You might expect a little more brio from a writer-director who is making a summer blockbuster with almost unlimited creative control. [...] It is in part a nostalgic homage to the movies of the 30’s and 40’s: the hammy fisticuffs and golly-inspiring proto-technology of sci-fi cliffhangers like ”Flash Gordon” alongside the snappy patter (and even snappier clothes) of the era’s noir thrillers.
But like the old serials it emulates, ”Sky Captain” is mainly preoccupied with the strange promises of the future. The astonishing things you will see in the world of tomorrow include: an immense, silvery zeppelin docking at the Empire State Building; an elephant that fits in the palm of your hand; a troop of giant robots marching down Sixth Avenue and the carpet at Radio City Music Hall. None of these things actually exist, though. Conran has not constructed a single set or miniature. Rather, they are computer images, built and animated in a virtual 3-D environment, or stitched together from photographs, which are then draped around the flesh-and-blood actors, who have been shot separately on an empty set in front of a blank ”blue-screen” background, along with those few minimal props with which they actually interact (a ray gun, a robot blueprint, a bottle of milk of magnesia). The film, in other words, is one long special effect with Jude-Law-size holes in it.
[...] For [moviemaker Kerry] Conran, the question, as he put it, was ”Could you be ambitious and make a film of some scope without ever leaving your room?” And so 10 years ago, Kerry Conran went into a room in his apartment to make a movie. In some ways, he is just now beginning to come out of it.
[...] They can do anything here. When one of Paltrow’s arms was cut out from a shot, they copied the other one, flipped it and pasted it back in. Since all the lighting was being done on the computer, they could paint the frame with light and noirish shadows, erase it all and then start again.
[...] Avnet said that the approach has allowed the filmmakers to make digital video truly look like physical film, and it does — but it’s a curious kind of verisimilitude, one that imitates the technical limitations of the past, the artful phoniness of the old films it emulates, while adding massive underwater battles. ”We have the ultimate latitude to reframe, play and change,” Lawes told me. ”It’s pretty much like playing God.”
It is the flexibility of the setless, all-digital, centralized production process that, according to Avnet, has allowed them to make the movie for about half what it would have cost to make it traditionally.