Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, 2004)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

I loved Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow back when I first saw it years ago. Watching it again more recently, I still liked it but found it a bit too thin and goofy to rate, in my opinion, as one of the all-time great film adventures. Innocent and exuberant are surely what it was going for, but I have to admit, my attention drifted at times during the action sequences. The movie still looks great, but there's a lack of weight and consequence, which makes it hard to care about anything that happens. It's basically a children's movie, whimsical and devoid of cynicism. I'll probably watch it again someday in a different mood and come back around to embracing those very qualities.

This time, what I enjoyed more were the performances and the banter between the two main characters. Jude Law has never struck me as a viable action star. I find him too mild and dapper to root for with any vigor (perhaps why he's most prominently seen these days playing instead the straight man sidekick to a cartoon character in those awful Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies), but his coolness and charm work for the role of "Sky Captain" Joe Sullivan. He's a bit like Indiana Jones, but with more dignity and less irony.

Gwyneth Paltrow, despite being one of the great thespians of her generation, hasn't had very many major starring roles since winning her Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love (1998). These days, she's best known for playing the love interest to a cartoon character in the Iron Man movies, and, let's be honest, anybody (or even nobody) could play that role and it wouldn't greatly affect how those movies are received, either critically or commercially. Still, she's never one to phone in a performance. In Sky Captain too, as Polly Perkins, newshound and Joe's old flame, Paltrow's is rather a thankless supporting role—not to Jude Law but certainly to the special effects and retro-futurist aesthetic—but she manages to imbue the archetypal Katharine Hepburn-esque character with enough fun and magnetism to elevate her scenes, instead of merely serving them.

The two play well off one another and also off the overall silliness of the situations they find themselves in. In my favorite scene of the two, they are locked in what is basically a closet full of dynamite. As a lit fuse threatens to blow the cache and our heroes with it, Joe's only bright idea is to light another stick of dynamite and use it to blow the door first. In this tiny room, he grabs the unimpressed Polly to take cover behind a box, which, the characters and viewers realize at the same time, is also full of dynamite. "Oh great, we're safe," Polly dryly remarks.

Angelina Jolie, despite getting equal space on the poster (as well as dominating the Google image search results for "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"), has a much smaller part, though it's one of those efficiently badass "and" roles that, had a few things worked out differently for the film, probably would have stolen the show and been the popular favorite among fans. She plays the eye-patched Franky Cook, commander of a flying aircraft carrier, a character curiously similar to Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D., although Franky is probably more effective in Sky Captain than Fury has been in all of the Marvel movies so far. Had Sky Captain been an actual vintage serial like those it draws inspiration from, one can easily imagine that Franky would have gotten her own feature episodes.

In fact, watching the movie, I sometimes got the sense that Conran had a lot more material that he was either saving for a sequel, or else had taken out in order to keep things simple. At least, I kind of expected them to journey to more places and see more sights. Nothing that comes later in the movie manages to top, for me, the early image of a parade of giant robots on a march of destruction through the city.

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