Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Ug




Every once in a while a film comes along that challenges our basic assumptions about the human condition and makes us reconsider our place in the cosmos. The new film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is not that movie, but it does raise some troubling questions and suggest at least a few equally disturbing answers.

Sky Captain is not one of those old-fashion films that rely on character development or plot. Its two main characters are so wooden that you could build a birdhouse out of them and the storyline is toilet paper thin. The film is largely an excuse to display a weird mix of special effects that evoke a futuristic film noir.

No one much pays attention when a handful of famous scientists start disappearing, but after an army of giant robots marches through New York the call goes out to Sky Captain (Jude Law, Cold Mountain), evidently the country’s only homeland security. The only other person in the world appears to be a bossy, career-minded reporter named Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), who invariably has an on-again off-again love affair with Cap.

Come to find out, all these egghead scientists had worked for Dr. Totenkopf, a World War I German scientist. Totenkopf apparently believed that the human species was destined to self-destruct, and created a robot horde to enforce his dominance throughout the world.

The rest of the plot dissolves into meaningless chatter and the film is only good when it inspires stupid gasps of astonishment, but to be fair Sky Captain does look good for about 20 minutes. Washed in silver light and ripping off a rich dung heap of material from amazingly varied sources, Sky Captain wants to be just cheap, fun entertainment.

A lot of machines worked overtime to create this film, and we owe it to them to give Sky Captain a chance, even if it means jettisoning some of our higher reasoning functions. The film has continuity problems of the sort that would tend to bother grown adults and some species of super monkeys, so to really enjoy Sky Captain you need to reach back into that dumb teenager you used to be… you know, the inner idiot who enjoys the Dumb and Dumber films and The Man Show.

That’s it. Much better. It is so cool when, like, the robots fly into Manhattan. That was so cool. And the super assassin chick? Totenkopf’s assistant? She was cool, too. Yeah. But I’m not sure about Angelina Jolie faking an English accent and some of the movie looks way fake. It gets sort of dumb the way they put a silver screen over the computer animation. I mean, we can almost see the pixels.

Ok, push back to the intellectual level of an average German shepard or Fox executive. At this stage Sky Captain’s special effects seem more seamless. Boom splash! Good! Ha, Angelina Jolie has an eye patch! F-u-n-n-y! But me not like Polly or Cap. They’re stupid! Hate them! When they fly near buildings I chant: Crash! Crash! Crash! Burn and die! Ha!

(Okay, okay: the characters are stupid, wooden and offensively clichéd. They are obviously ripped off from comic books and bad science fiction pulp stories, but these sources are in many ways more nuanced and interesting. In a way it’s fun to try to identify the things Sky Captain steals from other places and determine how the filmmakers have misrepresented, abused and savaged them. This activity distracts you from wishing Cap and Polly would get eaten by a giant computer-generated ostrich or crash into a mountaintop.)

But imagine how it would appear to a single-celled organism, a protococcus say. Spiraling back to the basic form of life, feeling the burdens of analytic thought burn away, Sky Captain appears as blinks of bright light and loud noises. The fight scenes no longer appear to be re-coded versions of Star Wars and the relentless cornball lines are sensed as a unified field of pure consciousness.

Angelina Jolie is no more offensive than peanut butter, and it does not bother you when she whooshes out of her ejector seat while barking some terrible line in an even worse faux Brit accent. “Jolly good!” she says, and you don’t feel that special sensation of tin foil on tooth fillings that shudders through me. Visions of Sky Captain’s burning plane do not fill your simple body with even a faint flutter of joy and you don’t care that the filmmakers have calculatingly stolen and ruined many of your cherished childhood figures.

The movie’s sounds and fury signify nothing, just as they do to you and I, but we wouldn’t mourn the waste of the film as protococcuses, wouldn’t feel bad that a million megawatt engine has been used to power a penlight of an idea.


Before Sunset


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound

A moment can change your life, and the memory of that moment can haunt you until the day you die.

Director Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset is full of moments like this. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) borrows Celine’s (Julie Delpy’s) cigarette to light his own and their fingertips touch. She smiles nervously, talks nervously, hides herself like a nervous cat, knowing that if the connection between them is real it’s bound to hurt in the end.

Jesse and Celine had had a brief affair nine years ago, when they were both traveling on the Eurail. Their encounter is the subject of an earlier Linklater film I have not seen (Before Sunrise), but not having seen the original film doesn’t diminish this one. In fact the affair had a sort of confidential intensity since Linklater doesn’t dumb down this film with gratuitous flashbacks. We aren’t necessarily party to the intimacy Jesse and Celine shared as young adults, and don’t see the acts that have left such an impression on their lives.

What we do see is the aftermath of this event, and we must reconstruct it from the importance the characters give it, the way their lives have circled this otherwise inconsequential incident.

Jesse is in Paris pushing his first novel, which is not coincidently about his one-night encounter with Celine. She meets him at a bookstore where he’s signing copies of the book and the pair saunter through the streets of the City of Light. They had agreed to meet after the train trip, nine years ago, but there was a tragedy in Celine’s family and prevented her from showing up. At the time they had agreed not to exchange numbers, afraid that doing so would make it feel like a trivial date.

In the years since neither has found the sort of connection they had with one another when they were both in their early 20s.

“I remember that night better than entire years,” Jessie says. His book was an existential declaration that it had happened, it was real, but it was also intended as a sort of message to let Celine know that he hadn’t forgotten her. At first she plays coy, pretending not to recall the details of their meeting, but it’s obvious that the night marked both of them for life.

Jessie and Celine rush toward one another just as time is pulling them apart. Jessie’s plane leaves that evening, and the real world seems intent of driving them apart again. They try to connect what time they have with each, digging deeper and deeper until they reach a climax.

Part My Dinner with Andre and part Lost in Translation, Before Sunset is a sweet, sometimes talky film about the moments that make up our lives. The sad fact is that life did move on, burying the people Jesse and Celine were and forcing a wedge between their adult selves, and as they talk their conversation invariably returns to that one night, in 1994, when everything was right in the world and these people had their whole lives in front of them.

Now they are in their 30s. They’ve survived disillusionment and heartbreak, but they never survived one another. When they’re debating ecology or coffee shop etiquette, they’re really avoiding discussing that day, as though it is too tender to bring up. And when they’re talking about that day they’re treading carefully, thinking perhaps that the experience is too fragile and beautiful to survive in the real world.

You can see the sparks across the table as they drink coffee. Linklater’s dialog is lively, realistic and smart, though it does occasionally become preachy. Hawke and Delpy save Before Sunset from becoming stilted and purely intellectual, like Linklater’s Waking Life. There’s real chemistry between these characters, and the cast and Linklater are smart enough to fill in the gaps left between extended soliloquies with gestures, expressions, and other nice touches.

Many of us recall Hawke as the prototypical Gen-Xer from his portrayal of cool, ironic disenfranchised young people in films like Reality Bites, but here he wears his suffering on his face. Hawke looks like he’s in his 30s, and every line on his face describe moments of pain, loss, failure and struggle. Mark this moment, boys and girls, because Before Sunset is the first Generation X, mid-life crisis film.

The fragile, scatterbrained, precocious children they were have grown into fragile, scatterbrained, precocious adults, and a part of them remains untouched. Yes, the too sensitive romantic in them has been hurt, they sting from the failures of their romantic lives, and worry that they’ve become deadened by the years, but the film is such a tender celebration of love that what we leave the theater with isn’t a feeling of regret: It’s a confirmation that every connection we make is precious.

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