Ordinarily, fantasy movies demand at least a couple of paragraphs to convey their gist, but Sky Captain, while random as all get-out, makes no overtures toward complexity. In eleven words: Buncha crazy machines attack everything, and Jude Law saves the day. That's pretty much it, apart from the astonishing artificial set pieces, yet the project's sheer gonzo aesthetics somehow hold it all together.
Replete with shameless visual lifts from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, assorted anime, the Indiana Jones series, the Myst video games, and probably even Peter Jackson's King Kong remake (presumptuous, since it has barely even started production -- but just look), Sky Captain seeks to rule with pixel power, and it does. From its opening sequence involving the fictional Hindenburg III dirigible docking amid snow flurries atop the Empire State Building, through sorties of mechanical baddies, to a fantastic visit to Rivendell -- er, Shangri-La -- the movie will jazz up your eyeballs. Even the elegant costumes of the two leads, designed by Paul's daughter Stella McCartney, transport the viewer to another world. (When the DVD comes out, you can cut the volume -- including the wannabe Indiana Jones score and a drippy cover of "Over the Rainbow" -- and put your Tangerine Dream or Portishead discs to good use.)
The plot, meanwhile, is employed essentially as an adhesive to stick together all the visual wonders. When giant robots stomp the bejeezus out of downtown Gotham City yet somehow manage to miss pesky photojournalist Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Law) is summoned. He swoops around in his P-40 Warhawk fighter plane; then the two reason that the robot invasion -- much like the mysterious disappearances of the world's top scientists -- is probably due to some sort of diabolical scheme. Polly cajoles her crusty editor (Michael Gambon) to let her cover the story, then she and Joe fight to discover whether there's a future for their romance -- or, indeed, a future at all.
Until about a third of the way in, Sky Captain feels as striking and chilly as New York in wintertime, but then it warms up and starts to groove. Giovanni Ribisi shows up as the heroes' helpful, nerdy technician, and Bai Ling sort of reprises her villainess role from The Crow, leaping around in goggles and black leather to kick Law's ass every so often. Before long, we're zooming through the sky and the sea with Angelina Jolie in highly fetishized military drag -- someone please award this woman an honorary penis, already. And then there's Olivier's haunting cameo, assembled from archive footage and strangely linked to The Wizard of Oz. Once you get into the swing of expecting more weirdness, the movie will reward you.
Newcomer Kerry Conran is the driving force here. He's a kid from Flint, Michigan, who moved to California, started mucking about with his Mac a decade ago, and eventually churned out a six-minute spectacular called "The World of Tomorrow" (not coincidentally, that was also the theme of the 1939 New York World's Fair). The short clearly impressed the bigwigs. While some may slam the young writer-director's vision as more genre remix than original endeavor, the affection with which Conran paints with light, and especially shadow, proves endearing.
Engaging our empathy is another story. Since Law merely mugs his way through and Paltrow coasts along on "brassy," and they performed the whole movie on a blue-screen set, an unfortunate detachment develops. Our attention is turned to the spectacle itself, which is emotionally gratifying when one imagines how the world might have developed before World War II, but doesn't quite jell on a human level. If Conran makes a sequel -- which would be a fine idea -- he may be advised to show off a little less and open up his characters a little more. This movie is a rare victory of style over substance, but an artist will never go wrong by adding more heart, no matter how many bazillions of pixels are at his beck and call.