Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

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I wish I were 70 years old, so I could say that “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” reminds me of the many Saturdays of my youth that I spent down at the cinema, paying a nickel to watch Dick Tracy movies all day, and how afterward I’d stop at the drug store for a strawberry phosphate and some horehound candy. But alas, I’m too young for that, and “Sky Captain” only reminds me of what I imagine it must have been like.

This is probably the best throwback to the cliffhanger serials of yesteryear since “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It’s a grand, old-fashioned adventure that meticulously follows the plot structures and characters from those old films — which most of us only know by their reputation and imitators, not having seen the actual movies — and truly pays homage to them. This is not a parody. This is the real article, using modern technology to make it look like very little modern technology was used.

The writer/director, Kerry Conran, shot the film entirely on a green screen. That is to say, only the principal actors are real. Everything else was created digitally, with the actors inserted into it later.

The reason for this was so the images would be easier to manipulate. With all the computer wizardry applied, the backgrounds have blurry edges, the foregrounds have a dewy quality about them, the color looks artificial — it looks very much like a film from the 1940s, in other words, and has plots and dialogue to match. The streets of New York look like the streets of Metropolis from Max Fleischer’s “Superman” cartoons — and then giant robots attack, just like they did in one of those very cartoons.

And that’s not the only film reference. “Wizard of Oz” parallels are obvious, as are connections to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (no relation to Superman’s hometown) and various others. Mostly, though, it’s the style that is duplicated, and it is done with glee, ingenuity and wit.

It’s 1939, and the world’s eminent scientists are being kidnapped one by one, and newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) has a lead on who might be next. Meanwhile, giant robots invade New York and other major cities to suck up their energy supplies. Only one person to call in a situation like this: Sky Captain.

Sky Captain is Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), a dashing pilot and adventurer and leader of the for-hire army that world governments call upon when there’s trouble. His crew, assisted by Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi), has seen these robots before, but has never been able to determine their source. After Dex is abducted, it’s up to Joe and Polly — who have a tumultuous history, of course, and who currently engage in much verbal combat — to rescue him, find the scientists, and stop whichever nefarious party is behind all this.

Jude Law makes a good enough adventurer, though he’s no Harrison Ford, who always seemed to be having fun even when all around him was chaos, while Law takes everything so seriously. Better is Gwyneth Paltrow, whose simple beauty makes her a perfect fit for the role of Golden Age screen idol. And better still is Angelina Jolie as Franky Cook, a one-eyed ship commander who helps Joe and Polly late in the game, and who has a history with Joe, too. Jolie’s enthusiasm and all-out commitment is infectious; it’s rare to see her enjoying herself this much.

Conran keeps things moving pretty fast, and he very nearly makes the style work for the entire film. But there are a few points where the action slows down and the novelty of it wears off and you stop smiling for a few minutes and you think, “Wait, there’s really nothing to this, is there?”

And there really isn’t. But when all of the movie’s elements are working together — the familiar characters, the goofy-but-interesting story, and the eye-catching special effects — it’s a magical, wonderfully entertaining ride.

B+ (1 hr., 44 min.; PG, some mild vulgarity, a few hells and damns.)

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