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.


Richard Bellamy said...

I felt the film was doomed as soon as the Paramount mount dissolved into the prairie dog mound and the silly CGI rodent popped his head out of the dirt. Silly and unimaginative - just like the whole shameful mess.

This year's movie doldrums continue. Is there any hope?

Matt Sigl said...

Thanks for one of the most astute reviews out there! I agree totally. CGI killed it. May I add that I thought Shia was terribly miscast as a Greaser; he seemed as tough as pulled taffy. If they wanted to make Indy's son a nerd who grows into his fathers son, Shia's the man. That could have been really charming. But a Brando-esque Wild One? Come ON! Plus the script never had a take on the dynamic between the two. If Last Crusade's charm was vested in the hilarious and focused realtionship between father and son, so this movie should have been as well. As such the relationship between Indy and "Mutt" starts off merely ambivalent and then never really deepens from there. What were they thinking? How many millions did the screenwriter make for this dreck.

Mapeel said...

Excellent review. Your sense of the inertia amid the forced action is dead on. Great site.

Gerry Canavan said...

I caught your link over in the comments at the House Next Door. I have to say that I came away on opening night with a slightly better impression, probably due to some serious nostalgia for my childhood attachment to Indiana Jones, but I have to say you're basically right. What I wrote here when I got home that night:

And of course on some pure plane of aesthetic valuation it must be said that Lucas and Spielberg should have resisted the temptation to mess with perfection and let Last Crusade stand as the proper ending to this story it's always been. In this sense Crystal Skull is actually worse than superfluous—the need to return to Indy, 20 years on, undercuts and arguably destroys entirely the narrative arc that somehow took the cartoon hero of Raiders and turned him into a human being. Last Crusade didn't need a sequel; the trilogy was already a complete story, not Episodes 44-46 in the 108 Adventures of Indiana Jones.

Phantom Menance betrayed us right up front, and was pretty noisy about it. What Crystal Skull does is quieter, subtler, and perhaps ultimately more devastating to its franchise: it takes that human being from Crusade and turns him back to a cartoon again.

Allison said...

In my continued effort to have an open mind and see movies I normally wouldn't, I agreed to see this today.

After a great experience with Iron Man (another movie I normally would scoff at), I was hopeful.

But, I just thought it was clunky, awkward and grasping for a story line worth following.

I tried to visualize myself watching The Goonies, which is what it reminded me of at times, but I think I got too sidetracked with the obvious machismo of Lucas, Spieldberg, et. al. The special effects were just too overwhelming and didn't allow me to ever feel I was in a fantasy world.

Just as you said...they wanted the car scene to actually look real. I hate to be the person thinking, "Ah...that's stupid, that would never happen!", but when they create the effects in an effort to make them appear real, it's hard to let go of reality.

Anyway, as usual, you're review was really insightful and fun to read.

P.S. How much bronzer did they use on Harrison's chest?

Anonymous said...

Good review. Indy 4 is completely soulless. Check out the movie website and watch the 4 Raiders clips and you'll see the magic again.

Fox said...

So I went and saw it....

And I agree with you.

I'm disappointed. Even with a lackluster script - as you correctly pointed out as being most at blame - Spielberg is talented enough to pull films like this off. Even when he's halfway directing, like on *The Lost World*, I think he does wonders with a limp scripts.

Still, I can't help being charmed by LeBeouf. But when Harrison Ford was on screen I kept thinking of the attitude of old guy that thinks he looks cool with an earring. Blegh!!!

Heck, I WISH I was watching The Terminal instead... I think that movie is great!

Jason Bellamy said...

Via Craig at The Man from Porlock, I came across this Mystery Man on Film piece (a great blog about screenwriting, if you're intereted in that stuff):

Mystery Man lists 50 flaws of "Crystal Skull." I don't agree with all of them (at least 40 though), because none of the Indiana Jones pictures can be viewed through a scope of reality. But some of these are right on the nose.

If you're interested.

Mark said...

Excellent review, Jason, as usual. Michelle and I saw the picture in New Jersey on Sunday and had the same reactions, especially the observation that the movie feels more like a reprise of the Disney ride than a new adventure.

And hokahey's right on about the CGI rodent in the opening scene. My hopes started fading with that scene too.

Unknown said...

Great lede, dude.

And I counted three shots of the varmints .. WTF???

Jason Wilde said...

Man, what I wouldn't give to be able to write like you. Looks like The Cooler's following is building. That's fantastic. Although I think you should make it a goal to get a specific word into each review, like Apatow with the one-penis-per-movie thing.