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Grand Illusion

Computers recreate the precomputer sci-fi of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."


"Sky Captain" has much the same rhythm. Its frames appear like quickly changing slides. They're studiously composed, with deep focus, strong shadows and bold geometric patterns recalling such early masters as Eisenstein and Hitchcock. This idealized world is more Mac than PC. Science isn't just mind-boggling, it's stylish.

As in the recent "Star Wars" prequels, most of "Sky Captain" was not shot, in the traditional sense, but fabricated with computers. Actors, performing in front of a blue screen, were inserted into their environments and are almost an afterthought.

Gwyneth Paltrow is our first live encounter. After New York is overrun by giant robots, she marches into the scene as Polly Perkins, a spunky reporter on the case of some missing scientists. Jude Law flies in to save the day as Sky Captain, America's go-to guy when anything over six feet tall threatens. The two are old friends, or maybe more, and they work to find out who's behind the mischief. You know the drill: Villain wants to take over world; hero steps in to save humanity.

The movie's strength lies in its assiduous re-creation of this earnest age of ingenuity and invention. The common people shuffling along the streets keep time to their watches without worrying over how they work. And no one battling motorized birds overhead stops to ponder the science behind a space gun or how Law's single-engine prop plane can dive underwater without exploding. Things work because bespectacled men in white lab coats made them work, and that's that.

Similarly, if you want to accept this world of art-deco robots and flying fortresses, you should turn off your reality meter and press the anti-anachronism button. Yet even those who try their best to ignore moments when modern speech and attitudes slip through will not be able to avoid the more severe crimes. One in particular deserves being pointed out because it comes from Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), Sky Captain's whiz-kid sidekick. He exclaims that a certain army of mechanical workers can't be stopped because they've been programmed to carry on, blissfully ignorant to the fact that no one around him could possibly know what a program is.

The most astounding anachronism of all, however, has to be Laurence Olivier. His death 15 years ago has apparently not slowed him a bit, or kept him from playing evil mastermind Dr. Totenkopf. The reduction of this famed screen icon to digital villain without his consent is galling. And it greatly exacerbates the more bothersome side of "Sky Captain" — its habit of shameless appropriation, often of ideas and scenes from other movies.

Writer and director Kerry Conran slaved over a primitive Macintosh computer for four years to create the first six minutes of this film (which he used to sell the concept), and they are without a doubt the best. Once you get past the dazzling visual interplay, however, the proceedings are pretty dull. Plotwise, this is a routine action movie. The snappy dialogue and tight composition of the first act don't last, and soon the audience is battling conventional chase scenes and corny jokes as our heroes move from one vast corner of the world to the next.

"Sky Captain" could become a touchstone film for its highly individual approach. Yet other such monuments, like "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Matrix," had underlying mythologies that grounded the razzle-dazzle and gave them at least a little weight — and a reason to come back a couple more times. "Sky Captain" stands with them as groundbreaking eye candy, but it's going to be more difficult to keep this potential franchise in flight. Stories of mad scientists and flying aces in this day and age? Those premises are so far removed it's doubtful even Sky Captain could rescue them.**1/2 S

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