Monday, July 2, 2012

Sky Captain and the Soaring World of CGI

Back in 2004 a new movie was previewed that had the look of a mesh between film noir, old-time sci-fi movies, and comic books. That movie was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and I was jonesing to see it as I thought that combination of elements seemed awesome. Well, as frequently happens, I don't get around to the things I want to until much later than hoped for and anticipated. It was finally last weekend (yes, in 2012!) that I got around to watching Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. And, sadly, it did not live up to my expectations.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow takes place in an alternate reality 1930s New York. Intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) is following up on a story about missing scientists when a group of gigantic robots invades the city, creating havoc. Polly decides to seek help from her daredevil ex-lover Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), also known as "Sky Captain" due to his line of work as a mercenary pilot. The two go a quest to find Dr. Totenkopf, a shadowy figure they know little about but suspect is behind both mysterious events. Along the way, they meet many adventures and call upon the help (and are called upon for help) of friends both new and old, including Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie) -- another ex-lover of Joe's and source of contention between Polly and Joe.

There are so many things wrong with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow that I'm not even sure where to begin. The characters lack real three-dimensionality and their back stories are weak. For instance, how and why did Joe become a pilot for hire? What kind of previous escapades had he participated in? What made him famous enough to be called upon in a pinch? How did he derive the nickname "Sky Captain"? When and how did he first meet and become involved with Polly? And so on. The movie does try somewhat in this respect, as there are numerous hints dropped about Joe and Polly's past (and Joe and Franky's past, to a lesser extent) but these are never fleshed out satisfactorily. Good characters are the most crucial part of most (if not all) movies, in my opinion, and I felt like the wonderful cast of actors assembled here was wasted by these one-dimensional characters. Polly felt like a combination of tropes - the stereotypical "girl Friday" meets Lois Lane - while Joe was any generic action film hero. Furthermore, the dialogue between these characters came across as very scripted and nothing memorable comes to mind. That is, except for the final line, which stands out because it is just plain ridiculous.

The plot is thin at best, and the ending (no spoilers) is cliched and anti-climatic. Rather than flesh out characters or plot, the nearly two-hour long movie is instead an almost non-stop action sequence. (I saw Lucasfilm scroll up during the credits, so now you are forewarned about what kind of movie this will be.) And this is not just any action -- it's almost entirely computer-generated action. Worse still, it's not even computer-generated images at its best or even mediocre as it's an absurdly unrealistic style of animation. The ridiculous robots add to the campy feel of the movie, along with the not-so-funny attempts at humor. The sepia color palette adds to the stylized look, but it is too dark a visual to sustain for nearly two hours.

Stylistic is definitely the adjective of choice for this movie. While sometimes this is novel or interesting, it does not make up for the lack of plot or interesting characters and relationships between them. As the USA Today review of the movie put it: "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is all style over substance, a clever parlor trick but a dull movie." While the retro feel and the unique look of the movie is appealing for about 15 minutes or so, this appeal quickly wears off and the viewer is left debating whether or not to even bother continuing to watch the movie through to its end. (It's worth noting that I did keep continuing in the movie's favor with this debate, all the way to the grand finale, and was then regretting that I hadn't turned it off early on.) Another reviewer puts it this way:  "Imagine you are in Starbucks and you are ordering a cappuccino, but your server puts the milk in and froths it up and serves it to you, forgetting entirely to put in any coffee. It couldn't be called a 'cappuccino', but it certainly could be called SKY CAPTAIN."

On the plus side, Paltrow and Law valiantly do their best at their roles. (Jolie's role in the movie is so brief as to render me unable to really comment on her acting.) In the hands of lesser actors, this could have been a far worse movie. As I mentioned earlier, the visual style of the movie can be appealing at times and does seem to capture a lot of the 1930s nostalgia, particularly as embodied in the look of Paltrow's character. (This still does not make up for lack of plot though!) An interesting use of technology in this movie is the cameo appearance of Laurence Olivier. Yes, THE Laurence Olivier who was already long-deceased when this movie was produced. With the use of computer programming, the movie was able to generate a brief speech from Olivier based on video and audio available from his heyday. Now that's putting CGI to a good use!

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