"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow": Return to Neverland

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is a striking technical achievement, a movie in which everything except the actors has been created on computers: digital "sets," digital "locations." It’s a mistily tinted vision of a future that never happened, and on a purely ocular level, it's entrancing. Therein, unfortunately, lies a problem.

The story, set in 1939, is mixmaster pulp. It opens with a spectacular, snow-lashed overhead shot of a gargantuan dirigible — the Hindenburg III — mooring up at the top of New York's Empire State Building (something that apparently was attempted around that time on two separate, unsuccessful occasions). Down on the ground, we soon learn that some of the world's great scientists are mysteriously disappearing, and that Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a plucky reporter for the New York Chronicle, is on the case. She meets at Radio City Music Hall one night with Dr. Walter Jennings (Trevor Baxter), a famous and now-frightened scientist who's convinced he'll be the next to go. Jennings tells Polly he was once a member of a secret scientific unit outside of Berlin, where he did "terrible things." Now, Jennings says, "He's coming for me — Totenkopf."

While we're taking this in, a fleet of giant, flying robots comes crashing down out of the sky and goes crunching through the city streets on vast metal feet the size of Greyhound buses. We see a cop on a pay phone calling for reinforcements. We see retro-impressionistic radio waves beaming out from a control tower. Then we see leather-jacketed Jude Law responding to this signal from the cockpit of his high-flying fighter plane. "This is Sky Captain," he says. "I'm on my way!"

"Sky Captain" is the aerial moniker of dashing, daredevil flyboy Joe Sullivan, and he and Polly have a history. Three years before, in the war-torn Chinese city of Nanjing, they'd been an item. But then, in a snit of some sort, she sabotaged his plane, which resulted in his being held captive for six months in a "Manchurian slave camp." Polly did this, we later learn, because she thought Joe was cheating on her — which, it turns out, he was, with Naval Air Captain Francesca "Franky" Cook (Angelina Jolie), the beautiful, one-eyed commander of an all-female amphibious fighter squadron.

Anyway, the attack of the robots appears to be going on worldwide. While Joe executes some wild, robot-dodging swoops through the canyons of Manhattan, his sidekick and gadget-master, Dex Dearborn (Giovanni Ribisi), is back at their home base on a remote tropical island, testing a new raygun and contemplating his moments-ago discovery that the robots appear to be controlled by a strange, low-frequency radio signal. Hmm.

Things get complicated pretty quickly — too quickly, if I may be candid, to keep meticulous track of in one viewing. Dr. Jennings reappears to give Polly a pair of critically important metal cylinders, but dies before he can tell her what they're for. There's an assault by a hideous swarm of giant mechanical birds, and also by a herd of tentacle-armed combat robots controlled from afar by a mysterious, black-hooded Asian woman — a deadly ninja in the employ of the evil and even more mysterious Dr. Totenkopf. The robot signals are discovered to be emanating from "Shambala" — the legendary Shangri-la — so Joe and Polly set off for Nepal, there to trek scenically through the Himalayan snowscape. At one point, running out of fuel, Joe has to radio his old inamorata, Franky, who guides them to safety on a mobile landing strip that's perched — gorgeously — high up in the clouds. (Looking like a Third Reich S&M pinup in her tight gray uniform, peaked officer's cap and snug black eye patch, Franky runs her lone orb over Polly and says, "Nice to meet the competition.") Dr. Totenkopf is of course a madman who wants to destroy the world — no major surprise, given the international robot havoc that's preceded this revelation. The how and why of his plan to do so, however, are given interesting answers; this is a cleverly and vividly plotted tale.

In fact, "Sky Captain" would seem to have everything anyone could ask of a period action-adventure romance. It's certainly a triumph for first-time writer/director Kerry Conran, a film-school-trained computer-animation specialist who spent six years working on the movie. (He started out with a reportedly dazzling six-minute version that he'd created entirely on his home computer.) Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow contribute admirably muted star power, and it's fun to count up the references to old comics and movie serials and great '30s sci-fi and fantasy films like "Things to Come" and “Bride of Frankenstein” and "Lost Horizon." Not to mention the echoes of the Indiana Jones pictures — a fond acknowledgement of a more modern inspiration. (One sequence, on a bridge over a gaping mountain chasm, seems to be drawn from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"; and when Polly Perkins says, "You know what a careful girl I am," you can't help but recall Indy himself uttering virtually the same words as he suited up for his own Himalayan adventure in "Raiders of the Lost Ark.")

As I say, it's a movie that pretty much has it all. And yet it fails on a fundamental level. The very thing that makes the picture so arresting — the sumptuous artistry of its digital images — in the end keeps you at arm's length; you don't get caught up in it. Years of unimaginably intricate work have gone into the creation of "Sky Captain," and your awareness of this, as one brilliant synthetic scene flows into another, nibbles away at the edge of your concentration. When Indiana Jones and the nightclub singer Willie Scott went hurtling out a window in the opening of "Temple of Doom," then plummeted through a succession of rain-soaked awnings to land in a car down below driven by a 12-year-old kid, you goggled in amazement: How on earth did they do that? When the huge dirigible ties up at the top of the Empire State Building in the beginning of "Sky Captain," that's pretty amazing, too, but in different way. You don't wonder how they did it; you know: They did it on computers. Real-world amazement doesn't work that way.

("Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)

"A Dirty Shame": Shallow Waters

John Waters started out as an underground filmmaker more than 35 years ago, and, for better and for worse, an underground filmmaker is basically what he remains. His budgets have grown larger (somewhat) and his underground cachet has enabled him to recruit admiring stars like Johnny Depp and Kathleen Turner for his latter-day projects; but he's never developed the technical flair that would lend his pictures an emcompassing interest beyond those occasional star turns, lots of wonderfully acidulous dialogue, and the films' basic premises, which usually involve an assault on what he sees as middle-class repression and bigotry. Waters the droll and witty man we encounter in print and TV interviews remains substantially more entertaining than many of the movies he continues to write and direct.

His new one, "A Dirty Shame," is a case in point. Its premise is that Americans can't deal with sex; they're screwed up, and they need liberation. The picture is set in a smallish town (Waters' native Baltimore, once again) and it's centered on Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), a dowdy, scrapple-frying housewife who's repulsed by the idea of sex, even with her hapless husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaak). They do have a teenage daughter, however, named Caprice (Selma Blair), who's been sneaking off to work as a stripper under the name Ursula Udders, and has made enough money in the trade to have her breasts surgically enlarged to what appears to be a size 88 DDD. (They're a marvel of movie prosthetics.) Sylvia figures this is a phase that will pass, and she's keeping Caprice padlocked in her bedroom until it does.

One day, Sylvia gets knocked on the head in a minor traffic mishap, and when she comes to, she's a delirious, man-starved "sex addict." Fortunately, an amorous tow-truck operator, Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville, writhing with nutcake rapture), is on hand to service her newly raging needs, which incline heavily toward oral gratification. ("Sneezing in the cabbage" is a euphemism I don't believe I've heard before.) Ray-Ray, it turns out, is a "sexual healer," a carnal guerrilla who's discovered that a certain kind of mild concussion can set people's libidos free, and he's assembling a group of freshly liberated "apostles" to help spread his sexual gospel of anything-goes. Sylvia automatically becomes a member.

In response to this outbreak of debauchery, the rest of the townsfolk stage an "emergency decency rally," the theme of which is "No More Tolerance." A sex-addict support group is formed, at which recovering libertines are given 12-step suggestions like, "Make a list of all the people you've f---ed, and apologize to their parents." Heading off charges of priggishness, one woman bursts out with, "I'm not a prude — I'm married to an Italian!" Waters is a wonderful writer, and lines like this are still, shall we say, unusual in above-ground movies. If only he could more often make his material come completely alive onscreen, give it more visual interest and people it with characters who are more than simply the sum of their quirks. But apart from his 1988 "Hairspray," a movie imbued with real feeling, he's never quite managed to do this for the length of a whole film.

The oddest thing about "A Dirty Shame" is how unsexy it is. The women are almost uniformly drab, and the only potentially nubile character, the mega-breasted Caprice, is a grotesquely inflated cartoon. Even the gay characters — and Waters himself is gay — have no heat, unless you feel your thighs prickling at the sight of three big, bearded men chanting, "We're husky, we're hairy, we're homosexual." This avoidance of simple sex appeal is clearly intended — Waters wants to uncouple sex from the tyranny of looks. (As one of the husky-hairy guys exults, "We've broken out of the second closet!") But a sex comedy with no hot girls or hunky guys is a contradiction in terms: It's a diversity lesson.

I walked away from "A Dirty Shame" thinking how very much things have changed since 1972, when John Waters launched his transgressive film career with the still-startling scene in "Pink Flamingos" in which the late drag star Divine performs an onscreen demonstration of coprophagia. The closest Waters comes to such a scabrous frisson in this film is with a man happily munching on a freshly used Kleenex. And when Ray-Ray announces that his group of libertine followers includes "one of every perversion," and one of the "perversions" turns out to be three-way-sex, well ... as I say, times have really changed. In a nation in which the most popular pastime on the Internet is watching hard-core pornography, how many people can there really be left to shock? And of those there are, how many are likely ever to see a John Waters movie anyway? Waters' distinctively twisted sensibility is a sweet and loveable kink by now — it's pure Americana. And there are times when he seems like a ringmaster still trying to rouse a crowd after all the people have left the tent, and the circus itself has moved on.