If it hadn't already been taken last year by Ah-nuld's final Terminator opus, "The Rise of the Machines" would have made perfect ad copy for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Not so much for the machinery in front of the camera, though the movie certainly does not lack for mechanical behemoths clomping through city streets, floating military fortresses and zipping fighter planes that go amphibious when the need rises. No, the machines have risen so victoriously are behind the lenses, where human interest, already a rare commodity, has been pulverized, liquefied, and vaporized from the project's digitalized DNA. What's left? Acres and acres of FX, wanton grabbing at Art Deco "innocence," and lapdog-like salivating over its own cleverness -- already what the media is palming off as nothing less than "the future."
Once served by technology, cinema is now serving it: Sky Captain is 99.9 percent computer-created images, with its flesh-and-blood cast (Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi, et al) barely filling into the remaining 0.1 percent. As if to underscore the film's would-be stylistic futurism, the plot is set in the 1939 of dirigibles, Max Fleischer swashbuckling and Buck Rogers skulldrugery. Law, tagged with the all-American name "Joe" despite his British-Raj accent, is the eponymous hot-dog flier, teamed with Paltrow's pluck-machine reporter to uncover the doomsday machinations of an elusive group known as Unit 11. Jolie, clipped, eye-patched and fed into black leather, parachutes in for a cameo, while Langian mastermind Dr. Totenkopf is played, through CGI resurrection, by the late Master Thespian himself, Lord Laurence Olivier circa Wuthering Heights.
The so-called groundbreaking achievement of writer-director Kerry Conran is hardly the first time form has been futzed with. After all, Eric Rohmer, best known for spare chamber pieces, already created cinematic worlds of his own in The Marquise of O, Perceval and The Lady and the Duke, while Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope experiments of the early '80s (One From the Heart, Hammett) are equally impressive re-imaginings of reality through cinematic tropes. Conran's blue-screenfest pushes the logic of digital effects to its maximum in search of perfection, and arguably finds it -- and I find this perfection meretricious. The CGI flurry of something like Van Helsing has been streamlined and made limpid, rigorous, engulfing, with milky lighting and surfaces airbrushed of the slightest defect -- the images are rarely less than ravishing to the eye. But then again, so were Leni Riefenstahl's cinematic enshrinement of Nazism, and both hinge upon the same reduction of the messiness of chance, accident and feeling for deadening "beauty."
The movie's grabby mining of genre veins from yesteryear (pulp serials, King Kong, Lost Horizon, The Wizard of Oz, War of the Worlds, etc.) rivals the Indiana Jones series, and is, like those movies, less reconsideration than regurgitation of clichés, dished out with a with-it vibe for audiences too hip to risk naiveté. To embroider all life out of a film is an achievement of sorts, I suppose, and the movie is hardly the last of its kind, with Immortel, Casshern and Sin City already materializing in the horizon. Don't count on me to spearhead the movement, though -- I like my films with a little humanity left in. I wouldn't trade all of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow's high-tech pixels for one unadorned, earthbound frame of Crimson Gold.
The feature-length Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence shares a similar obsession with the reconstruction (or, rather, substitution) of reality. I should say right away that my own knowledge of anime is next to zilch, though it wasn't hard to spot the genre's standards, many of them pioneered (or at least ennobled) by Mamoru Oshii -- kinetic violence, a futuristic metropolis, cyborg hybrids, impenetrable philosophizing. I haven't seen Oshii's 1995 original, so much of the resonance built into the narrative (a policier following hulking, pooch-loving ponytail Batou and his rookie sidekick as they track a possible conspiracy behind robotic humanoids gone berserk) was probably lost on me. And much of its prattling on alternative realities and mishmashing Confucian quotes has the familiar Matrix-like strain of stretching the pulpy into the metaphysical.
And yet, Innocence impressed me where Captain Sky left me cold. First of all, the visuals are truly splendiferous -- mixing hand-drawn animation with computer graphics and a variety of visual rhythms, the film achieves a fluidity that blurs the borders between 2-D and 3-D. (My favorite stunner: the trip to the remains of an old city, where a pageant's outsized pagodas and dragons look not so much like remains from an ancient civilization as visitors from another planet.) And secondly, Oshii uses the tropes of anime to splay the mind open -- his characters, never sure where flesh ends and metal begins, are continually questioning life, always scrambling to grasp the transcendental, to find the ghosts rattling inside their shells. The difference is obvious: Captain Sky is about human beings flattened into cartoons, while Ghost in the Shell 2 is about animated beings yearning to be human. As art, it's no competition.