Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (review)

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Pulp Pastiche

Goddess of science fiction Connie Willis — at whose feet I actually, literally groveled at WorldCon two weeks ago (she giggled in response) — ran with the idea, in her brilliant 1996 novel Remake, that a time would come when new movies would no longer be made. Instead, old movies would just keep being remade, digitally rebuilt from the ground up, and there would be no new movie stars, just computerized re-creations of Golden Age icons. You know, someone might redo Star Wars “starring” CGI avatars of Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, and that guy who played Ashley in Gone with the Wind, just because. Who needs to be challenged with the new and different when the old and familiar is so much more comfortable?

In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a digitized “Laurence Olivier” appears as the Man Behind the Curtain in what is a lousy, pointless remake of, among many other classic films, The Wizard of Oz.
This is a bad thing — not in a scary, Jar-Jar Binks, oh-my-god-make-it-stop kind of way, but in a way worse than anything Willis imagined — because there isn’t even an attempt to capitalize on the particular Laurence Olivier-ness of the handsome but cold circa-Rebecca ghost of Olivier that has been resurrected here. I didn’t even realize it was Olivier’s image that was used for the Man Behind the Curtain until his name appeared in the end credits and I wondered how a man who’s been dead for 15 years could appear in a new film. The really screwy thing is, it would have made a lot of sense within the slim context of Sky Captain to invoke that 1930s-era Olivier, he of the frostily insane Hamlet and the calculating DeWinter of Rebecca. But writer/director Kerry Conran — who spent years tinkering with CGI on a Mac to create the short film that grew into this one — only seems to care about cutting and pasting scraps of nostalgia into pretty pictures. He grabbed images of Olivier just because he could. It didn’t matter what, if any, significance those images might carry. Surface appearances are the beginning and the end of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. This astonishingly vapid and stupefyingly boring film is the ultimate Hollywood triumph of style over substance.

The film looks great — of course it does: all effort expended upon it went into making it look great. As pure vision, it is a gorgeous image of a future that was to be and never came to pass, of an impossibly romantic Art Deco New York City where graceful dirigibles moor at the top of the Empire State Building and the palace of Radio City Music Hall is a still a movie house. At least, it’s a gorgeous vision for about twenty minutes, and then the movie lobe of your brain starts to itch for characters to care about, because nothing — nothing — else matters if we don’t want to spend time with the characters in their gorgeous and romantic world. And it’s impossible to care about reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow: View from the Top, Possession), who’s pouting and petulant and really, really dumb: she has the whole grand scheme of the pitiful plot carefully spelled out for her by one of the principal players and she doesn’t get it. Who cares how cool it is that her bright red lipstick never fails when her brain never gets started? It’s impossible to care about Sky Captain himself, Joe Sullivan (Jude Law: Cold Mountain, Road to Perdition), who’s snide and unpleasant and causes as much damage to New York City, in his fighter plane, as the attacking giant robots he’s fending off. Who cares how cool it is that the bad guys come at him later in planes with wings that flap if we don’t particularly want to root for him to defeat them?

Polly and Joe embark upon an adventure to discover who’s behind the giant robots and the flapping planes, one that takes them through a stew of pulp cheese crammed with junk from seventy years of B movies, serials, and comic books. And I do mean “junk.” Unlike flicks such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and Jurassic Park — all also raided here — which chose carefully from pulp history and used what they took to wonderful and new effect, Sky Captain just goes on an indiscriminate rampage, throwing everything up on the screen without regards to what kind of sense it makes. It all feels secondhand. Joe isn’t really a dashing hero, he just plays one in the movies; we have no idea why he’s “Sky Captain” except that it means the city fathers of New York can call upon him like Batman, with his own special signal and everything, in a time of need. Polly isn’t really an intrepid girl reporter, she’s just wearing her lipstick while the actually spunky chick is off saving the world and making the actual dashing hero fall madly in love with her. Joe and Polly are cardboard cutouts, handsome and flat, barely casting a shadow in the movieworld flickering around them.

Shell game
It’s the same problem — all vision and not enough character — with Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, with the added complication of pop culture having caught up with its once groundbreaking philosophy. Pre Matrix, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell was enough to blow a few minds with its exploration of issues of identity in a world full of cyborgs and virtual personalities, and even today, the near decade-old film still impresses. The followup, however, can’t get beyond its own baroqueness to fully engage us.

Cyborg cop Batou (the voice of Akio Otsuka), returning from the first film, is investigating mysterious incidents of gynoids — sexbots, “dolls” that are pure machine, with no human components — killing their owners, and what could have and should have been a short film (there’s not a lot of story here) has been stretched out to 100 minutes. Some of the padding is welcome: the animation is spectacular, with near photorealistic urban grime and blight sitting alongside dazzling dreamscapes in which nature and mythology meet the hard edge of city life. And tangents into Batou’s relationship with his basset hound are pure joy, even if they aren’t enough insight into the man to be satisfying in the larger context. But the film is, paradoxically, both overly convoluted, unsure of which of many directions to take, and on-the-nose, delivering lectures on humanism and humanity that we don’t need. The soulless people of Batou’s 2032 may need a kickstart in understanding Oshii’s warnings on the dangers of letting ourselves be seduced by technology, but we don’t.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG for sequences of stylized sci-fi violence and brief mild language
official site | IMDB

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief language
official site | IMDB

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