Computerized flight of fancy

Too many effects and a weak story ground 'Sky Captain'

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" points up a Hollywood paradox. The film industry keeps boasting about what "realistic" effects it can create.

But, uh, what's wrong with real images of reality, captured with a movie camera? It's one thing to use computer-generated imagery as a way of "drawing" things a camera couldn't photograph - the cartoon characters of the "Shrek" movies, say. It's another thing to use computer wizardry as a way of bypassing real things in the real world.

"Look how industrious and ingenious we are!" coo wired-up moviemakers as they mimic things so convincingly on their high-definition screens. In fact they're a lazy and disingenuous lot, so in love with their own daydreams that they see no need to do something radical - like going outside and filming things that might take them by surprise.

"Sky Captain" introduces Hollywood's newest electronic sorcerer, Kerry Conran, who cooked up the entire movie's sets via computers, then added the acting on an empty stage. George Lucas did something similar with the most recent "Star Wars" film, and much of the acting there was below par. It's hard for a human to seem human in an environment made of nothing but bits and bytes.

Mr. Conran fares even worse, and the story he's telling doesn't help. A textbook example of postmodern pastiche run amok, it's about a robot invasion that terrorizes New York in 1939, leading a newspaperwoman and a pilot to hunt for a mysterious villain in a high-speed race across continents. It's a sci-fi movie, an action movie, a war movie, a reporter movie, a Nazi movie, and a bogus National Geographic special rolled into one pointless, unexciting package.

Most cynical of all is the casting of the late Lord Laurence Olivier. Golly, how will Conran pull that off? Here's how: Lord Olivier appears for a few seconds as a grainy black-and-white hologram, with another actor imitating his voice. It's a stupid trick, and if you respect Olivier's artistry, it's an offensive one.

"Sky Captain" is crass and soulless.

Rated PG; contains violence and innuendo.

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