Weren't the 1930s great?

Fans of science fiction and action-adventure in the comics and the movies would kill for the chance to hop a time machine back to that era. (Heck, I suppose those folks would take a time machine anywhere.) Artists, writers and filmmakers were amplifying America's fascination with technology and communication, creating larger-than-life heroes, fantastical inventions and futuristic worlds, and spicing up their creations with thrills and chills inspired by that not-so-imaginary threat of another world war from overseas.

The dubious art form known as the movie serial emerged from this era, enticing youthful viewers into theaters on Saturday afternoons with action-packed stories of aviators, jungle explorers, detectives, superheroes and spacemen, often based on the colorful adventures in popular comic books of the day. Seventy years after "Tailspin Tommy" took off in his mail plane from the funny pages onto the big screen, writer/director Kerry Conran (who missed the Golden Age of Serials by about 40 years) has assembled an impressive homage to these silver screen heroes in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."

Combining elements of a detective mystery, a fighter pilot adventure and a science fiction cliffhanger, "Sky Captain" pairs fashionable newspaper reporter Gwyneth Paltrow with her old flame, Jude Law, the captain of an air-force-for-hire on call to battle enemies of truth and justice, etc. When the world's leading scientists start to disappear and mechanical giants descend upon major cities to steal their energy sources, Paltrow and Law team up to go after the story - and the villain.

The film's most pronounced achievement is its look. Taking advantage of the capabilities of digital filmmaking, Conran shot every scene in the movie with his live actors in front of a blue screen, allowing the film's digital artists to fill in the blue areas later with not only backdrops, but entire sets and computer-generated characters. The robots, monsters and otherworldly sets are gorgeously executed in Art Deco glory. The post-production team also digitally enhanced the lighting quality and color saturation, so that the whole film looks like it was shot decades ago through the soft-focus lens reserved for Ingrid Bergman's glowing closeups in a colorized "Casablanca."

Thanks to the wonders of the new medium, Conran was even able to cast Sir Laurence Olivier, who died in 1989, as the elusive master of the mechanical monsters. Conran used old footage of a dashing young Olivier to create what appears as a holographic video projection image of his character.

Costar Angelina Jolie gets big billing for only about 10 minutes of screen time, but she's perfectly cast as the unfliching commander of a flying aircraft carrier and an old friend of Law's. Just as fun to watch is Giovanni Ribisi as Law's pal and gadget guru, playing the smart guy for once.

The plot slices neatly into about six chapters that end in minor cliffhangers, in the vein of those early serials, but it's more accurate to view the story in terms of comic book panels, so graphically is every shot structured. And here's where "Sky Captain" loses some viewers: The visuals are so extremely stylized, audiences may be more comfortable with them in a 60-second TV commercial than in a feature-length motion picture.

The movie's other big drawback? It's camp - pure, melodramatic, overblown camp. Paltrow's the only cast member who doesn't seem to be a live 3-D version of a comic strip character, but her being the odd man out only makes for an uneven ensemble. Conran should have insisted that she put away her Oscar and dive headfirst into the genre to wallow in the lowbrow fun.

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"

Rated PG for sequences of stylized sci-fi violence and brief mild language

Starring: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi

Directed by: Kerry Conran

Length: One hour 47 minutes

Now playing at: Astoria Gateway Cinema, Cannes Cinema Center in Seaside, Neptune Theatre in Long Beach, Wash.

Short take: In a masterfully filmed homage to the movie serials of the 1930s, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow are on the trail of a mysterious villain with a plan to destroy the world. The action-packed story is pure camp, but the highly stylized visuals may be more than some viewers can take.

Rating: Three stars (out of four)

Overheard between two theatergoers, during the ending credits:

"Sir Laurence Olivier! Who did he play?"

"I don't know. I thought he was dead."

"Maybe he was the dead guy."

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