Dashing pilot Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) and intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) investigate the disappearance of a group of top scientists and the invasion of enormous robots in this magnificently imaginative tribute to the adventure films of the 1930’s. Solving the puzzle — and saving the world — takes them from Manhattan to Tibet, from an aircraft landing strip that floats above the clouds to a dynamite-packed abandoned mine and the depths of the ocean. And every bit of it except for the actors, costumes, and a few props, is made from nothing but imagination and pixels.
The story is an unabashed and un-ironic tribute to the days of cliff-hanger adventure serials. There are plenty of thrills and some so-so antagonistic-lover banter that gets a boots from its rat-tat-tat delivery, with the snap of a stick of Wrigley’s gum, briskly chewed. And there’s a lollapalooza of a last line, one of the choicest ever.
No matter how exciting, I’m not sure that any movie could eclipse the story behind this one, almost a fairy tale in its own right. Writer/director Kerry Conran spent ten years creating this film on his computer. The actors stood before a green screen and every set, building, car, airplane, robot, street, abandoned mine, even the ocean, even every snowflake and raindrop, were all straight from computer to screen.
So, it is not always easy to step back from amazement and admiration for the technology of the film to just enjoy the story. One reason is the imbalance — the script is only good, but the visuals are spectacular.
Conran does more than create arresting pictures. He creates a world with consistent (and very dramatic) light sources and a sense of three-dimensional believability that makes the floating airstrip and underwater airplane as real as Radio City Music Hall. The scenes are so superbly imaginative they get distracting. There is so much richness of detail that they feel half-remembered, even when re-creating the New York City of the 1930’s with Godzilla-sized Art Deco monster robots stomping down 6th Avenue or an airplane that turns into a submarine. I was especially taken by another set of robots with arms like spaghetti and by an elephant small enough to hold in a hand. The overall look of the movie is a little soft and glowing, not quite sepia-toned, but the explosions are sharp and bright.
Paltrow and Law are fine, as are Giovanni Ribisi as Law’s mechanical whiz buddy who gets kidnapped by the robots and Angelina Jolie with an eye-patch as the endlessly sporty Commander Franky. They all spent weeks in an empty room being told to move precisely two feet to the right and then look amazed or resolute, difficult enough. But then they also had to find a way to pay tribute to the 30’s films with their performances without seeming arch or winking at the audience.
Still, it might have made more sense to go all the way and computer-generate the actors, too. After all, Shrek, Donkey, and Fiona gave remarkably expressive and vivid performances that could only be described as acting, even if the voice and animation talent have to share the credit. Conran hints at the possibility of an all-computerized movie by using one long-departed actor whose “performance” was created by using old footage in a new context. Maybe Shangri-La for director/screenwriters is not having to deal with actors at all.
Parents should know that the movie has a good deal of intense peril and violence including gunplay and explosions. There are some grisly images (skeletons, dead body) and some scary-looking robots. There is brief crude humor including non-sexual nudity (nothing shown). A strength of the movie is its very able and courageous female characters but some viewers may be uncomfortable with the portrayal of a character who appears to be based on “dragon lady” stereotypes in films and comic strips of that era.
Families who see this movie should talk about what they would photograph if they only had two shots left. Why? Why would Conran have The Wizard of Oz playing when Polly was at the theater? Why that particular scene? If you could design an entire movie, when and where would it take place and what would it look like? Conran’s reported next film will take place on Mars!
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Raiders of the Lost Ark and the other Indiana Jones movies, Rocketeer, and the classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still, one of Conran’s inspirations. The special effects look endearingly amateurish by today’s standards, but the story is still powerful. Older children and adults who enjoy the stylized design of this movie will also appreciate Metropolis and Things to Come. You can read the poem Joe quotes here and learn something about navigating by the stars here.