Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (PG)

You couldn't make it up. But they did
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The Independent Culture

Could Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow be the most artificial digital blockbuster to date? More artificial than, say, The Lord of the Rings or the recent Star Wars episodes? It's only a matter of degree.

Could Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow be the most artificial digital blockbuster to date? More artificial than, say, The Lord of the Rings or the recent Star Wars episodes? It's only a matter of degree.

Like those films, Kerry Conran's retro-styled sci-fi epic features computer-generated sets and creatures; it simply takes the process further. Conran filmed his cast against blue screens, and digitally created an entire world around them. The fact that everything in Conran's film, bar the actors, is "drawn" from scratch makes it a remarkable achievement, and theoretically a fascinating one.

But it's ultimately a futile venture. For 10 minutes or so, Sky Captain is intriguing, uncanny, and quite beautiful; then it becomes soporific, at last barely watchable. The textures, in scrupulous imitation of 1930s grain, have a monotone haziness that can feel powerfully oppressive. This is digital illusion at its most spectacularly bloodless.

Yet this is not one of those blockbusters programmed by a cynical studio committee, but a labour of love by a hitherto-unknown movie obsessive, who single-handedly worked on his laptop for four years to make a six-minute sci-fi short. Kerry Conran's work has now expanded into a feature, with the aid of a nearly 100-strong team. It's as if a bout of solitary masturbation had been financed into a regimented mass orgy.

The story, set in a fantasy version of the 1930s, is a veritable junkyard of recycled sci-fi scraps. Gwyneth Paltrow is Polly Perkins, an intrepid New York reporter who sets out to investigate disappearing scientists and an invasion of giant robots. Together with her old flame, flying ace Joseph H Sullivan, or "Sky Captain" (Jude Law), she embarks on a journey from the bottom of the sea to Tibet's mythical Shangri-La, through the jungle and finally into space.

Conran's big idea is hardly original, though he explores it with obsessive thoroughness: a sci-fi world that's at once futuristic and archaic. Sky Captain yearns for a past when tomorrow really looked like tomorrow; hence a mix of Thirties settings and Star Wars sci-fi, of Howard Hawks newspaper offices and Dan Dare zap guns (the proper toy sort, with fins).

Hence too the idea of using today's most sophisticated imaging technology to emulate the cinema of yesteryear. The images are doused in sepia, infused with pale hues that variously evoke three-strip Technicolor and old-fashioned hand-tinting. The opening, in which the Hindenburg docks on top of the Empire State Building as snowflakes fall, has something of the retro-kitsch poetry of Canadian surrealist Guy Maddin. The single most elegant shot, of Paltrow typing while newspaper headlines fill the window behind her, reminded me of Lars von Trier's extravagant Orson Welles pastiche Europa.

But Maddin's and von Trier's effects were achieved the traditional way, with smoke and mirrors and celluloid. Because Conran relies entirely on the pixel, nothing in his film is surprising; everything, except the actors, is made from the same infinitely malleable materiel. The only surprise is that he goes to such extraordinary lengths. Why digitally recreate the art deco lobby of Radio City Music Hall when presumably he could actually have shot there for a fraction of the cost?

There's fun to be had from the in-jokes: Godzilla's shadow glimpsed in a Japanese newspaper photo, radio masts that radiate hoops of electricity, as in the old RKO symbol. Magpie fanboy Conran has collected a million references and pasted them down in his scrapbook: Flash Gordon, The Lost World, Metropolis, His Girl Friday, who knows what mouldering B-pics and forgotten Saturday matinees?

Weirdly, the humans look as unreal as their surroundings, their faces lit in soft chiaroscuro to flatten them into comic-strip figures. Don't expect rounded characters: Paltrow's Polly is slyly pert, with Veronica Lake's hairdo; square-jawed Law ("I'll be right there") is a Dick Tracy of the skies, or a cyber-Biggles, although his manner suggests more a good-natured Soho PR man. And Angelina Jolie, as a sort of female Captain Scarlet, models an eyepatch and an impenetrable cut-glass accent, muttering "Alert the amphibious squadron!" as if phonetically, like a robot from Roedean. All three are insipid, anaesthetised, like ghosts drifting through an abandoned theme park. (And the great mystery, given what they can do with CGI nowadays, is that they still can't make Paltrow's lips move.)

One contentious stroke on Conran's part is to appropriate the face and voice of the young Laurence Olivier as arch-villain Totenkopf (Law invariably makes it sound like "Cottontop"), a cross between Dr Mabuse, Colonel Kurtz and the Great Oz. The film's clever "reanimation" of Olivier is something of an own goal, reminding you that Law ain't no Larry (indeed, no David Niven, whom the Sky Captain role really calls for). Certain ethical questions come to mind, for example the status of the credit "With Laurence Olivier". What does that "With" imply? That he would have agreed to appear had he been alive?

But then, the whole film is an exercise in grave-robbing, so nostalgic that it's practically necrophilic. That's not the only chilling thing about it. Sky Captain may tell a thinly-disguised tale of Allies versus Fascists, in a parallel 1930s from which real-world politics have been erased. Yet the cold shiny perfectionism and monumentalism of the project (not to mention its unreconstructed period racism) make you wonder: is this what cinema would have been like if the Nazis had had CGI?