27 May 2008

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Caution: There will be “spoilers” in this post about the newest Indiana Jones film. However, considering the movie’s predictability, I can’t in good conscience use the term “spoilers” without ironicizing the word with quotation marks. As I’ve already done twice.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (“Indy 4” to most viewers, but hereafter Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to me—I’m not into lazy shortcuts when it comes to movie titles) is defiantly and proudly the fourth best of the series. This comes as no shock to me, since Steven Spielberg has long ago moved away from his role as the populist genre filmmaker, and handily been replaced by Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, et al. George Lucas, of course, lost his touch and audience’s trust well over a decade ago (perhaps longer depending on how critical you’re willing to be), so as I walked in to see the first Indiana Jones film in nineteen years, I was prepared for it not to recapture the old joy.

It doesn’t. But for the first half-hour, it genuinely promises to go someplace different. These opening salvos show the filmmakers genuinely interested in engaging their new setting of the late 1950s. The golden era of adventure is done, the movie serial is dead, and the last of the pulp magazines have expired; welcome, Dr. Jones, to the eon of flannel suits, Elvis, the military-industrial complex, communist witch-hunts, saucer-sighting scares, and the mushroom cloud. The film’s most striking image has Indy staring up at the wrath of the atom blooming over the American Desert. The power of the Ark, the Grail, and the Shankara stones are nothing compared to humanity’s own burgeoning power in a frightening new time.

At that moment, I really believed that The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had found something to call its own.

But once the story shifts into Peru and the search for the titular object, Spielberg and Co. crawl into a safe zone and give the viewers what they think they expect. Chasing the artifact, vine-covered ruins with deathtraps, mobs of angry natives, a vehicular chase, Indy getting wailed on by a big bruiser who then meets an accidental end, swarms of creepy-crawlies, and the villain destroyed by the power of the artifact. It’s the same old, same old, and lacking any startling moment that will stand out for viewers in the long term. From this point on, the film offers passable entertainment and little more. Only Shia LaBeouf, playing the sidekick and substitute action star “Mutt” Williams, really shines. LaBeouf’s ‘50s greaser prevents Harrison Ford from having to get engaged in action shenanigans he clearly couldn’t carry in his senescence, but he also provides an energy that the rest of the cast desperately needs. It’s sad that a fine actor like John Hurt doesn’t get much to do but babble, and Ray Winstone’s character could have been sliced from the film without anybody noticing. As for our villains, they hardly register. Cate Blanchett’s Russian villain is a cartoon gag, not a potential menace. I never felt that she could really lay down the hurt the way that Toht or Mola Ram could. Her big moment of torture: she forces Indy to… gasp!… look at the crystal skull for a couple of minutes! Oh, the horror! Life in Siberia must have been awful under taskmasters like Spalko.

I’m willing to cut Harrison Ford some slack. He’s a bit sleepy as Indy this time around, but at least he’s playing to the character’s age without making a fuss over it. This is how I would envision Dr. Henry Jones Jr. in early retirement, and if it doesn’t mean excitement, at least it isn’t ridiculous. I won’t cut Karen Allen much slack, since I hotly anticipated the return of Marion Ravenwood, the best of Indy’s female sparring partners, only to find Allen flat and seemingly disinterested. This isn’t the same Marion, and I don’t see why Indy would marry her at the conclusion, except as a way to transition Mutt into possible sequels as the new hero.

The finale goes for broke with special effects and noise, and I’ll grant it superiority to The Last Crusade’s sleepy wrap-up, but look how far behind it is compared to the first two: the Ark’s crispy Nazi and face-melt barbecue, and “Caution: Bridge Out.” The signature big action set-piece is similarly a snooze, and even Last Crusade has this CGI-heavy jungle chase beat solid. It has too much in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark’s legendary truck pursuit, and lacks the creativity of the runaway mine cart in Temple of Doom. The sequence plunges into a piece of looniness involving monkeys that must have come from Lucas’s fiat. Steven, you should have least stood up to George on this point: no Ewoks! Perhaps you had to make this sacrifice to prevent George from inserting Jar Jar Binks.

I envision this conversation taking place between the two head creators during pre-production:
Spielberg: Come on George, we can’t have a big flying saucer appear at the end of the film.
Lucas: No, folks love that stuff! Especially little kids!
Spielberg: I like having some science fiction, but isn’t that too far-fetched?
Lucas: Nah, It’ll be neat. And we won’t have to rely on actors or anything. Just computers.
Spielberg: I sort of like working with actors.
Lucas: And we’ll have tall skinny aliens with enormous heads and thin necks.
Spielberg: I’ve done that before. Three times actually. Can’t we try something diff—
Lucas: Now, about the monkeys…
Spielberg: Yeah, I wanted to have some words with you about that. And these groundhogs…

Like my fictional Spielberg in the example, I enjoy the addition of aliens (or “transdimensional beings,” which amounts to the same thing) to the adventures of Indiana Jones, since it jells with the genre movies of the day. But stepping over into a full-blown spacecraft lifting up from the Amazon takes us too far from the ‘dirt and trucks and moving stone walls’ style of the other films. It’s too much, and done with such mechanical execution that it’s a touch boring as well.

John Williams gets a chance to trot out some chestnuts from his musical repertoire. “Marion’s Theme” from Raiders of the Lost Ark makes a pleasing returning; more pleasing than the character’s return. The “Ark” motif pops up in the Area 51 segment, and surprisingly the “Grail” motif from The Last Crusade has several key moments, used to denote the Jones family legacy of father-son-grandson. I’m glad to see that Williams still has the chops after all these years.

Although cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is one of the best in the business, his diffused and fantasy-themed photography looks substantially different from Douglas Slocombe’s “old Hollywood” sharp-edged style from the first three movies. It doesn’t look right, and doesn’t give the old Indy vibe. (Slocombe retired after The Last Crusade.)

During the eighties, Indiana Jones was a ruling box-office figure. But this Summer, he’s a laid-back and disappointing visitor in a land claimed by Iron Man and Batman. (Interestingly, Batman made his big-screen assault on popular culture the same year that The Last Crusade came out.)

Finally, I now feel comfortable with the assertion that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the second best film in the series. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull clinched it for me. “Prepare to meet Kali… in hell!

Oh, and you betrayed Shiva.