Thursday, July 05, 2012

“If you want to be a good archeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library.”

The Indiana Jones trilogy has a rightfully cemented place in pop culture history. They STILL rocket-fast pacing and ADVENTURE! that is second to none. You would think that assembling as much of the cast and crew together to make a sequel almost twenty years after The Last Crusade would yield something, well, awesome. Unfortunately its more problematic than that.

Yes, its time to be an adult and acknowledge that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull exists.

Its 1957 and Indiana Jones gets dragged into a Communist plot to secure some ancient, bizarre crystal skulls and harness their power to conquer the free world. Except the Soviets find one of the skulls in the first ten minutes, so its really more of a race to figure out just why the hell these things are important. That’s the part of the story that makes sense. Near the end it goes completely off-the-rails nonsensical.

Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones: Harrison Ford can still pull off the proper heroic look in the fedora and bullwhip, and his performance as the grizzled and weary veteran is…probably not a stretch for a grizzled veteran of the film industry. In this movie, Jones gets to play around with being paternal with his long-lost son (Hey, its been 4 years and it wasn’t a very good surprise anyway so the statue of limitations ran out on that spoiler).

George “Mac” Michale: Ray Winstone is playing a variant of the “untrustworthy henchman” that Alfred Molina played in the first movie, except here Mac is in it for the long haul. A Brit with a fondness for gambling and chronically unable to stop backstabbing people, he’s ostensibly with/against the CIA and the Russians. His character elements are as follows: he's greedy and backstabs his allies constantly. That’s henchman level development right there and it baffles me that the character sticks around for most of the movie. I like Winstone, but Mac’s in the movie for far too long and his schtick gets old quickly, because after the first betrayal I have a hard time believing Jones would have the patience to put up with him.

Henry “Mutt” Williams: Shia LaBeouf plays Marion’s greaser son. He’s got a motorcycle, loves combing his hair back, knows fencing (which sounds random, but is decently explained in the movie), and is Indy’s progeny. LaBeouf got slagged for being in this movie, but he’s actually one of the better parts. He’s got a great dynamic with Harrison Ford and injects some youthful energy to a movie filled with a predominantly older cast. Oh yeah, and his phobia is scorpions, but that’s important for exactly one brief scene.

Dean Charles Stanforth: Jim Broadbent replaces the late Denholm Elliott as Indy’s sympathetic office-jockey buddy. A minor role, but Broadbent does it well.

Professor Harold “The Ox” Oxley: John Hurt! Plot-wise, Ox is an old friend of Indy’s who’s the only thing close to an expert on the crystal skulls. He’s also Mutt’s presumed father, so that’s why Mutt recruits Indy to find him. Now Ox has been driven insane by the skull and as a result speaks cryptically.

Marion Ravenwood-Williams: Karen Allen returns as Indy’s once and former and once again love interest. She’s Mutt’s mother and takes a more active role in the proceedings once she’s reunited with Dr. Jones.

Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko: Cate Blanchett is our villain this time, and like Jones, she is someone who is driven to find truth and dig up lost information. She’s also a phony telepath and enamored with the actual telepathic abilities of the crystal skulls. Spalko wants to use the skulls’ abilities to blanket the world in glorious Soviet Russia. Which puts her in an interesting contrast to previous “smart” Indy villains, because Belloq and Elsa were motivated by self-interest and were simply using the other villains as a means to an end. Its an interesting change of pace, but after its mentioned in a conversation, it never comes up again as a thematic element.

Colonel Dovchenko: Igor Jijikine plays the Soviet muscle to Spalko’s brains. He’s actually quite good, fulfilling the role of a physically imposing Number Two who can mix it up in a fight with our hero and surviving a few rounds.

Directed by Steven Spielberg with Director of Photography being Janusz Kaminski. Visually, the movie is all over the place. While it still has traces of the “beautiful grittiness” of the first three films, a lot of the film has gone through heavy post-production editing. The biggest example is the jungle chase, which mixes on-location driving scenes with blue screen scenes to pull off the dangerous and/or impossible. Theoretically this isn’t a terrible thing, but there’s such a disconnect between the location and sound stage scenes that it rips you out of the moment. I’m reminded of Attack of the Clones, and THAT IS NOT A GOOD THING. For the CGI scenes the lighting will often come from an odd location (such as EVERYWHERE) and compounded with lens flair effects and a slightly glossy sheen means that the heavily greenscreened shots look so much more fake and artificial compared to the “real” shots that immediately cut into them. That inconsistency really hurts the suspension of disbelief, especially when the movie digresses for a few seconds to have Mutt swing up into the trees and get accompanied by monkeys like he was Tarzan before returning to the rest of the movie. I can't watch that scene without wincing. This kind of dichotomy is present throughout the movie: A legitimately thrilling motorcycle chase across a college campus has to share screen time with some hideous and gratuitous CGI prairie dogs.

Curiously, the movie is also the tamest of the three in terms of pulp ADVENTURE! violence. Characters are gunned down off camera fairly often in this and there’s never very much blood. In comparison, Indy domes a henchman in Raiders and you see the entry wound on his forehead. To be fair to Skull, several Commie goons get incinerated on camera by a jet engine, but being CG, it lacks the same goon-killing satisfaction as stuntmen with exploding squib packets.

Characters created by George Lucas & Philip Kaufman, Story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, Screenplay by David Koepp. The script is…not as good as the visuals, and there are problems with the visuals. First though, let me say good things. There’s a lot of decent Indiana Jones movie banter, and from the point where Indy meets Mutt to the beginning of the Jungle Chase is actually legitimately fun and hits all the classic beats. There’s a mystery to solve regarding an artifact, a race against the villains to find out what it is, globe trotting, character growth and puzzle solving. The beginning falters a lot with a large amount of unnecessary things, and I’ll get to the ending in a moment, but the middle of the film is actually FUN. If the entire movie had been like that, there might not be a problem. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.


During the Jungle chase, things swing back toward heavy CGI effects and Prequel-level style-without-substance. Even so, that alone isn’t enough to scuttle the movie. One of the titular crystal skulls is found within ten minutes of the movie, so the actual chase to find another magical plot device--err crystal skull, doesn't actually matter as much in this movie. Instead, the big question the characters are asking is “what does it do?” The answer is a lot apparently, from being able to pick and choose which metals (ferrous or not) it can attract to itself, to telepathy, to mind controlling an army of ants. While the Skull(s) remain mysterious, they work well as plot devices. The movie then tries to explain the origin of the skulls and…fails to do so without making the ending a confusing mess.

The skulls belong to a strange race of extra-dimensional creatures that have been on Earth for a while. Certainly long enough to have an effect on Mesoamerican civilization. One of these skulls was taken away from their lost city by a conquistador named Orellana in the 15th century. So the rest of the “aliens” are waiting for the return of the skull so they can go home. But Orellana only took the skull in the 15th century, so what was stopping them from going home before that? Likely nothing, which implies the creatures are lazy or incompetent. In trying to explain the skulls, the movie only digs a hole filled with eleventh-hour questions and even more confusion than we started with. The previous movies at least had the sense to keep the magical plot device suitably vague throughout.

There’s another part regarding the plot device that is a drastic change from the Trilogy, and that’s the symbolic nature of the artifact. In the Trilogy, the plot device always provides Indy with some intangible reward before it slips through his fingers. In Raiders, he learns to accept the existence of faith because the Ark’s God-lightning blasts Nazis. In Temple of Doom, he learns altruism because he transitions from a mercenary grave-robber to someone chosen by Siva to save a village and destroy an evil cult by recovering the holy Sankara Stones. In Last Crusade, he finds reconciliation with his father by reuniting and together they find the Holy Grail, an artifact associated with healing. In Crystal Skull Indy gets…reunited with Marion? But that’s not something the Skull was necessary for. The skull doesn’t symbolize love (it would look horrible on a Valentine card). Any old Macguffin would’ve done. There’s nothing about the skull or any symbolism involved with it that lends itself to a thematic development for Indy. (Ark=Faith, Sankara Stones=Benevolence, Grail=Reconciliation, Crystal Skull=Psychic Migraine, though I suppose the movie goes with “Knowledge was their treasure” but this doesn’t actually work in the actual context of the film. Indy doesn’t GAIN any wisdom in the movie, he already has it by virtue of having survived a lifetime of ADVENTURE!) Its just a vaguely mystical object and along the way he happens to get back together with his old girlfriend. Knowledge isn’t imparted onto Indy, because by the end of the movie he’s just as baffled as the audience by what the hell just happened. The character who get rewarded in the movie is Oxley, because he gets his sanity back thanks to the Skull, but this isn’t a movie about Harold Oxley, its about Indiana Jones.

Also, saying that “knowledge was their treasure” is kind of bullcrap when the aliens also had a giant room full of actual treasure of archeological significance that gets destroyed when the temple collapses. You’d think an archaeologist would feel at least a little bad about that, even if saving his own life took precedence.

Original Music by John Williams, and he’s still fantastic. The score is probably the least of the four, but its still very good.

The Verdict
Judgment time. Is it a terrible movie that “rapes the franchise?” Nah, even though that was a funny episode of South Park. Its certainly the worst of the series, but that’s more of a reflection of how great the Trilogy is. Its not as bad as Transformers 2, or the Prequel Trilogy combined. Yeah, I said it. Indy 4 is better than all 3 Star Wars Prequels by virtue of not being full of huge chunks of boring. And its better than a lot of the 50s sci-fi movies this was inspired by because it doesn’t feature people sitting in a lab and talking for 20 minutes or 20 minutes worth of people walking from one place to another because Roger Corman had to  pad out a scene on a budget.  However, the stuff that’s bullshit in this movie is truly bullshit.

I think its more akin to Spider-Man 3, actually. It crams in a ton of stuff that’s unnecessary and weighs the whole thing down. “Unnecessary” is kind of the actual theme of the movie. In stark contrast to the sleek Raiders, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is downright bloated with unnecessary things that drag the movie down like a dehydrated pack mule. There’s so much in the movie that’s extraneous. What was the point of the CGI gophers? The CGI monkeys? The Atomic Testing Site? The skull-faced cemetery guards who run away almost immediately? The FBI agents who act like dicks and then disappear from the movie completely? Any of those things could have been omitted without a single loss of ANYTHING from the movie (though Neil Flynn’s cameo as an FBI Agent was a fun little touch). That’s all narrative chaff that distracts from the distilled core of ADVENTURE! that Indiana Jones is all about. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Very Long Title ends up being an unnecessary film, first because The Last Crusade capped the Trilogy off perfectly, and secondly because its ultimately a mediocre ADVENTURE! film that isn’t actually about anything. It lacks the sincerity, the fire, the joie de vie/esprit d’corps (and any other French loan phrases) that the Trilogy possesses. Its not the Worst. Movie. Ever. Not by a long shot. It is, instead, a forgettable Indiana Jones movie, and that’s the real disappointment of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

No comments: