New York City in the late nineteen-thirties and the airship Hindenburg III docks with the Empire State Building. On board is a professor with a package to be given to Dr Jennings, but he mysteriously disappears - yet another of the growing list of professors who are being kidnapped or worse. Reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is on the case, and receives word that someone wants to contact her about the predicament; her editor (Michael Gambon) asks her to be careful, but she's a headstrong woman and arrives at Radio City Music Hall to meet the mystery man. He turns out to be Jennings, and as he quickly tells her of his belief that he will be kidnapped next, an air raid siren is sounded outside. Polly just has time to learn the name of the man behind the conspiracy - Totenkopf - and then rushes into the street to see that the Big Apple is under attack...
When Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was first released, much was made of the style and method the striking visuals had taken to reach the screen. Although the actors were real, everything else to be seen didn't exist anywhere but on a computer and all generated electronically, which gave the production its distinctive, slick soft focus look. And what did they do with this powerful technology? They created an old time serial, referencing everything from The Wizard of Oz and Lost Horizon to Orson Welles' radio version of The War of the Worlds and Willis O'Brien special effects extravaganzas. The film is not so much a movie serial than a tribute to the radio serials of the thirties and forties - the live action films of the time would never match the scope of what is on show here (although fittingly the animation might have).
Written by its director, Kerry Conran, the hero of these adventures is the Sky Captain of the title, or Joe to his friends, the role filled by a dashing Jude Law. It is he who the authorities call on when New York City comes under fire from a battalion of huge, flying robots which land and march down the streets in the search for generators (or something). It appears rather foolish just to send one man to fight the enemy, but Sky Captain does a fair job of polishing off the mechanical menaces, and saves Polly into the bargain. He and Polly go back a while, but fell out when he came to believe she had sabotaged his plane, leading him to spend six months in a foreign prison, but this new threat will find them setting aside their differences to team up once more. Now they must track down Dr Jennings.
Visually, the film shows a lot of thought and work has gone into the creation of its pretty pictures. Sky Captain's base, of which he is commander, is attacked too, and the elegantly flying robots and swooping camerawork (if you can call it camerawork) are just as spectacular as the earlier battle for NYC. It doesn't stop to rest on its laurels, and piles wonder upon marvel as the good Captain travels far afield to Nepal where the shadowy Totenkopf has a hideaway, back up in the air to a flying sky base (you feel Gerry Anderson would approve of the gadgets and vehicles on display) and finally to a tropical island which is inhabited by dinosaurs. All the while, the duo are bickering in a "but they love each other really" manner, and an apparently indestructible, black clad woman hounds them at every turn.
Which is all fair enough, but the film has a sense of existing in a vacuum, glamorous as it all is. Law never makes his character come alive, and the other actors get lost in the meticulously defined landscapes. Only Paltrow creates a spark of personality as the feisty Polly, bringing a slightly jaded humour to the enterprise; Angelina Jolie, as the eye patch sporting, skybase commander Franky, promises to be amusingly arch but is barely around for ten minutes. You know a film is in trouble when the cast start being upstaged by their scenery, and while they try to conjure up the cosy nostalgia of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark it actually emerges as cool-headed and distant. That's not to say Sky Captain is not exciting or enjoyable, because it is up to a point, it's just that it leaves an impression of being as mechanical as its lovingly rendered hardware. Music by Ed Shearmur.