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Review: Striking 'Sky Captain' just flies

Visuals are amazing, but story elements flawed

By Paul Clinton

Sky Captain
Angelina Jolie, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow look over an airman's shoulder in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."
Jude Law
Gwyneth Paltrow

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- "Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow" is the first feature film to be shot entirely against a blue screen with backgrounds filled in later using computer imagery. Given recent technological advances, a film done like this was just a matter of time.

But the question remains: Is a film like "Sky Captain" just a gimmick, or the wave of the future?

Here's hoping it's a gimmick. Don't get me wrong -- "Sky Captain" looks great, but nothing beats real sets, locations and especially plot originality, even with a movie that's trying to emulate a comic book.

The talented actors give it everything they have. Jude Law, as the stoic and heroic Captain H. Joseph Sullivan -- aka Sky Captain -- is one of the best romantic leading men of his generation. Gwyneth Paltrow, everyone's favorite girl next door, is fine as the wisecracking "never say die" newspaper reporter Polly Perkins.

Angelina Jolie, as the exotic and mysterious, eyepatch-wearing Franky Cook, continues her reign as a leading femme fatale and Giovanni Ribisi actually tones down his quirky tics as loyal and earnest Sky Captain sidekick Dex Dearborn.

All were required to act in a vacuum, relying only on their imaginations and faith in this plot about -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- a desperate attempt to save the world from an evil madman.

Kicking in just in time

It's 1939, and somebody is plucking the world's scientists from the planet. As Perkins gets on the story, giant robots invade New York. Perkins seeks out an old flame, Sullivan, and they go in search of the root of all the trouble.

Visually speaking, "Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow" lives up to all the hype and even the superlative adjectives tossed around by the studio's public relations department. ("A trailblazing moment in cinematic history" is just one of the more understated examples.) It is class-A eye candy. The project, in the making for six years, is stunning in its use of digital effects, extreme close-ups, unusual point-of-view angles and brilliant dramatic lighting.

New York
The movie is full of startling visuals, including a dogfight through the streets of Manhattan.

But basic elements such as an engaging storyline, gum-snapping dialogue and energetic pacing -- all needed to make this type of pulp fiction really cook -- fail to come to a boil until the last half of the film.

It's only then that the final scenes in the movie, particularly those that come after Jolie's character joins the mix, are as exceptional and entertaining as the visuals. This last-minute turn of events may almost -- almost -- allow you to forget the boredom of the first hour, when the tedious, laborious set-ups seem to go on and on and on.

Mix of influences

First-time writer/director Kerry Conran is a brilliant new talent -- with major guidance from producer Jon Avnet -- and he knows his Hollywood history. A graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, he's obviously studied and been greatly influenced by the so-called "golden age" of Hollywood represented in "Sky Captain," by classic films ranging from "King Kong" (1933) and "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) to "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "Lost Horizon" (1937).

But black-and-white classics rich with light and shadow, such as Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927) and Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" (1935), are also obviously major touchstones for Conran's sense of visual style, and there are also more recent influences such as the Indiana Jones series, the "Jurassic Park" series, and even "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988).

Sky Captain
"Sky Captain" combines elements of 1930s style and science fiction.

(OK, other than the use of lots of digital effects, that last example may be a stretch, but for some unknown reason -- perhaps best left that way -- in the beginning of the film Paltrow kept reminding me of Jessica Rabbit, without the awesome cleavage.)

A lot of the dialogue is really hokey -- I'll give Conran the benefit of the doubt and assume that much of the dialogue was suppose to sound like it was appearing in balloons over the character's heads -- and the "save the world" concept is sooooo last century. Still, much of it works, sweeping you into an alternate universe that is cleverly still rooted in the highly stylized world of the 1930s.

Stella McCartney's costumes are stunning, and the production design by Kevin Conran -- brother of Kerry -- and editing by Sabrina Plisco are amazingly inventive, taking very old themes and giving them a startlingly fresh look.

Still, I'm reminded of an old Hollywood adage. If you give an audience a decent original opening hook and a great closing moment they'll forgive everything in between. "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" -- to a certain degree -- will test that theory.

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" opens nationwide on Friday and is rated PG.

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