Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow has used the most modern of technology to create a futuristic past from past visions of the future. Certainly not the most straightforward of descriptions, owing mostly to the English language's insufficient number of verb tenses, but it's clearly what director/writer/computer animator Kerry Conran was aiming for. He's used some of the most impressive cgi ever put up on the screen-more solid than the countless plasticy aliens George Lucas insists on hoisting upon the public-to create an alternate version of 1939 that embodying the 1920s and 1930s visions of the future.
Sprawling cityscapes straight out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis take up the first half of the film, which are invaded by lanky robots straight out of early sci-fi comics and heroes from the covers of pulp novels. Fantasy touchstones from the Wizard of Oz to the Island of Doctor Moreau are dashed into the mix, further removing it from your typical sci-fi. What's created, then, is a world not wholly futuristic but not exactly of the past either. It's not entirely fantasy or science fiction as well.
The borrowing isn't limited to the scenery. Characters are ripped from other films, particularly the adventure serials that inspired Indiana Jones. The plot reads like an amalgamation of every '50s sci-fi movie ever filmed. Actually, that might be the best way of describing Sky Captain: it's the movie the 1950s would have produced if they were capable, if the technology and the budgets to really put their worlds up on the screen were available.
In spite of Sky Captain's impossibly numerous nods to other films, it doesn't come off dated nor derivative. An entire review could be spent on any one visual element, and still fail to do it justice. Yimou Zhang's Hero may be the prettiest film released in North America this year, and Conran doesn't have that director's flair for recognizing a good shot, but Sky Captain is easily the most visually shocking.
This is where most reviews would say none of that means anything if the acting doesn't hold up, but they'd be wrong. Sky Captain would be worth seeing on the basis of the visuals alone. Fortunately, most of the acting is solid, especially considering the working conditions. Since the entire film (including all the sets and most of the props) are entirely computer generated, actors walked around blue screens imagining the world around them. Sometimes characters fall awkwardly, tripping over pretend tree trunks, but they all play their characters like the B-movie stars who would have had these roles fifty years ago. Gwyneth Paltrow's fast talking reporter and Jude Law's arrogant pilot don't have a lot of depth, but they don't need to. Even the late Sir Laurence Olivier has a role, and easily holds his own against the other, less deceased actors.
There's no denying Sky Captain is pure pulp entertainment. But despite its almost entirely computer generated nature, it feels much more solid than most of this years popcorn entertainment. See this in theatres, home video won't do this one any justice.