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It was a first-time filmmaker’s dream: With nothing but six minutes of footage and a script, couldn’t-be-greener writer-director Kerry Conran secured Hollywood darlings Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law for the leads in his CG-crazy debut, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Conran took his trusting stars, both used to less technically demanding work, and denied them context, forcing them to develop their characters in front of blank blue screens. And then he made them punch each other.

Although the relationship between Paltrow’s Lois Lane–like newspaper reporter, Polly Perkins, and Law’s smug superpilot, Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan, crackles only on the far side of the love/hate equation, Conran sure has fun with his characters’ bitterness. Schadenfraude—and, eventually, an exchange of blows—dominates the former lovers’ 1939 reunion, the first since Polly, suspecting Joe of having an affair, sabotaged his plane years earlier. But an attack on New York by skyscraper-sized robots that corresponds with the one-by-one disappearance of a group of renowned scientists brings the two back together as they investigate the events and chase their common goal: one mysterious Dr. Totenkopf.

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Sky Captain’s plot doesn’t get much more complex than that—giant droids to ensure action, a manhunt to add globetrotting adventure, and a broken couple to shoot Tracy/Hepburn–esque daggers at each other. But the simple story is an adequate enough foundation to support the software-generated film’s knockout feature: its brilliant realization of a living comic book. Using a combination of digital effects, photographs, and live action, Conran creates a soft, sepia-toned, and visually stunning version of existence. There’s not a hard line to be found: Each scene looks like vintage movie footage gone over in chalk, whether dominated by feathery, barely-there snowflakes, buildings of cashmere gray, or fires that throw off clouds of inky black soot. Gunfire results in exaggerated bursts of light that may as well say “BLAM!”

Sky Captain isn’t just a series of pretty pictures, however. Conran starts the action early, with a breathtaking sequence in which a tiny Paltrow, on a narrow New York street, maneuvers her way in between the King Kong–sized feet of an army of Iron Giants, clicking photos and suffering multiple near-misses before Joe’s swooping plane disables one and thus temporarily disengages the others. Subsequent chases find Joe negotiating his zeppelin through the Manhattan grid—views of Spider-Man, piloting of Luke Skywalker—plunging his amphibious craft into wreckage-decorated waters, and floating onto a Star Wars–worthy midair landing strip when, flying out of Nepal, he runs out of fuel.

And so the thrills continue every few minutes until Sky Captain’s ass-rattling end. Conran’s one weakness is in the increasing frequency of his homages: Strains of Metropolis, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and every comic-book adaptation ever made run throughout, and the film’s last half-hour throws in a couple of too-obvious steals from The Wizard of Oz and, weirdly, Jurassic Park—both of which seem unnecessary distractions.

Paltrow and Law light up the screen only literally, their perfect coifs and period-stylish costumes shot in glowing soft focus. Angelina Jolie, as the eye-patched commander of an all-woman amphibious squadron, brings her Tomb Raider toughness (but not the attendant embarrassment) to a small, forgettable role; making a stronger impression is Giovanni Ribisi as Dex, mechanical wizard and Joe’s aw-shucks assistant. The acting overall occasionally dips from subdued to flat, but the understated characterizations and Conran’s PG-restrained script could be considered throwbacks to a time before blockbusters needed so much CGI. That’s not just appropriate—against Sky Captain’s mind-swirling beauty, it’s also something of a relief.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, also a visual stunner, sets its action nearly a century after Sky Captain’s, and its accompanying story is light-years more complex. Based on comic books by Shirow Masamune, Innocence and its subtitle-free predecessor, acclaimed anime feature Ghost in the Shell, traffic in an AI universe where the few remaining full humans are left to share a planet with dolls (pure robots) and cyborgs (robots inhabited by human spirits, or “ghosts”).

Like the original, Innocence uses a blend of traditional cel and computer animation—facilitated by Japan’s Production I.G., the studio responsible for the animated sequence in Kill Bill—Vol. 1—to shape a look that writer-director Mamoru Oshii calls “Chinese Gothic.” Set in an unnamed Asian city, the movie borrows a few main characters from the first film but mercifully doesn’t continue its overdetailed, nearly incomprehensible corporate-malfeasance/ghost-hacking storyline.

Innocence focuses on Batou (Akio Ohtsuka), a cyborg special agent with a government anti-terrorist unit who is still mourning the loss of the Major, his old partner, who decided to abandon her mechanized body and become pure ghost. When a gynoid, or sex robot, goes berserk I, Robot–style and murders her owner, Batou investigates with the help of a new partner, Togusa (Koichi Yamadera), a largely human “family man” who carefully assesses each on-the-job risk to avoid unnecessary danger.

Whereas Ghost in the Shell was clinical and cerebral in its meditation on artificial intelligence and identity, Innocence makes an effort to humanize its characters and seems to argue that machines can’t replace companionship. Togusa speaks often of his wife and daughter, and Batou, besides missing the Major, is devoted to an adorable basset hound whose droopy-eyed, ungraceful affection is in such contrast to all the chilly technology—less than the original, but still a formidable presence—that even dog-haters will appreciate the distraction. Even so, Oshii manages to steep the film in philosophy, with the partners trading high-minded references as readily as American counterparts might exchange insults. In fact, the wordiness at times gets so heavy that it’s difficult to grasp it all.

Fortunately, Oshii seems to believe in one character’s line: “When dialogue fails, it’s time for violence.” Batou and Togusa’s investigation leads the pair to wicked and bloody episodes with yakuza, corrupt gynoids, and, in one of the movie’s coolest scenes, assassins planted in a convenience store. These episodes alternate with quiet views of intricately drawn and brilliantly colored mood pieces—a snowy downtown, a festive parade—often accompanied by Kenji Kawai’s hypnotic, hymnal score and usually tying into nothing. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence may offer a deeper meaning for those in the mood to dig, but it also offers plenty to viewers who just want to remain on the surface.CP