*Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (PG)
When is a summer action blockbuster not a summer action blockbuster? When the studio yanks it from its summer release slot because it isn't entirely sure what to do with something this weird, this wild, this stylistically original in its unabashed pursuit of old-fashioned fun.
Originally slotted to open in June, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is in many ways the prototype for a summer Hollywood film. There's plenty of action; there are a couple of recognizable stars; there's a hero, a villain and special effects out the wazoo.
But writer/director Kerry Conran didn't want his film to look like every other disposable shlocktacular, and that is both his blessing and his curse. A slick, sepia-toned love letter to vintage 1930s serial adventures, Sky Captain plays like a kid movie wrapped in the skin of an experimental art film.
And that unlikely combo is what makes it both such a simple pleasure and such a hard sell. Sky Captain opens in 1939 New York City with a dirigible flight, a frightened scientist and two mysterious vials. Intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) has the chance to pull all the pieces together, but before she can get to the bottom of things, there are giant robots marching through Manhattan on an unknown mission.
Enter "Sky Captain" Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), a swaggering flyboy who leads his own private airborne army -- and who, incidentally, is an ex-flame of Polly's. Determined to discover the robots' purpose, Polly and Joe begin a quest that leads from Nepal to the middle of the ocean, centering on a German scientist with an apocalyptic vision.
Conran throws together elements from 1950s science fiction, Flash Gordon and Doc Savage into a genre blender, crafting a humdinger of an adventure in the process. Sky Captain battles bad guys while weaving through skyscraper canyons; machine sentries challenge an amphibious assault on the bad guy's lair; and yes, there are giant robots. And they shoot lasers out of their eyes.
Audiences burned by two Star Wars films full of wooden actors in CGI situations may look at the trailer and wonder whether this is just an artsy-fartsier version of what George Lucas has tried to put over on them.
But honest to goodness, this thing is fun. It clips along at a brisk pace, keeping its story simple and the action beats regular. Giovanni Ribisi adds solid comic relief as Joe's gadget-head sidekick Dex, and Angelina Jolie vamps her way through her small role as a British soldier. There's a deadly Mysterious Woman (Bai Ling) as a nemesis, and there's a lot of clever dialogue.
That's not to say it's a perfect piece of cinematic cotton candy. While Paltrow holds up her end of the romantic bantering, Law never looks entirely comfortable. And though the revelation of the evil mastermind involves the masterful use of a legendary actor, the resolution feels abrupt and vaguely unsatisfying.
Paramount Pictures, meanwhile, is hoping for a satisfying resolution to its attempts to sell Sky Captain to America's multiplex-goers. Messing with the blockbuster formula is risky business. Here's hoping people are willing to take a chance on finding the gleefully exciting summer movie lurking beneath Sky Captain's sepia-toned skin.
-- Scott Renshaw
Carmike 10, Chappel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown