Sky Captain makes no overtures toward complexity. In 11 words: Buncha crazy machines attack everything, and Jude Law saves the day. That's pretty much it, yet the gonzo aesthetics hold it all together.
Replete with shameless visual lifts from Fritz Lang's Metropolis , assorted anime, the Indiana Jones series and the Myst video games, Sky Captain rules with pixel power. From its opening sequence, the movie jazzes up your eyeballs. Even the elegant costumes of the two leads, designed by Stella McCartney, transport the viewer to another world.
The plot, meanwhile, is an adhesive for all the visual wonders. When giant robots stomp the bejesus out of downtown Gotham, yet miss pesky photojournalist Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Law) is summoned. He swoops around in his fighter plane, and the two reason that the robot invasion -- 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 if there's a future for their romance -- or, indeed, a future at all.
Until about a third of the way in, Sky Captain feels chilly, but then warms up and starts to groove. Giovanni Ribisi shows up as the heroes' helpful, nerdy technician, and Bai Ling leaps around in goggles and black leather to kick Law's ass every so often. Before long we're zooming through the sky and sea with Angelina Jolie in fetishized military drag. And then there's Olivier's haunting cameo, assembled from archive footage. Once you get into the swing of expecting more weirdness, the movie rewards you.
Newcomer Kerry Conran is the driving force here. A decade ago, he churned out a 6-minute spectacular called "The World of Tomorrow" (also the theme of the 1939 New York World's Fair). While some may slam the young writer-director's vision as genre remix, the affection with which he paints with light -- and shadow -- proves endearing.
Engaging our empathy is another story. Because Law mugs his way through and Paltrow coasts along on "brassy," and they performed the whole movie on a blue-screen set, a detachment develops. Our attention turns to the spectacle itself, which doesn't quite jell on a human level. This movie is a rare victory of style over substance, but an artist never goes wrong by adding more heart, no matter how many bazillions of pixels are at his beck and call.