Of course it is ironic that the film which may point the way to the future of cinema is entirely retro in style and content. The film opens with a dirigible (the "Hindenberg III") docking at the mooring mast atop the Empire State Building: the heroic sillouetted poses of the mooring rope handlers make it unquestionable that this scene is an homage to "Metropolis". Intrigue begins immediately as Dr. Vargas (Julian Curry, familar to fans of "Rumpole of the Bailey" as Claude Erskine-Brown) avoids pursuit by having two mysterious vials messengered to another scientist before debarking. Newspapers then inform us that Vargas has joined the ranks of other missing scientists. Intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is on the case and making progress when New York City is assaulted by giant robots intent on plundering dynamos from a generating station. The city calls for help from "Sky Captain," the code name used by Jude Law's character, who leads a freelance mercenary airforce, and who also has significant history with Polly.
Of course the missing scientists are related to the robot menace and the two have to resume a rocky working relationship that makes up most of the film. The movie's third star, Angelina Jolie as the commander of a British Navy flying aircraft carrier (!), only shows up in the last third of the movie for a comparatively brief role.
OK, the plot is just for fun. For a forties movie serial it would be intelligent and well written, and certainly the dialog is crackling and witty. Nevertheless, there are plot holes large enough to drive a dirigible through. The good part is that you really don't notice them until after it's over. Much of the time you are entranced by the artistry of the production design, notably the understated but stylish use of color. The film starts off in barely colorized black and white, shades through sepia tones, then to a hand-tinted looking phase, and finally to a Technicolor finale. The way in which the live actors are seamlessly blended into the backgrounding is one of the film's best accomplishments, although so subtle few might really take note of it.
A large part of the fun is the way in which the designers shamelessly steal "good parts" from the fantastic future of the past either as design elements or outright references. Freedom-fighting mercenary airmen (taken from the "Blackhawk" comic book that originated in the 40's)are a cool idea in the twelve-year old context, and the P-40 Warhawk with the shark-mouth nose paint the coolest looking aircraft, even though in reality it was a mediocre fighter. Of course, Sky Captain's has been juiced up with gadgets by Dex ( ), Sky Captain's inventive engineer, including harpoon launchers and the ability to run submerged, another old pulp fiction feature.
Law is stalwart and competent as Joseph Sullivan, a.k.a. Sky Captain, and bickers well with Paltrow's stubborn reporter. Paltrow pretty much steals the show, in my opinion. Her character is tough, strong-willed, competent, crafty, and shows a good hand with camera, monkey wrench, or right cross. In the path of an army of marching robots, she has the sense to run between the oblivious machines rather than away, and only when she is felled by a piece of falling debris does she need a rescue. Of course, the character has some period-feminine quirks, such as her refusal to completely surrender her high heels, which becomes somewhat of a running gag. (I DO wish that Paltrow would take note of how charming she looks wearing a substantial coffiure and constructed clothes, as opposed to the cropped hair and too-large slip dresses she affects in civilian life, which just make her look like a plucked chicken!) Jolie and the other actors are pretty much cameos, with the exception of Giovanni Ribisi who nails the 40's/50's sci-fi sidekick role of Dex Dearborn spot on.
The most chilling piece of casting is the integration of footage of the late Sir Laurence Olivier as Totenkopf. One wonders why, since any number of living actors could have fit the bill. It may be partly another movie-maker's joke (although rather a macabre one, for reasons I won't give away), but it may be pointing to the living actors that their craft may soon go the same way as that of the set builders that did not work on this movie--. You, too, can be digitized.
Recommended for the young, the young at heart, and the terminally fannish.