09 April, 2006

Captain Joe and the Wood of Tomorrow

Some years ago, I was a film reviewer. I had friends who were in a position to commission me and I managed to see hundreds of films while being paid for the privilege. But now those friends have moved onto other jobs and I haven't been paid to see a film in about four years. Hence why today I'm putting my monster-making self-analysis to one side to review a film I didn't get the chance to see at the time of release.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a homage to the chapter plays of the 1930s. Set in a world where art deco just got bigger and bigger, and where the technology of the future arrived early, it's populated by some of the most beautiful machinery since Metropolis. Being a moving comic book, it boasts some jaw-dropping visuals - a 1930s New York filmed in chiaroscuro, with light and shade being used to paint in the details. Armies of robots straight out of Ted Hughes' Iron Man battle against pre-WWII fighter planes, with nods to War of the Worlds (the sound of the robots' lasers) and King Kong (a trip to a mossy Lost World).

Every set is created in a computer; like the Star Wars prequels, this is a world of green screen and pixel precision. For a film as artificial as this, it really needed its actors to rise to the challenge and milk it for every drop of archness they could manage. Sadly, by playing it 'realistically', Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law are splinteringly wooden. There's some kind of backstory here about which of them betrayed the other first and who was responsible for the breakup of their relationship some years previously, but it's hard to care when the metallic monsters that pop up every ten minutes manage to emote more convincingly than the humans. With scenery this chewable, you're just begging for someone to take a huge bite - so thank God for Angelina Jolie. When she turns up wearing an eyepatch, a figure-hugging body-suit and a cut-glass English accent, you're almost punching the seats with relief. Finally someone who knows the right level of camp to pitch to. As a consequence, Jolie manages to steal the entire film in a sequence that lasts less than 15 minutes but is the absolute high-point of the movie.

There's one curious thing about the film though. Early on, there's a clip from The Wizard of Oz, which doesn't seem to have any relevance until later on, when the villain of the piece appears via a hologram to explain some of the plot. As we waited for an old man to pop up form behind a curtain, we suddenly realised that the villain was played by a remarkably young Laurence Olivier (courtesy of some grave-robbing CGI), though it's not really clear why. To fudge the intertextuality here, once the hologram disappears, Jude Law's character asks 'is it safe?', referencing Olivier's often-quoted line from Marathon Man for no reason at all.

It looks stunning, but I didn't really make any connection to the two-dimensional characters. By the close of the movie, I was glad that (thanks to my flatmate paying for the rental), I got to see this particular film for free. Pretty to look at, but just a little soulless.

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