- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

Let’s talk pipe dreams. Let’s say you’re a Flint, Mich.-born computer geek in your 30s — we’ll call you Kerry Conran — and you’ve been to film school but have chosen to scrounge jobs as a freelance techie.

You’re into superhero movies, film noir, anti-nuke allegories such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” old monster flicks and cheesy serials such as “Flash Gordon.” You have this crazy vision of a zeppelin filled with men in fedoras docking at the tippity-top of the Empire State Building — an image you’ve hatched from watching “King Kong.”

Eventually, a major Hollywood studio ends up forking over $70 million for you to expand your vision into an animated theatrical feature and gives you complete creative control of a late-summer blockbuster — let’s call it “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” — starring human hotties Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie.

Just for yuks, let’s raise Laurence Olivier from the dead and feed archival footage of him into a computer and render him as a “Wizard of Oz”-like mad scientist. Oh, and you can bring along your brother, Kevin, too. We’ll let him supervise the production design of this hypothetical late-summer blockbuster, which, by the way, has a dynamite superheroic score.

Kerry Conran, this is your life.

The only thing missing is the blockbuster box-office receipts — but in three days, we’ll know if that, too, becomes a reality.

Let’s face it, “Sky Captain” isn’t an easy sell. It’s got big stars, but this movie’s natural audience … OK, who is this movie’s natural audience? Men like their Indiana Joneses, but will they dig Mr. Law as a pretty Brit flyboy with perfect hair and a slight lisp? And will women dig these computer-generated retro-futuristic tableaux?

We’ve got young comic-book nerds, but our heroes — Mr. Law’s Joe Sullivan, head of an army of truth-and-justice mercenaries who flies a World War II-era P-40 Warhawk with a shark-mouth nose, and Miss Paltrow’s Polly Perkins, a golden-haired damsel and danger-seeking Gotham metro reporter — are brand-new creations. They’re not Spidey, X-Men or Daredevils or Punishers. They’re unknown commodities, and neither Mr. Law nor Miss Paltrow plays them with much zeal.

From the start of “Sky Captain,” as a brigade of mechanical monsters of unknown origins overruns Manhattan, the movie is hard to engage. The scale is vertiginous: It’s all giants and miniatures. The tones are dank gray-green, and it’s not until the action heads east — to Nepal and Shangri-La and undiscovered Pacific islands — that the fullness of Mr. Conran’s vision comes to light.

The story is this: A gaggle of oldster scientists who’d been connected to a top-secret project in World War I-era Berlin — those Germans again — have gone missing. A source of Polly’s tells us that one Dr. Totenkopf (the posthumous Mr. Olivier) is behind the disappearances.

Turns out the stakes are apocalyptic. Flyboy Joe’s gum-snapping right-hand man, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) delivers the news — the whole Earth could be incinerated if Totenkopf succeeds with his long-running scheme. (Without going into detail, let’s just say the scheme is a hybrid of Noah, Thomas More and Stanley Kubrick.)

By now, Mr. Conran is treating us to a shoot-‘em-up that borrows equally from “Midway,” “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park” and “The Matrix.” Miss Jolie joins the action as the androgynously named Franky Cook, a flinty flygirl with a black eye patch who captains one of what could be Mr. Conran’s finest creations — mammoth aircraft-carrier-like fortresses that float in the clouds on rotary engines.

I’m fully enjoying the ride at this point, but here’s what I couldn’t figure out: I couldn’t decide whether “Sky Captain” is a great movie or just an amalgam of 15 other great movies.

It could be that Kerry Conran is our next great moviemaker. Or it could be that he’s just a clever movie watcher with one big idea and an unreproducible run of good luck.

Anyone care to fork over another $70 million so we can find out?

***

TITLE: “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”

RATING: PG (Stylized sci-fi violence, brief profanity, sensuality)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Kerry Conran. Produced by John Avnet, Sadie Frost, Jude Law and Marsha Oglesby. Cinematography by Eric Adkins. Production design by Kevin Conran. Score by Ed Shearmur.

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.skycaptain.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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