Sunday, May 25, 2008

FILMPHLEGMâ„¢: Indiana Jones and the Halfway Decent But Ultimately Disappointing Nineteen Year Wait

I'm not going to try to shelter you from spoilers, so if you don't want to know anything, DON'T READ THIS REVIEW UNTIL YOU'VE SEEN THE MOVIE.

I think Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is better than The Phantom Menace. That's not saying much; it's not terrible or anything, but Crystal Skull didn't come close to either Raiders of the Lost Ark or even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for me. It has its share of decent moments, but it also has a bumper crop of problems which make me kinda sad. It's not the all-out disappointment-fest that Phantom Menace was. But it certainly isn't all that great.

On the positive side, I thought Harrison Ford (and the script) did a decent job of bringing Indy into middle-to-old age and unexpected fatherhood. It was good to see Karen Allen back as Marion. Cate Blanchett, despite having a fake accent whose inconsistency rivaled Kevin Costner's in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves did a great job of bringing a one-dimensional stereotype to life. Jim Broadbent was a decent Denholm Elliott substitute. Shia Labeouf didn't make me want to punch him in the face much, if at all. And I really liked how Steven Spielberg wasn't afraid to make some of the special effects shots downright bad; the bluescreen work during the truck chase was especially spotty, and some shots practically oozed B-movie rear projection just like the original three movies did.

Now, on to the disappointments.

For a movie whose main theme is reunion/return, it's a bit of a disappointment that only two of the seven main characters have been seen and/or head of by the audience before. Making John Hurt's character a pseudo-grandfather figure from Indy's past who isn't Abner Ravenwood was a huge missed opportunity. Yes, Abner's supposedly dead, but that would be so easy to explain away; if you're going to go through the trouble of making a movie about a family reunion, why not take it as far as it can go? Granted, they did a decent job of including references to Marcus Brody and Henry Jones, Sr. (except for the publicity photos that Indy has of them on his desk -- seriously, they couldn't have Photoshopped Sean Connery's head onto a body that wasn't wearing his exact costume from Last Crusade? Please.) but all of the "old friend" characters who were brand new to the series were a bit too much to take. We're expected to be surprised by Mac's double-cross of Indy at the beginning just because of one line where the character tells us he's been traveling with Indy for years, and then we're expected to feel at least a twinge of sadness when he succumbs to his own greed at the end (ticking another box on the list of plot devices stolen from previous Indy movies). We're supposed to feel sad when we see how Oxley has lost his marbles, just because we saw tough-guy Mutt Williams crying about it earlier. Which brings me to another disappointment...

For an action/adventure film, there's a whole lot of telling rather than showing. We're told about Mutt's relationship with Oxley and his mother. We're told lots of things about the Crystal Skull. We're told lots of things about Spalko. We're told about Indy and Mac's war and post-war career together. Wouldn't it have been nice to spend some of the two hours (like, maybe, during the opening credits) having a little flashback adventure that shows us at least some of these things in action, rather than the unnecessary homage to American Graffiti we got instead?

A lot of the problems with the movie boil down to a lackluster script, and it's painfully obvious that this was not only written by committee but was also rewritten like fifty times. So many things happen without proper explanations (like why does the nuclear test go on anyway after the entire base's crew has been killed? Who are the South American kung fu warriors who wear skulls and prowl an abandoned archeological dig every night just waiting for someone to show up?) that it feels like important details were excised from an earlier draft and nobody noticed because they'd all been thinking about the story for so long that they just knew why things should happen anyway. And the script really falls apart in terms of character motivation. Why does Marion instantly fall back in love with Indy after he abandoned her at the altar, and after she made the choice to not even tell him they had a child together? And while Mutt's comment at the end about Jones abandoning them is a decent emotional moment and a real challenge to Indy as the father figure, what is the response? Indy and Marion smile and chuckle. Wow, that's...awkward. Oh, and David Koepp: if you ever get asked to write another Indiana Jones movie, please, please, PLEASE do not stick in another Star Wars quote during the climax. That's one more bit of Indy/Star Wars intertextuality the world does not need. Thanks.

And then there's the entire concept that the movie is based around. While the crystal skulls are "real," and have been part of the archeological world's milieu for ages, they just don't have the widespread mystique that the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail had in the earlier films. Their level of cultural intrigue is much closer to the Shankara stones from Temple of Doom, which gives the movie the burden of having to prove to the audience that the quest for the skull really is significant -- no, really. Compare the lengthy, multiple scenes between Indy and Mutt where Indy has to explain why the skull is powerful to these two sentences of dialogue from Raiders: "The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it is invincible." See the difference? Hitler wants the Ark, and the Ark can do this. There's your motivation. Here, we have Spalko, who's not even Russian, sort of looking for the skull in the name of the Soviets, and it might be able to do some stuff but all we've seen it do so far is act as a highly selective magnet. In Raiders we see an engraving of the Ark spewing "Lightning. Fire. Power of God, or something." In Crystal Skull we see nothing, no evidence of what it can do other than make CGI gunpowder fly through the air, and a couple of lines about psychic mumbo-jumbo. There are so many archeological artifacts or legends to have drawn from and still make a movie about space aliens if you want to, why choose this one?

Yes, this is the first sci-fi Indiana Jones movie. Lucas makes a good point that the earlier movies took place in the 1940s and therefore they were an homage to the action serials of the 1940s, whereas Crystal Skull takes place in the 1950s so making it a flying saucer movie is contextually consistent. That definitely works in theory. In practice, it leads to the most muddled conclusion of the four movies. The first three movies were about faith in the spiritual and the supernatural, whereas this one is about the viability of the SETI project. Like the Star Wars prequels and their transmogrification of The Force from a mystical energy field to a bunch of little space aliens living inside Jedi DNA, Crystal Skull's aliens change Indiana Jones from a man of science learning to live alongside religious faith to a man of science learning that the geeks were always right. It's a fundamentally different approach to the series, which isn't necessarily a bad thing -- it's been nineteen years, after all. But whether that new approach suits your tastes is what really matters. I expect sci-fi elements to creep up in Indiana Jones video games, because they're meant to appeal to geeks like me. The movies have always seemed to aim just slightly higher, and this one doesn't; it's like Lucas wedged the sci-fi element into it just so he could force Spielberg to stick in more CGI than he wanted to.

Speaking of CGI: so many reviewers (and the filmmakers themselves) talk about how this movie has almost no CGI in it. Excuse me? You've got the CGI gophers (in a non sequiter ode to Caddyshack), CGI ants, CGI monkeys...oh, the monkeys. I'm not even gonna go there.

Crystal Skull's version of Last Crusade's ride off into the sunset is a wedding scene, which is not entirely unexpected but also comes a bit out of left field. And the closest thing to spirituality in this movie comes when what can only be appropriately referred to as the breath of God suddenly flings open the church doors and blows Indy's fedora over to Mutt. It's a very weird scene, and a very obtuse way to set up a "passing the baton" joke. Like the rest of the movie, it's got great intentions but its execution leaves a bit to be desired.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's just say that I've seen the movie twice and I completely disagree with you.

3:15 AM  
Blogger Crispinus said...

Well, it was better than Temple of Doom.

Strange to realize that the first film was the best (though, according to the laws of sequels, perhaps this isn't so strange).

Stranger still to realize that, while the original Raiders was a genre piece that transcended its various genres, the last three films have simply been genre pieces -- or pieces of genres strung together.

And I've never liked David Koepp.

6:53 AM  

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