Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
DVD: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

A Zeppelin moors itself to the top of the Empire State Building in the opening scene of this retro sci-fi yarn. To complain that, historically, the spire was never so used would be a little grumpy, since even most contemporary junior high history students will (I hope) also know that Manhattan was not invaded by squads of towering monster robots in the 1930s.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is the progeny of a Flint, Mich., computer geek named Kerry Conran, midwifed into existence by producer Jon Avnet after he saw Conran's six-minute short The World of Tomorrow.

Although Conran's debut feature employs live actors—Jude Law as the dashing hero of the title; Gwyneth Paltrow as the fearless news reporter Polly Perkins; Angelina Jolie as intrepid aviatrix Franky Cook—shot against blue screens and then digitally reconstituted, it employs no sets, indeed no other three-dimensional objects at all apart from the costumes, scarps of scenery and a few hand props.

Everything else in the film is executed through some digital animation process by which Conran reproduced the deco-romantic, retro-futuristic look familiar from science-fiction and adventure illustration of the '30s. It's a wall-to-wall exercise in stylization.

Just about every image in the film, from the zeppelin to the robots to a flying aircraft carrier to a shipwreck graveyard to Angelina Jolie in an eyepatch, is ravishing.

If, like me, you regard fanciful pulp-cover painting as one of the glories of 20th-Century American art, you'll probably enjoy watching Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

What you won't feel, probably, is truly compelled by the situations or captivated or the characters. It will make you gape with wonder, but once that wonder wears off, it's not likely to make you laugh or cry, or push you to the edge of your seat.

Sky Captain is unmistakably a labor of love, but the object of that love isn't storytelling. The plot is a jumble of standard motifs from old pulp fiction and movies. Those robots, it turns out, are in town to steal power from the city's generators, and this is somehow connected to a mad genius called Dr. Totenkopf. It's up to Sky Captain and his ex-girlfriend Polly, with help from Franky and Cap's genius sidekick Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), to figure out what Totenkopf is up to, and this quest takes them from New York to Nepal to Shangri-La to a mysterious lost island very similar to King Kong's home.

Sky Captain will no doubt be compared to the movie serials of the time, but movie serials were about narrative—even if it was the fairly rudimentary narrative of fights and chases—while the heart of Conran's film is pictorial.

As was so often the case in the pulp magazines, the pictures are stunning, and the story and characters they draw you into are, by comparison, utterly routine.

There was also a limit to my enthusiasm for watching digital recreations of real human beings. Striking as the effect is initially, the painting-come-to-life look of the people eventually becomes alienating—it would be great for, say, a 60-second Super Bowl commercial, but it's too lacking in human pungency to hold up at feature length, especially without witty dialogue.

I’m no Luddite, and I applaud Conran for his visual taste and technical ingenuity. But if this is truly cinema's world of tomorrow, then I'll stick to yesterday.

The DVD—That said, the film is worth seeing, and the DVD has some pretty good extras: a couple of documentaries showing how this technical marvel was pulled off, commentaries by Conran, and Avnet and members of the effects crew, a pair of pretty cool deleted scenes and a gag reel.

The best of the extras, though, is The World of Tomorrow, Conran’s original, black-and-white short film which, for my money, packs most of the elegance and charm of the feature into six swift and beautiful minutes.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is rated PG for “stylized sci-fi violence and brief mild language.” In most homes, it would probably be considered family entertainment.