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A GREAT many years ago, in a place far away, I spent a memorable afternoon in the company of both Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (and, as a special bonus, Tarzan) all embodied in the person of Larry "Buster" Crabbe, the 1932 Olympic swimming gold medalist who parlayed his fame into Hollywood casting coups as some of the most famous pop culture icons of the Depression era.
It was the early 1970s, during the tumultuous cusp of Vietnam and Watergate, and, for a draft-age kid, the 1930s frankly seemed a better place to live. Ever since the Cuban missile crisis I had been escaping into the controlled, stylized world of 1930s and '40s monster movies and pulp fiction, all set against the buildup and cataclysm of World War II, which, unlike Vietnam, radiated moral certitude.
Some part of my brain was really rather hopeful that Buster Crabbe would alight from his sky ship at Port Columbus airport, coruscating with art deco halos, and maybe even brandishing a zap gun. He still looked the part, and I don't think I've ever met another man of his age in such terrific physical shape. But Buster Crabbe had long before escaped the world of B-movies, diving back into the more down-to-Earth world of swimming pool contracting. He was visiting Ohio University to do an aquatic demonstration for an annual event called "Dads' Weekend," and I was covering the event for the school paper. We stopped for lunch at a coffee shop in Lancaster, Ohio, where I was disappointed to find that Crabbe wasn't particularly nostalgic or even all that knowledgeable about much of his own film work. I had hoped for some anecdotes about those tin-cans-with-tailfins that stood in for rocket ships in Flash Gordon, or maybe some exclusive backstage dish on Ming the Merciless, but in the end I was on top of far more trivia than he was. Also, to my political dismay, he was a staunch and vocal Reagan Republican. But since he was paying for lunch, I didn't push my side of the discussion too far.
The glow of nostalgia for the 1930s often seems to burn most brightly for those who didn't actually have to live through the decade. Though a celebrity, Buster Crabbe worked in low-budget films with terrible production values, and didn't have a lot of reason to look back. My own parents never understood my fascination with the Worst Years of Their Lives, much less the war that followed.
Which brings us to Kerry Conran's much-anticipated new film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Paramount), a movie totally consumed with late-Depression popular culture and the brink of war. Conran is a thirty-seven-year-old first-time filmmaker who grew up enamored with computers, comic books, and the golden age of pulp magazines and movie serials, and, through plucky persistence, managed to parlay a garage-grown computer-generated short into a seventy-million-dollar big-studio feature. The burgeoning legend of Kerry Conran appears to be superimposed over the ur-template of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who cooked up the very computer technology that made Sky Captain possible in their own garages, conquering at least a corner of the world in the process.
The central conceit of the film is a gee-whiz gimmick, namely the integration of a meticulously detailed, computer-generated world with live actors shot against blue screens on a soundstage, then laboriously composited into the finished frames.
In this alternate-universe 1939, there is no Hitler, though much fancifully displaced war buzz as a shadowy international supervillain named Totenkopf ("Death's-Head") plunders the world's resources with armies of flying, stomping robots the size of King Kong, emblazoned with Totenkopf's logo: a nifty machine-tooled, winged skull with rivets in the feathers. I haven't been to a toy store recently, but look forward to the inevitable appearance of mini-bot action figures of these Final Solution stand-ins.
Enter plucky and persistent newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has been pursuing the mystery of disappearing scientists, which leads her smack dab into the middle of Sixth Avenue, scampering amid the stomping robot feet to retrieve her camera (anachronistically undersized for newspaper use in the 1930s). She is improbably rescued by an old flame, ace fighter pilot Joe Sullivan, a.k.a. Sky Captain (Jude Law), though in this arbitrarily alternate world, it's not clear where he honed his skills. He's too young to have been a dogfighter in World War I, but there are sketchy hints of a previous international conflict where Polly's reportorial zeal landed Joe in a Manchurian prison camp. We also learn that Joe two-timed Polly with Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie), now the leather-clad, eye-patched commander of a British aircraft carrier in the clouds, with an all-female amphibious squadron at her loyal disposal. Ever since his problematic dalliances with Polly and Franky, Joe seems to have been spending most of his time hanging with a nerdy techno-wiz named Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi). But relax: any pesky homoerotic undercurrents are safely sublimated by the reliable tomboy/geek stereotypes.
At a screening of The Wizard of Oz at Radio City Music Hall, Polly learns from a scientist-on-the-run that the evil Totenkopf is hiding out in Shangri-La, and with Franky's help, she and Joe wing their way to an Oz-like Nepal (complete with the robotic equivalent of winged monkeys) where we learn that Totenkopf's ultimate plans for the fate of the Earth owe less to Flash Gordon than to When Worlds Collide.
Lest I appear even slightly unappreciative, let me say from the outset that Sky Captain is one of the biggest, juiciest pieces of eye candy likely to visit your cineplex this or any other year. The film opens with a jaw-dropping sequence of the Hindenburg III's wintry mooring at the spire of the Empire State Building, all as might be glimpsed through some rare and precious art deco snow-globe. The sequence is so ravishing that you don't wonder until later just how the passengers got from the dirigible to the building. The itsy-bitsy gangplank that opens at the blimp's bottom offers nothing except an eighty-six-story plunge to Thirty-fourth Street. But, no matter—the giant rock-'em-sock-'em robots are on their way, marching with the steely, big-shouldered deliberation of Joan Crawford down a Manhattan canyon, dreamily refracted through the architectural prism of Fritz Lang's Metropolis and the master-race delirium of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Many other film classics are lovingly referenced, including King Kong and Lost Horizon, with an occasional fast-forward whiff of Blade Runner. Conran's army of digital artists truly ransack the attic—they clearly have a micro-familiarity with everything from the Superman cartoons of Max Fleischer to the paintings of Maxfield Parrish to vintage pulp-magazine covers to the techno-nightmares of H. R. Giger, and they make the most of it. Or maybe too much of it.
As a director, Conran's strengths are definitely not in the realm of people skills. The complete isolation of actors from the overall mise-en-scène inevitably lends a zombie-ish quality to the acting. To merge the performers into the digital background, their edges are softened and the actors frequently look like gauzy images lifted from hand-colored lobby cards of old. Much of the softness and murk is artistically deliberate, but I suspect it also helps cover some of the shortcomings that still remain in seamlessly integrating live action with CGI. I saw the film at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, one of the biggest screens around, and couldn't avoid wondering if Sky Captain might look better on a high-end home screen than in a theater.
But the film's greatest weakness is its lackluster dialog, which should have matched the film's visuals in snappy stylization. There are all kinds of people in Hollywood who do this sort of pastiche writing very well, and they all should have been hired. Despite his prodigious visual flair, Conran displays a tin ear for late-1930s pop and pulp diction, which was every bit as rich as the period's visual style and deserving of the same calibrated attention. Nineteen-thirty-nine also marked the publication of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, and snappy period patter had already been polished to a high Hollywood gloss. Remember all those wisecracking reporters played by Lee Tracy and Wallace Ford? Or the priceless battle-of-the-sexes banter immortalized by Phillip Barry and Preston Sturges? Their ghosts are, sadly, badly absent here.
For quite some time now, technophiles have been hawking the idea that computers will soon be able to synthesize digital actors indistinguishable from the real thing. Sky Captain is the latest product of a long cultural delirium about the mechanical replacement of human life, and won't be the last. Now, however, there are signs that digital production may actually be taking a toll on real actors. Consider the Motion Picture Academy's recent snubbing of Andy Serkis for his computer-processed turn as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. One can only imagine what kinds of digital discrimination might face actors who engage in future hybrid productions. If Sky Captain is any indication, there's no need to worry about the demise of live performers, but every reason to expect actors to increasingly flatten their performances to accommodate the demands of the digital world. Even dead performers.
The digital "resurrection" of Sir Laurence Olivier as Totenkopf, a gimmick that received a huge publicity buildup, unfortunately crumbles in the execution. It's been reported that the estate of Boris Karloff was waiting in the wings as a backup had negotiations with the Olivier heirs come to naught. Karloff might have been a better bet.
With all the technical derring-do at Conran's disposal, why on Earth wasn't more care taken in the details surrounding Olivier's star turn from beyond the grave? The brief attempt at lip-synching is not good, and the editing nervously compensates by pushing in above the actor's mouth, clearly to minimize our scrutiny. Crackling, TV-style scan lines obscure details of Olivier's face, which we first see in animated form as a macrocephalic gargoyle obviously inspired by Frank Morgan's oversized false-face in The Wizard of Oz. Totenkopf's laboriously delayed appearance is also something of a cheat, with a final red-herring twist that only worsens matters.
Beyond the Olivier issues, the fact that a film set in New York City in 1939 using the words "The World of Tomorrow" in its title never once makes use of the 1939 World's Fair is something of an imaginative scandal. Just imagine Sky Captain hot-dogging his fighter plane against aerial robots and other menaces above and around the Trylon and Perisphere. Was Shangri-La even necessary? Happiness can usually be found in your own back yard, if you know where to look.
As for the real actors, Gwyneth Paltrow is an alumna of the Actor's Studio, and one can only imagine where she found her motivation performing against blue screens, often without other actors, much less scenery. At least the costumes are real, and Paltrow channels the combined fashion tics of Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, and Veronica Lake, strikes fetching poses and hopes bravely for the best. Jude Law has lost some of his boyishness of late, but he remains major star material, and better eye candy than Buster Crabbe ever was. Judging from Sky Captain, it's not a stretch to imagine him someday taking on the cinematic mantle of James Bond. Angelina Jolie was presumably cast because of her Lara Croft credentials, and ultimately generates much more screen presence than either of the other headliners. The success of her performance might have more to do with her previous experience in the two-dimensional world of fashion modeling, a realm ideally suited to the graphic-novel world of Sky Captain. Of the three leads, Jolie alone manages the right degree of B-movie swagger, and sports a pirate-style eyepatch for added panache.
The sketchiness of the main characters, their histories, and relationships may yet be remedied. Word has it that there's a prequel in the works, in which case we can look forward to a sexier backstory and the answers to some pressing questions. For instance, just who poked out Franky's eye? Boris Karloff's Fu Manchu, maybe? (Now there's an idea.)
If nothing else, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow makes it possible to enjoy shimmering art deco halos in an entertainment context. In this new age of real-world super-villains and morally dubious warfare, the only other place you're likely to experience them is in the course of a migraine.
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