bit too easily.

While Sky Captain is visually impressive -- most impressive -- Kerry Conran is not a Jedi yet. Despite some clever twists, the plot just doesn't always make sense. The ultimate purpose behind Totenkopf's schemes (which the audience should learn as the story unfolds, not through a review) doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. But even early on in the movie, questions arise: How come he can build an army of hundreds of robots, but he needs to steal electrical generators from New York City? Why can Polly find nothing about the supposedly mysterious Totenkopf, but when she finds a file on him, she learns that he has advanced degrees from terribly prestigious universities and was awarded his first patent at the age of 12 -- both of which should have created a paper trail that even Jimmy Olsen could have followed?

Granted, even the illustrious Star Wars has its own moments of logical collapse. (For instance, can someone please explain to me why there's a monster in the Death Star's trash compactor? I didn't think so.) But movies like these don't need to make perfect sense: they're just kids' movies. Still, the best kids' movies aren't just kids' movies. Although never more silly or cliché than the weakest moments in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, Sky Captain never achieves the strongest portions of those series, either. In fact, it never even aspires to that level, which was somewhat of a letdown. So sit back, stifle the urge to ask questions and enjoy the ride, because for what it tries to be, Sky Captain is terrific fun.

I hope that Kerry Conran's writing will mature a bit in the future. But since his next film will be an adaptation of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’ thoroughly escapist 1917 pulp novel A Princess of Mars, I'm having some doubts.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is playing in theaters all over the place. Go to Fandango.com if you want to know where. It's OK -- the paper bag puppets are nowhere to be seen.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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