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Population Zero


Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Kerry Conran, USA, 2004

Rating: 2.7



Posted: September 19, 2004

By Laurence Station

Where are the teeming masses? Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow opens in New York City. The year is 1939, and we see the Hindenburg III docking atop the Empire State Building. What we don’t see, however, are the millions of inhabitants occupying one of the most populous cities in the world. Apparently, the world of tomorrow has a very low population density. Instead, the first-time director's sights are narrowly focused on establishing a retro-futuristic setting: robots and machines straight out of a Max Fleischer cartoon, all sleek lines and cyclopic death-ray beams, and, of course, dirigibles and hovering air strips. Conran also favors analog gadgets, mad scientists and clearly delineated moral compasses.

But as New York's puzzling lack of residents makes clear, there’s simply not enough humanity in this computer-generated ode to old-time adventure serials. Every living, breathing, carbon-based life form on display has a specific, plot-driven purpose that, once completed, renders it obsolete for the rest of the film. And it’s that lack of people, or messy, unpredictable human behavior, that is a major reason for Sky Captain’s lack of vitality. Everything has a canned, static quality. Even the melding of CGI-effects and human reaction misfires at times, as when Gwyneth Paltrow’s ambitious news reporter Polly Perkins falls “on cue,” with large robot feet crashing down around her.

Conran doesn’t so much fashion a fantastic alternate reality as he plays back an action-oriented computer game as filtered through his mind’s eye. The plot moves through levels conquered by conveniently left behind documents and torn sections of maps -- passkeys for his avatars to continue their quest. And much like a linear computer game, once a level has been conquered, there’s no going back, because there’s no “there” to go back to. We rush from New York to Sky Captain’s nearby base/science laboratory, to snowy Tibet, a high-altitude sequence, an aquatic milieu and finally a climatic showdown at the villain's highly mechanized lair. These environments, while beautifully rendered in a soft focus, feel disconnected from a larger whole.

The plot, for its part, is stock Saturday morning cliffhanger, of the kind that was popular in the era in which the film takes place. Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Jude Law) is a flying ace who reluctantly joins forces with old flame Polly to prevent an evil scientist named Dr. Totenkopf from -- what else? -- destroying the world. He swoops around in a versatile (and apparently self-repairing) P-40 Warhawk, souped-up with underwater functionality by his buddy Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi). An eyepatch-wearing Angelina Jolie joins in the fun as amphibious squadron leader ally Franky Cook, and Bai Ling serves as Totenkopf’s mysterious, robot army-leading henchwoman.

All of the elements for a carefree, entertaining romp would seem to be in place, but Sky Captain is hamstrung, ironically, by its slick, retro-looking technology. Everything’s too clean. There are no dents or scuffmarks, none of the tactile grittiness that three-dimensional objects in the real world exhibit. It’s obvious that a computer calculated the precise mathematical formulas that display the spiffy-looking robots and nifty ray guns, and such obvious artificiality severely dampens Sky Captain’s ability to offer a fully immersive, engaging tale.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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