Friday, May 23, 2008
A Shadow of Adventure: Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
Congratulations, Temple Of Doom! You’re no longer the black sheep of the Indiana Jones saga. Now that dishonor belongs to Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, which is the cinematic equivalent of a deadbeat illegitimate child – resting on the laurels of its parentage while only barely resembling its ancestors. The key players from Indiana Jones’ glory years are all here – Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford and John Williams – but the spirit is all gone. Not quite 30 years since Raiders Of The Lost Ark swung in on a whip and helped create the boilerplate for the modern action movie, while paying homage to adventure serials of the 1930s and 40s, this final (please, lord) Indiana Jones movie finds the frenzy that has defined the series but not the thrills. Its sins are many, but the biggest one is this: it’s a drag.
I saw Crystal Skull on its opening day at Washington, D.C.’s beloved Uptown Theater, an AMC-managed monoplex that’s been around since 1936. My afternoon showing wasn’t sold out, but its sizeable crowd was made up of film fans so eager to see Indy on the Uptown’s curved 70-foot screen that they knocked off work early, many of us arriving an hour beforehand so that we could land our favorite seats on the ground or balcony levels. It was a spirited crowd, to be sure. But that was before the movie started. After that, if not for a few chuckles here and there, you might have thought we were watching The Terminal. We were lifeless. Instead of taking our breath away, Crystal Skull left us without a pulse.
This from a film that tries so hard to be a rollercoaster that it comes across less like a sequel to the original Indiana Jones trilogy than a follow-up to the Disneyland ride that the trilogy inspired. And even then it disappoints. Whereas Raiders combines the motif of The Jungle Cruise with the freefalling speed of The Matterhorn, Crystal Skull rumbles and roars but never moves fast enough to let the wind blow through our hair. It simulates adventure without actually achieving it. Making his first Indy picture of the CGI era, Spielberg gets pulled all the wrong directions by a greedy desire to reap the benefits of the available technology. The result is a collection of extravagant impossible-in-the-80s action sequences that frequently come off as exactly what they are: studio-bred.
For example, Crystal Skull’s most elaborate action sequence features a vehicular chase that would have seemed right out of Raiders had its wheels ever touched the ground. Instead, Western-style stunt work is traded for greenscreen choreography. Ford’s Indy and his cast of fellow do-gooders, including Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt Williams, shake and rattle in trucks going nowhere as the camera darts about trying to bring motion to the motionless. At one point LaBeouf’s Mutt straddles a pair of moving vehicles for a preposterous bit of inconsequential swordplay with Cate Blanchett’s villainous Irina Spalko that looks all too realistic, which is to say that it looks staged. As if acknowledging that there’s no real danger there, Mutt’s exhibition of derring-do morphs into a comedic gag, with digital shrubbery repeatedly punishing his exposed groin.
Over-the-top action and tongue-in-cheek playfulness are hallmarks of the Indiana Jones brand, but the antics of Crystal Skull seem largely insincere. Much of the blame must be placed on an awkward screenplay by David Koepp from a story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson that fails to pinpoint the passion and recklessness of our hero. An argument could be made, of course, that the character has softened with age, and understandably so: the last time we left Indy he’d rekindled a relationship with his father after a life spent trying to win dad’s approval. Fair enough. But, dare I say it, Crystal Skull could have actually benefited from a scene similar to the “You know what you are” bit in this spring’s Rambo, wherein the professor would look at himself in the mirror and acknowledge the adrenaline junkie raging inside. This Indy doesn’t get too worked up over anything, as evidenced by his come-and-go collaboration with Irina and his repeated forgiveness of turncoat buddy Mac (Ray Winston). If this Indy isn’t the Indy we fell in love with, what’s the point?
On that note, Ford’s portrayal is adequate given what little he has to work with, though it is a genuine shock to see a much older man in Indy’s trademark duds. My first impression was that Ford looked more like a contestant on The Amazing Race than the guy who slid under a moving truck, but it’s amazing what a crack of the whip will do to awaken nostalgia. After a nicely imagined opening bit that places us back at Raiders’ warehouse of crated government secrets, my fear wasn’t that Ford wouldn’t be able to keep up with the adventure but that the adventure might never get moving. Koepp’s screenplay makes for an especially talky Indy flick, even with the familiar falling-dominoes approach to action set-piece implementation. The downfall is that the characters are constantly telling us their emotions instead of just showing us. No one, including an in-her-prime Blanchett, is ever really asked to act, unless you count the crazed mutterings of John Hurt as the possessed Professor Oxley, and I don’t.
That saddest part of all, though, is that this movie is entirely without romance. Oh, sure, Karen Allen is back as Marion Ravenwood, so there’s a love story of sorts. But the original trilogy’s yearning to turn over rocks and explore the hidden worlds underneath has been replaced by a retrospective fondness for the time when it was fun to turn over rocks, and that’s not the same thing. If The Last Crusade is evidence of just how much Spielberg cared about the legend of Indiana Jones, Crystal Skull is a love letter that he and Lucas wrote to themselves. It’s a celebration of adventures past (not all of them from the Indiana Jones series, by the way) rather than an advancement of the saga. Thus, it fittingly plays like a high school reunion, with folks sucking in their guts and mistakenly providing evidence of their rapidly eroding vision by telling themselves that they’re just as vital as they used to be.
How bad is Crystal Skull? Well, the aforementioned Rambo filled me with more reverence. And had Star Wars prequel-killer Jar Jar Binks wandered into the film (not as unlikely as you might think), it would have done nothing to detract. In the interest of full disclosure I must note that a smattering of applause broke out at the Uptown when my showing ended, but that could have been because we didn’t have to sit through it anymore. Especially compared to its predecessors, there is little here worth celebrating. If Raiders was a B-adventure brought to life with A-level effort by filmmakers eager to prove themselves, Crystal Skull is what happens when storytellers who once explored the known world and outer space with zeal decide to settle for their faded memories of it.