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At the beginning of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the “Hindenburg III” ceremoniously and gracefully docks atop the Empire State Building. This gorgeous, majestic image is interrupted by a devastating attack on a highly stylized version of New York City circa 1939, as a marauding fleet of giant robots pillage the city’s underground power generators for a nefarious reason soon to be revealed.
These opening minutes — later matched by sequences just as visually spectacular — are all the more impressive once you know Sky Captain‘s secret: with the exception of the human actors and their costumes, every set, every prop, every scenic vista was added later on a computer.
This, in and of itself, is not groundbreaking — movies have been faking their environments for over a century, whether by painted backdrop or carefully rendered matte paintings. But over the past two decades, significant advances in the digital field have elevated the state of movie magic to the point where the unimaginable is virtually commonplace, where an entire world can be created (or deleted) with the click of a mouse. Over the years, more and more filmmakers — George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis — have dipped their toes into the digital pool. But with Sky Captain, a computer whiz-kid named Kerry Conran has flung wide open the door to full deployment. The potential for astonishment is staggering — particularly when a filmmaker’s unrestrained imagination comes into play.
Still, at the end of the day, visuals are but one ingredient in the filmmaking stew — it’s the story and characters that give a movie its richest flavor, and it’s these elements that we ultimately savor. Sky Captain looks pretty, but lacks flavor, encumbered by a soggy narrative and a bland and unengaging leading man.
Conran may be a computer geek by trade, but he’s a movie fanatic at heart, and Sky Captain is his homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age. The director celebrates various genres of the ’30s and ’40s by employing a parade of painstakingly recreated motifs and a shrewd use of color, evoking memories of everything from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Victor Fleming’s Wizard of Oz to Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. Conran includes so much film lore flotsam in Sky Captain that the excess weighs down the final product. It’s little more than a nostalgia trip into an alternate universe — albeit one, it should be noted, bereft of blacks or other ethnicities, save a kindly Tibetan monk and a few evil Asians. The lack of persons of color is both startling and a little troubling. For those who would argue that Conran is merely adhering to the realism of the ’30s, I ask, what of the flying robots, the airplanes that fare just as well under the sea as in the air, the guns that radiate a destructive evaporation ray, and the pea-sized adult elephants? When one re-envisions reality, one can do anything one likes. The exclusion of blacks in the film seems far too deliberate to be a simple oversight.
From an artistic standpoint, Sky Captain is admittedly breathtaking — though if it wins an Oscar for effects, additional statuettes should be handed out to the folks who inevitably made the movie possible: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the hardworking gang at Intel, for whom no microprocessor is too fast.
Jude Law is miscast as Joe Sullivan (Sky Captain), a super pilot free of any vulnerabilities or flaws, save a lustful wandering eye. He’s perfect — too perfect — and though Law tries to exude charisma and heroic derring-do, he lacks the spunk, pluck and irascible humanity that makes this type of character a pleasure to spend time with and root for. He’s as mealy and unappealing as a hothouse tomato.
Gwyneth Paltrow, sporting a Veronica Lake hairstyle and lips the color of pomegranate, fares better as the fearless hard-boiled reporter (and Joe’s romantic sparring partner) Polly Perkins and Giovanni Ribisi is adorable as ever in his patented goofballish way as Sky Captain’s sidekick, Dex. But it’s Angelina Jolie who steals the show. As Frankie, the eyepatched commander of a covert fleet of ultra-futuristic fighter planes, Jolie gives a commanding performance slathered in satirical relish. “Alert the amphibious squadron,” she barks at one point and, in an instant, Sky Captain goes from insipid to inspired. Jolie’s presence rockets Sky Captain into the stratosphere, where it briefly grazes the wings of the greatest movies ever made before plummeting back to Earth.
Cellular is a crisp, efficient, waste-free thriller that keeps us riveted for a full ninety minutes. When a high school science teacher (Kim Basinger) is kidnapped for no apparent reason, she uses the remnants of a smashed phone to randomly dial numbers. She ends up on the line with Ryan, a young slacker who, it turns out, is a closet hero.
Directed by first-timer David R. Ellis, the movie crackles with energy and wit as it playfully — and sinisterly — addresses the things that annoy us most about our cell phones: patchy coverage areas, lousy battery life, and call waiting. Basinger is powerful as the terrified victim, and William H. Macy brings his usual charm to the role of a cop who takes an avid interest in the situation. But it’s Chris Evans, as Ryan, who makes the biggest impression. Move over, Tom Cruise, your replacement is ready for his close-up.