Eventually, the plot of Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow explains the "world of tomorrow" half of its title, but until that happens, the film suggests several possible readings. It appears to be set in 1939—not the historical version, but a 1939 in which the zeppelin Hindenburg III traverses the sky, and noble pilots keep the streets safe from harm. It's the past as it imagined its own world of tomorrow, seen thorough the filters of Popular Science, comic books, Flash Gordon, and pulp paperbacks, and reflected on a mirror of deco curves. On another, more meta level, Sky Captain might have created its own world of tomorrow. Writer-director Kerry Conran uses live actors (mostly) and real props, but only the film's most obviously tangible elements have any real-life substance. He doesn't just use CGI effects to fill in the gaps reality can't; he uses them to create reality itself in a way that even the latest batch of Star Wars films haven't dared. The effects don't enhance the sets and locations. They become the sets and locations.
For adventure films that want to be limited only by their creators' imaginations, Sky Captain might mark the beginning of a new era. Thankfully, it does more than clear new ground—it inhabits it. After the initial shock of the overwhelming totality of Sky Captain's production design (by Conran's brother Kevin), it becomes easy to sink into the world the film creates.
The giant robots help. Nodding without winking, Sky Captain throws together the best (or sometimes just the best-looking) elements of golden-age pulps and science fiction, from laser pistols to lost kingdoms. The film wouldn't exist without Indiana Jones and Star Wars, but unlike a lot of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg acolytes, Conran draws even more heavily on their original inspirations for a story straight out of a Saturday serial. When an armada of flying robots invades an East Coast metropolis, only the efforts of an intrepid reporter (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a dashing pilot (Jude Law) can uncover the devious plot behind the attacks. Their journey takes them across the globe, into the sky, and beneath the sea, with each location digitally fleshed out to the last detail.
If Conran can flesh out the drama next time around, he'll make an even better film. In Sky Captain, the usually reliable Law makes an unconvincing action hero, and his romance with Paltrow remains too pixilated to resemble real life. Maybe Conran doesn't need flesh-and-blood actors at all: Late in the film, the long-dead Laurence Olivier makes a cameo. (The ethics of this remain open to debate, but at least it's better than assigning Olivier to pimp vacuum cleaners, like the late Fred Astaire.) Mostly, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow plays to its strengths, letting the action slow down only long enough to give an extra charge to lines like "Alert the amphibious squadron!," which announce that the film is off on its next adventure. As an imaginative visual experience, there's nothing like it. Today, at least.