Ay, robots!: Sky Captain flies but doesn't soar

The good news about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is that the tail doesn't wag the dog. With everything but the principal actors and a few props being created or assembled in the computer, there was danger of the process overwhelming the product.

The technique is impressive, all right. A major geekfest. The ultimate version of what thousands of teenage boys are working on in their basements so obsessively they sometimes forget to jerk off. Writer-director Kerry Conran has created a visual feast that looks like no other film.

The combination of live actors and animation (plus some anim̩-inspired robotics) suggests a computer-age version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but the genre is different. Set in 1939, it seeks to capture the look and spirit of Saturday matinee serials of the periodРor what they would have looked like if they'd had a bigger budget than an Ed Wood production.

What keeps Sky Captain from being as much fun as the Indiana Jones movies is the casting of Jude Law in the lead. Law brushes his teeth with more intensity than most of us show making love.

He's Joe Sullivan– a.k.a. Sky Captain– leader of an "army for hire" and the last hope of the world when the disappearance of several scientists is tied to a plot to destroy the planet.

Also on the case in search of a story is intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), who's summoned by the last of the scientists to a 6pm meeting that's later said to have taken place in the morning as three days' worth of events are compressed into one. Computers will never replace good continuity people. Well, they will, because they work cheaper. But they won't do the job as well.

But I digress. The meeting takes place at Radio City Music Hall during a showing of The Wizard of Oz, clips from which make a delightful background. Jane Monheit reprises "Over the Rainbow" behind the closing credits.

When Polly leaves the theater, New York is attacked by flying robots in a scene that looks good even if it doesn't have much relevance to the actual plot, which it sets in motion.

Polly and Joe, who have some romantic history, hook up to investigate. The trail leads to Shambala– a.k.a. Shangri-La– in Nepal, and from there to the private island of Dr. Totenkopf. His name (translation: Deadhead) is an in-joke reference to the "casting" of the late Laurence Olivier in the role, which amounts to about 15 seconds of a jittery hologram with no effort to match his lip movements to the new dialogue being read by another actor.

Although she receives third billing, Angelina Jolie doesn't appear for over an hour and doesn't have much of a role. Some will find her leather uniform (with matching eye patch) sexy, but since she's supposed to be romantic competition for Polly, it seems inevitable that she will remove her cap and let her hair down. It never happens.

If you're going to have fun with this thing, the hero should be loose like Harrison Ford's Indy or stiff like Adam West's Batman. Law is just intense, and it doesn't work. Perhaps that's why a lot of the emphasis is shifted to Polly, which would normally be a secondary role. We know Paltrow can look good in period clothes– she won an Oscar for doing it– but she also manages to have fun with the part. Enough for one but, alas, not for two.

The retro look, including toned-down color, is the best thing about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The script would be serviceable with the right actors. (Maybe Ben Affleck will do the sequel, freeing Law to be the new Daredevil?) The way the filming technique is used, it doesn't constantly call attention to itself, which is how it should be.

So a split decision. Sky Captain flies but doesn't soar. It's not as good as it might have been, but it's not a waste of your time and money either.