6.10.2008

Indiana Jones And the Forever Long Rant About How Kingdom Of the Crystal Skull Made Me Feel

First off, this is a SPOILER-laden review of Indiana Jones & the Kingdom Of the Crystal Skull. There are SPOILERS. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. If you haven't seen it but plan on seeing it, you should probably go now because I'm going to be dishing out some SPOILERS and if you haven't seen it, you will be SPOILED by my SPOILERS. Did I make my point re: there being SPOILERS in this post? Because there are. SPOILERS, that is. This post is thick with them. I don't have time for your precious fanboy feelings. I'm going to review this movie and I'm not going to worry if I let a SPOILER or twenty slip. Got it, boyo?

Also, it's hecka long.

You have been warned.

Okay, with that out of the way, a little context. I've already admitted to my blind obeisance to the Indy franchise. Like the Star Wars franchise (whose luster has diminished in the wake of the Lucas-helmed prequels ... but we'll touch on that later), it's one of the building blocks of who I am as a person. Those movies, more than any others I saw at the time (and the 80's, while being a rough period for fashion and popular music, was a great time for "kids" movies, mainly due to the popularity of those franchises, come to think of it), captured my imagination and made me the creative person I am today. A little hyperbolic, but true nonetheless. It's all George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's fault.

That said, I didn't go into this movie blind. I'd skimmed the lukewarm reviews, had minimal conversations with co-workers and family who had seen it. All signs pointed to it being a little disappointing, but not Phantom Menace/midichlorians disappointing. So I braced myself for the worst. I mean, it's pretty obvious that whatever spring Mr. Lucas was dipping from that gave us the could city of Bespin, the Temple Of Doom and the Jedi Knights has long since dried up. I'm not expecting much from him, as sad as that is. And even with the lowered expectations of dealing with crazy old Uncle George who I thought was so cool and hip and funny when I was a kid but is now just sort of goofy and simple, I sat staring at the credits going "What?"

I really wish I could say it was the CGI prairie dog reaction shot(s) or the unconvincing special effects that sucked every ounce of danger or peril out of some pretty elaborate set pieces or the or the "skull of an extra-dimensional being" MacGuffin or the freaking CGI The LaBeouf swinging like freaking Tarzan with freaking CGI monkeys. I mean, yeah, those things are stupid (well, I dunno, I think the skulls sort of worked as the de rigueur mystical MacGuffin , especially considering that this installment is set in the McCarthy/Atomic/Cold War era), but to be honest, I was expecting that stuff. I sat through the Prequels. And still sort of like large portions of them. Slightly stupid stuff that you immediately block from your memory/edit from your recollection of the film is par for the course when you're dealing with Old Uncle George these days.

No, I took heart in the fact that, no matter how crazy Old Uncle George might get, at least he has Steven Spielberg there to keep him on task. I mean, he's Steven Spielberg. You know, Steven Spielberg? Greatest living director and all that? Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan and E.T. and Jaws and Close Encounters and like a million other modern masterpieces? He'll make sure that the not-crazy parts work, right? I mean, he's made some of the best movies of the 20th century, right? He'll keep the keel even here, right?

Wrong. Well, not entirely. There are interviews online where Old Uncle George mentions that he wanted Indy 4 to be a lot more ridiculous, so Spielberg did his job. But what no one counted on was someone having to restrain Old Uncle Steve.

In fact, if Lucas' lack of restraint is in flagrante delicto in Crystal Skull (and it is, but nowhere near the CGI/ADHD eye-assault of the Prequels), Spielberg's penchant for schmaltz is turned to 11. If you thought AI was muddled and syrupy and The Terminal was overly sentimental, well, this is like both of those movies. Put together. In the middle of act two, we're treated to an appearance from Marion Ravenwood from Raiders who just sort of shows up (when everybody's standing around in the Russians base camp trading exposition FOR. EV. ER., but more on that later) and all of the sudden, they're all gooey-eyed over each other. It's all very abrupt and syrupy (that line about how the one problem with the other women was that "They weren't you," is delivered so tiredly that I stifled an eye roll for fear of missing something awesome. I should have just rolled my eyes.) and not at all convincing.

Which brings me to the what I call the Mutt Paradox. The filmmakers invest a lot of time in "Mutt" Williams (Shaia LeBeouf in Brando's The Wild One drag). He's sort of a Mary Sue character, (he likes knives/swords instead of whips! He's a greaser! He's just like Indiana Jones only younger! And with a motorcycles! He's EXTREME!) and in fact I thought the positioning of him as the successor to the fedora (if not literally, then figuratively) was going to be a lot more overt, when in fact Mutt spends the first act and a half of the film as the "screaming girl"/Watson part normally relegated to Karen Allen's Marion or Kate Caphshaw's Shrilly McScreamerton or whatever her name was or the hot Nazi girl from The Last Crusade and then abruptly fades into the background once Marion steps out of nowhere in act 2, only to reappear for the aforementioned lamentable CGI monkey vine swing scene and then to get nailed repeatedly in the balls by CGI shrubbery.

No joke, people.

I have a feeling that the story initially went like this: Marion seeks out Jones because some thugs have kidnapped her son and Oxley (although I'll argue the importance of Oxley here in a second). This gives their romance a little more time to acclimate and grow instead of rushing in sometime before the second act closes and demanding we acknowledge it. Ah, but here's the problem, while the "Marion comes to Indy" story works a lot better, you are short-changing Spielberg's new man-crush, theLeBeouf and sacrificing the tween dollar. I mean, what right-minded teenager is going to plop $10 to see some old people engage in some Bogey-Bacall banter before going off to explore some South American graveyard? It's like On Golden Pond with car chases.

So you're left with two options: play down Mutt and risk not getting the audience to like him if you decide to build an X-Files in the 50's franchise around him (which might actually be cool if it's handled right), or have some old people look longingly into each others' eyes while punching crazy skull people. Which leaves us with a weird compromise: Mutt is introduced, sort of developed (through talking, a technique that mars this picture more than anything else) and promptly disposed of once Marion shows up halfway and plays out her story in fast-forward. Why? I have a feeling Old Uncle Steve wanted to shoot that soft-lensed wedding scene because he's a sentimental old codger. There, I said it. AND he wanted to set up the possibility of a Mutt franchise. So we're left with neither story or character given a fair shake and both end up feeling rushed and/or not fleshed out. Sucks, huh? What's that saying about having cake and eating it, too?

So if you can't tell, I didn't mind The LeBeouf. He's not a terrible actor, he does what he needs to without flourish. He's like a Ron Howard film, very workmanlike. Not at all charismatic or flashy or groundbreaking. His performance isn't going to cure cancer, but it moves the story along and doesn't screw anything up. He's like a plumber, not an actor: reliable, efficient and competent. Maybe he'll get awesome and I'll be eating my words. Who knows?

Oh well, we have Cate Blanchett to look forward to as the villain, right? Hmmm, not so much. I think Crystal Skull sort of killed the Cate Blanchett crush I was nurturing (No, it didn't). Thanks a lot, Uncles Steve and George. Her character, a Soviet psychic hunting for mystical artifacts for Mother Russia (and this isn't all that far-fetched, the Soviets are known to have experimented with psychics during the Cold War), begs to chew scenery, and, whether this is one of those moments where Spielberg toned down Lucas' bonkers or if it's just that Blanchett phoned this in for that sweet, sweet Burger King money (doubtful that, this woman is an acting machine), her character never seems to make sense or do anything but spout exposition and follow Indy around. She's total boiler plate villain, nothing special, nothing particularly menacing, even.

A hero is only as good as their villain and there's nothing to hate here, nothing to understand, even. I mean, it's Cate Blanchett playing Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle with psychic powers, give her something to work with. It's! Cate!! Blanchett!!! I'm red in the face from screaming it here, people. It's a total wasted opportunity. I mean, Belloq in Raiders, "Om Sheba" guy from Temple Of Doom, the British guy in the white suit in Last Crusade, all classy (Well, except for "Om Sheba" guy, though that headdress was pretty stylin'), slightly crazy and duplicitous. Here you have a world-class actor and you give her ... nothing. It's like having LeBron ref your kid's basketball game. I mean, if you're going to introduce psychics and aliens into the mythos, go whole hog. Am I right? Am I crazy? I don't think anybody would have minded if she were a total psychopath who blew people's brains up with her mind. And by "anybody" I mean "me." And I'm all that counts.

And speaking of wasted characters, WTH?!? was up with Mac and Ox (which, if you factor in Mutt, the prairie dogs, the monkeys and the killer ants and there's a serious animal fetish going on here)? I mean, okay, you need Mac for the opening scene, sure. But he's totally unnecessary everywhere else. And Ox is important as a vehicle to get to the city, but he's totally just thrown in there and seems to serve no purpose beyond mumbling poetry and looking stinky. It just felt cluttered, character-wise, especially by the end when you don't know or care whose side Mac is on and you're wondering why Indy's so desperate to save this guy who's shown what a self-centered douche he is at every turn. I don't care if the dude was Beowulf, let him die, Indy.

(An interesting caveat: I recently watched the bloody Australian western The Proposition which starred both Winstone and Jon Hurt where Hurt plays pretty much the same character, a poetry-spouting madman who's been out in the bush too long. Coincidence? Probably, yes. And while we're at it, this was the third film in the last two weeks that I saw that starred Cate Blanchett: her skittish Dylan imitation in I'm Not There, dual roles in Jim Jarmusch's excellent Coffee & Cigarettes and then, well, this.)

So yeah, there's some problems, but to be honest, these are the least of the worries. As I've outlined, these can be remedied or are symptoms of a larger problem. No, the biggest problem is that this movie is DUMB. It treats obvious plot points like revelations (The skulls are from aliens! Mutt is Indy's kid!) and expositions itself to death. At its heart, the Indiana Jones franchise is pulp done smart. It's sort of goofy and fun, but in the end, it's smart. Even the least successful film of the first three, Temple Of Doom, manages to delve into psychological horror (and actual horror, too. Hearts ripped from chests still beating which burst into flames? FREAKY! Also: AWESOME!) between all of the Scooby-Doo room running and Kate Capshaw screaming bloody murder. Indy is an exercise in taking genre conventions and tweaking them to work in the here and now. It's pulp done right. And one of the "rules of good pulp", according to Mr. Cunningham over at Pulp 2.0 is that "characters ... learn things that will come in handy later while in the midst of danger and daring-do" and not by talking about them. The first three movies gave you barely enough time to remember where you were, Crystal Skull's second act is composed mainly of people sitting around talking about stuff you already figured out.

"Dude, these skulls are from aliens!"
"No way!"
"Yes way!"
"You mean that corpse you took from Area 51 at the beginning of the film, the one where afterward I was questioned by FBI guys about what I saw in New Mexico, that was an alien corpse?!"
"Yeah!"
"And this thing that looks like an alien skull is not crystal as I had earlier surmised, but is, in very fact, an actual ALIEN SKULL!"
"Yes. And it has powers and stuff."
"Dude! I never would have believed that!"
"Yeah, I know! And now I'm going to make you STARE at it! For like a whole minute!"
"Noooooo!"

Yeesh. And they don't even have the guts to call them aliens. They're "extra-dimensional beings" which is like calling comic books graphic novels so people don't make fun of you. If there's one thing I've learned in this life, it's that sometimes you have to commit to the ridiculous, right comic book about a billionaire who dresses up in bat-themed pajamas to beat up on circus people and the deformed?

"Right, Dylan. To the Batcave!"

I really wish I could say that I loved this film. I really do. But maybe I'm just too old to have fun in a movie? There's a contingency of Lucas apologists who say things like "Well, it's just as ridiculous as the other Indy movies," and maybe that's right, but I "bought" that ridiculous and whether it was the fact that I was three/six/twelve years old, those movies were hecka fun. And for whatever reason, most likely a potent cocktail of the things I've laid out in this way-too-long autopsy of my childhood, I had no fun at all. In fact, I was bored and sad for a large chunk of this movie. I didn't "buy" it. Like, at all. And as much as I'd love to believe it was my fault, I think the filmmakers, whose job it is to warp my reality and make me buy into the fiction they're selling once those house lights go off, hold at very least some of the blame.

[ sigh ]

Who knows, maybe I'll catch it on TV five years from now and it'll be a hoot. I mean, I caught The Phantom (not The Phantom Menace. The Phantom. With Billy Zane as the 1930's pulp hero. The purple guy? "Smash evil!" That one.) on the SciFi Channel one Saturday afternoon and had a blast. Maybe I'll watch it with my daughter in a few years and she'll get a thrill from the killer ant scene similar to the thrill I got when I watched Indy get pummeled by a gigantic Nazi who was outdone by Indy's brains.

Well, Indy's brains and an airplane propeller.

Till next time, kids.

5 comments:

b3n said...

You know what this movie needed?

Flamethrowers.

jason quinones said...

you need to see the hulk to wash that bad lucas flick imagery outta your head! i hear it's good. here's hoping.

once i read about the swinging cgi monkeys on the web i didn't think i needed to see it(much less pay 10 bucks!)in the theater!

Jesse said...

I was totally excited to see the movie, trying to ignore all the rumors about "ALIENS!" and kept away from any reviews so as not to spoil the experience (it helped that I saw it at 10AM the day it opened, thanks to a Microsoft-hosted screening!). Like you Dyl I grew up on Indy and to this day Raiders is my #1 Fave of all time and Indy is my fave character of all time...

I thought the movie started absolutely perfectly. Loved the entire first act. Loved the iconic shots Spielberg put together (young, carefree America speeding across the desert with the top down, stoic, nervous russians in their stolen US fatigues, the shot-in-the-shadows of Indy putting on the fedora). Sure each of these set pieces was called out a mile away and couldn't have been more dramatic if a 60 ft neon cowboy was pointing to them (hey how come he wasn't in the film?) (come on, Shia coming in on a Harley? With the leather jacket? AND the pimp captain's hat? A bit much) but it was all just tons of fun.

Then like you said act 2 was rushed, too much expostion not enough cool story-driving action, Cate was mostly wasted (though man she is the Queen of Awesome).

And act 3? Well let's just say a little bit of me died when the spaceship unearthed from beneath the ruins and flew away.

It took a couple of days for the bad taste to wash away, but looking back, all in all it was a perfectly harmless, fun, summer matinee popcorn movie. Nothing more (and Raiders was so much more), nothing less. I can even forgive the flying monkeys (what with the intended homage to Tarzan and all...even if it was completely unneccesary).

OK so that's it. So far Iron Man is the movie of the summer to beat.

Cunningham said...

Yes - Indy Jones 4 goes down like bad pulp...

(Burrrrrp!)


And leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

chrishaley said...

Great write-up, Dylan.
I don't know if you're too old to have fun at a movie, but I know I'm not, because I've had fun at the movies lately, and you not liking this movie is not your fault.
There.
I said it.