This is one of the movies where the story behind the story is more dramatic than the film itself. As detailed in one of the DVD's special features, Sky Captain was born on a Macintosh computer in a cramped apartment in Southern California. That's where Kerry Conran had landed after moving out of Flint, Mich. In between day jobs, he put together a six-minute film, with a cool, retro look all its own. This little side project took him four years.
When the short was finally ready, a friend in the movie business took a look at it. She was blown away and told Conran not to show it to anyone else. Soon, she arranged a screening for Hollywood insider John Avnet. He was blown away and told Conran not to show it to anyone else. Skip forward several months, and Conran is walking onto a soundstage in London, preparing to direct his two leads: Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. It's a pretty rare thing, but dreams still can come true in Hollywood.
As for the film, it's quite a spectacle, with style to spare. Every backdrop in the film was created on a computer, which allows for some great looking locales -- from Sky Captain's secret base to Shangri-La. (The evil robots look great, too.) Everything was shot on a blue screen -- meaning actors played their roles in empty rooms. The result is perhaps the first genuine hybrid between a movie and a video game. Unfortunately, early in the film, that artificial feeling creeps in; even Paltrow's usually steady acting is stiff. Jude Law is great, however, and he makes you cheer for Joe, who has to save the world and put up with his difficult old flame, Polly (Paltrow). But Giovanni Ribisi is horribly miscast as Dex, the brains behind Sky Captain's forces. (A perfect cameo by a young Laurence Olivier helps make up for that misstep.)
Although he was snubbed by Oscar, Conran succeeded in creating a look that improves on the pulp serials of the 1930s. And despite the dullish dialogue, his debut screenplay has some fun moments, too (especially the final line in the film). But in the end, it's just a lot of eye candy. When substance comes first, you get an ode to old-school adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. But when it's all about style, you get Sky Captain.