Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow
In some works of art, display of the possibilities of technique is as much the point as melody or plot. The story and characters of 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow' may be a collage of elements - giant robots, sassy woman newshound, desperate struggles against a count-down - from an eclectic range of earlier cinema. Many of them, though, also function effectively as metaphors for the filmmaker Kerry Conran's exuberant enjoyment of the things computer graphics make it possible for us to see on screen as never quite before.
Everything in the film that is not an actor, or something an actor touches, is an illusion. Other films have used blue screen for specific effects - actors go through their paces in a visually blank room and everything from monsters to architecture is added later - but Conran does every single scene that way. The cast impart considerable human warmth to characters from stock, but part of the film's display of their virtuosos craft lies in just this - that their reactions to what they could not in fact see themselves at the time make us believe our eyes.
Historically, special effects and computer graphics have tended to be one of the elements of films which dates most obviously - which is one of the reasons why George Lucas has continually tinkered with the look of the original 'Star Wars' trilogy to an extent that leaves parts of them metaphorically crumbling under his fingers. What was the state of the art one year becomes stale news six months later - which is why, often, older techniques are better; Tim Burton's 1988 demonic comedy 'Beetlejuice' still works because it uses stage magic wherever possible and Guillermo Del Toro's recent 'Hellboy' resisted the temptation to make its giant, half-horned redskinned protagonist an effect, relying instead on makeup, tricks of perspective and Ron Perlman's massive screen presence.
'Sky Captain...' may well be a film whose effects last, partly because so much of it is a homage to the look of German Expressionism, art deco and pulp magazine covers. Whatever it turns out to mean in the plot, 'The World of Tomorrow' is also specifically a reference to the 1939 New York World's Fair and its technological optimism about great romantic machines that never were. From the first shot of an airship - the never built Hindenburg III - docking on the Empire State Building, its stylized palate is a deliberately washed out gray or golden sepia into which occasional splashes of rich colour come as a shock and are themselves always a deliberate effect. The rich red, white and blue flags of the aircraft of a British Empire on which in this alternate world the sun shows little sign of setting are one example of this. Another is the moment when, interviewing a source in a cinema, Gwyneth Paltrow's Polly is seen against a technicolour screen on which Dorothy is telling her dog Toto that they are not in Kansas any more.
This reference to Oz is one of several ways in which Conran prepares us for satisfying revelations at the film's end - another is Bai Ling's performance, straight out of Lang's 'Metropolis' or Feuillade's 'Judex' serial, as the scientist Totenkopf's silent mysterious assassin. Conran has learned many things from pulp serials and one of them is that you should always play fair, one way or another, with your audience, not least by allowing their capacity to guess and imagine to do some of the work - he may know the back story of this world with its apparent absence of Nazis and short world wars, but he lets his audience make them up.
The story itself is hardly profound - the gallant flying mercenary Sky Captain Joe (Jude Law in matinee idol mode) sets out after the giant robots which are stealing the world's resources and have shot up his base and kidnapped his best friend and chief technician. His estranged lover Polly tags along, to get the scoop of a lifetime and to bicker; along the way they are helped by a trusty Tibetan and a one-eyed British woman commander - in what is little more than a cameo, Angelina Jolie in a tightly tailored uniform displays a sexual charisma whose knowing closeness to fetishism is one of the film's most obviously anachronistic elements.
As Jude Law has said in interview, 'hardly Chekhov', and yet he and Paltrow in particular give the contrivances of the plot - squabbles about their romantic back story as much as desperate adventuring - real heart. If Conran and his producer Jon Avnet turn out to have produced an unstoppable machine of a blockbuster franchise, it is because it is a labour of love for them, and for Law and his co-stars. This is a film about being good at what you do, and about constantly unfolding revelations of what lies behind illusion - amid all the glorious fakery, there is a communicated delight in artistic commitment that is touchingly genuine.