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Laying Down the Law: Sky Captain (Jude Law) confronts the forces of evil in an Art Deco world.

Skull and Bots

'Sky Captain' discovers the 'World of Tomorrow' in yesterday serial adventures

By Richard von Busack

AS A CONCEPT, Kerry Conran's almost all-computer-graphic cartoon Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is captivating stuff. This marvelously detailed Art Deco comic-book movie was shot on blue screen with live actors. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Polly Perkins—Lois Lane with the serial numbers filed off. Jude Law is a science-fiction pilot named Joe, better known as Sky Captain, a variation on the 1942 Republic serial character Spy Smasher. The squabbling lovers cross and recross the skies in search of a mysterious mad doctor called Totenkopf. Their journeys take them from Manhattan to Shangri-La to the ocean's floor and, finally, to a replica of Kong Island, where Totenkopf's hellish scheme is revealed.

For those whose movie experience begins with Raiders of the Lost Ark, Conran's devotion to older movies will seem like a new look. Conran raids The Wizard of Oz, Lost Horizon, Metropolis, King Kong and, particularly, the lavish Fleischer brothers Superman cartoons of the 1940s. But even those movie fans who can tag each of Conran's references have to acknowledge this high-tech magpie's good taste. While he rehashes the cornier dialogue of action cinema, Conran also has a deft touch and a sense of humor. The chemistry between Law and Paltrow works well, particularly in one charming scene where she fights the urge to nibble on the hero pilot's ear right while he's explaining some complicated point of celestial navigation. (It's a moment that looks like improvised acting in a film that no doubt had to involve a lot of standing on marks.) Where Indiana Jones was a morose woman hater in the Clark Gable line, Law is more like a dashing Peter Pan; always distracted by adventure but not immune to the ladies. (Thus Angelina Jolie's 10-minute part as a previous intrigue.) The light-heroic role of Sky Captain is completely in Law's bag.

The villain's headquarters is a particular treat—a well-equipped lair, including a missile-ornamented interior with a stainless-steel statue of the Angel of Death holding a 20-foot sword aloft. Unless I'm mistaken, Totenkopf also has a huge repro of The Death of Sardanapalus (a king killing his entire palace so he can take his servants with him when he dies) over his desk. Sky Captain opens up a matter that's been proposed since computer animation started to get serious: Would it someday be possible to revive dead actors? Conran has done so here (and I'm not going to spoil the surprise), and he certainly took an actor from the top of the heap. That said, compared to a girl reporter like Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, Polly is a bit slow on the draw. The attack sequences are all cut in the computer-game style so you can't see what's blown up until it's gone. The Shangri-La and jungle sequences look flat and hurriedly done. And in the opening, the metal monsters seem to call out for their natural opponent: Superman himself. Warner Bros. spent millions over the last decade putting a proposed new Superman movie through a development hell so tortuous it would blanch Dante. Presuming they had the opportunity, it was a failure of corporate imagination not to team up Conran and the Man of Steel—maybe later down the road?

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (PG; 107 min.), directed and written by Kerry Conran, photographed by Eric Adkins and starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the September 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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