Monday, October 20, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Shia LeBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent

Running Time: 122 min

Rating: PG-13

**1/2 (out of ****)

There comes a point where anticipation turns to dread. For many this year that point was called Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I have to tread carefully here because while there’s no denying expectations always play a role in how you view a film, it shouldn’t determine it. Had this movie not been burdened with the “Indiana Jones” tag and reputation it could just be written off as a poorly made goofy throwback to B-movies of the ‘50’s. Judged strictly on those terms (which I think George Lucas and Steven Spielberg naively intended) it’s a near miss that doesn’t really work. However, as an actual Indiana Jones film it can’t be called anything other than a massive disappointment. It’s unreasonable to expect this to live up to the standard set by the first three films, but it isn’t unreasonable to expect a great film. Or even just a good one.

Calling Raiders of the Lost Ark one of the ten or twenty greatest motion pictures of all-time may not be an overstatement and for good reason it’s made many appearances on such lists. The Temple of Doom is still to this day a massively underrated sequel while The Last Crusade works as the perfect closing chapter to the series. Like many, I grew up with the character, but wouldn’t be so happy to see him on the screen again that any junk Spielberg and Lucas threw up there would have been satisfying. I can’t say that for any character or any movie series. We’re kidding ourselves if we think any big studio movie is made for any reason other than money. But that doesn’t mean it has to FEEL like it. All two hours of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull could have easily been replaced with footage of Spielberg and Lucas bathing themselves in piles of cash and it would have had the same effect.
It’s easy and probably a lot more fun to just point the finger at Lucas since he proudly takes credit for thinking it would be a great idea to center the fourth Indy film around a story about Area 51 and aliens. But Spielberg, being only the most powerful producer and director alive could have just said “NO.” Instead, he not only caved into Lucas’ insane idea, but directed the mess himself and made what’s easily his worst film in years. But more frightening is the possibility that maybe Spielberg really did think he was doing it right and this is how he views Indiana Jones. Or at least this is how he thinks we view him.

One thing that’s perfectly clear is that this Indy is not the same man from the other three films and not because he’s older. He’s a different person…a cartoon. Largely, because he’s surrounded by cartoonish elements. And while the movie works better as a stand-alone effort than as part of the series, for the uninitiated it doesn’t serve as an effective introduction to the character. The saving grace is that in the exciting last hour Spielberg seems to get his act together a little bit and something I didn’t expect to strike a chord ends up working better than expected. By then it’s too late though. The film has to settle for being just unintentionally hilarious and entertaining, nothing more than a mildly fun diversion. We waited 19 years for THIS?

The nostalgia rush of seeing Harrison Ford in the brown leather jacket and fedora again, brandishing the bullwhip, lasts approximately five to ten minutes. At least it did for me. It’s great to hear John Williams score at first but then it’s all downhill from there when you realize he uses it gratingly to punctuate every emotion in the film. I remember it beign used more sparingly and not being nearly as annoying. The best way to sum the movie up is as an extended mediocre episode of The X-Files, but way less smart and with cheesier looking visual effects. Explaining the details of the moronic script, penned by Spielberg’s go-to screenwriter David Koepp (The Lost World), could result in the death of brain cells.

Koepp can sometimes be a good writer, but most of the time he's not. His script wouldn't be completely awful for another kind of movie (likely a sci-fi comedy) but for this one it’s a disaster. The film opens with Ford being kidnapped by Russian baddie Irena Spalko (a dominatrix looking Cate Blanchett) who drags him to Area 51 to help locate a mysterious artifact. And so begins the hunt for the Crystal Skull which supposedly has psychic alien powers. Along the way Indy encounters young greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) who has some valuable information about the artifact’s whereabouts and ends up joining him on the quest. And unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year you know he’s also there for another very important reason.

The supporting cast, which also includes Ray Winstone as Indy’s new sidekick and Jim Broadbent as the University Dean, are fine and and LeBeouf’s Mutt is far from the Jar Jar Binks of the series, as was initially feared by many. At worst, LeBeouf’s character is merely goofy but he does what he can with it and shares good chemistry and timing with Ford. Spalko is nothing if not a wildly memorable villain, although I’m not sure she’s an appropriate villain for an Indiana Jones film. Or maybe she’s too appropriate a villain for this one. It takes a special kind of great actress to be able to play a villainess this severe and cartoonish to full tilt and Blanchett brings the goods. But the performance can’t be enjoyed as anything beyond pure camp. I know the other films in the series never claimed to be anything but mindless entertainment, but were they ever this mindless? I don’t know about you, but while I always thought the Indy movies were fun, I never viewed them as a joke. Spielberg and Lucas obviously disagree.

At age 65, Ford has no problems slipping back into the role but the character is made to look dumb by being surrounded with a story this ridiculous. It doesn’t even feel like a situation Indy would get himself involved in. But perhaps even worse than that are the computer generated special effects, which are the fakest looking I’ve seen in any movie in years. The sets look like something you’d see on a tour of the Universal Studios backlot and at certain points I could swear I was watching actors just standing in front of cardboard backgrounds. And don’t even get me started on the monkeys and groundhogs.

Lucas and Spielberg have always been in love with CGI but I think it’s about time someone tell them that the “improved” special effects have made their movies worse. They were supposedly aiming to give this the same look and feel as the previous Indy films but it looks nothing like them at all. Bigger doesn’t necessarily equal better. Lucas made the same mistake with the Star Wars prequels and that’s a big reason they failed. So much time and effort is put into making the visual effects look good that no consideration is given the story. Then, in a cruel irony, the effects look terrible also. I’m sure this will be nominated for a bunch of technical Oscars just because it’s a Spielberg film, but LEGOS probably would have looked better.

The film does one thing exceptionally well: The re-introduction of Marion Ravenwood. The second she shows up it feels like old times again and Karen Allen’s performance is terrific. I wish she were in the movie more because she hasn’t lost a step. If the film went out of its way to make Indy a shell of his former self in the first hour he starts roaring back with a vengeance in the second. The interplay between them is classic and her presence was the shot of adrenaline the story needed. That combined with an exciting tank chase and the welcome appearance of John Hurt as a crazed former colleague of Indy’s gives the film some bite as it heads toward the finish line. Unfortunately, the closer we get to it the more we’re reminded of just how dumb the story is and in a development that had me rolling on the floor laughing, the actual ending bears more than just a slight resemblance to that of National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. But even funnier is that the National Treasure films actually do a better job capturing the spirit of the Indiana Jones franchise than this does.

How could Spielberg and Lucas possibly think this script was suitable? What planet are they on? It was more interesting watching the special features to get some insight on that, although I’m beginning to regret doing that after hearing that Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day was Spielberg’s inspiration for doing the film and George Lucas originally wanted to title it Indiana Jones and The Saucer Men. I thought he was joking so I laughed. Until I realized he was completely serious... then I REALLY laughed. That title may actually be more truthful advertising. In fact, this film’s silly title (which perfectly conveys the picture’s tone) should have been the first clue that something was amiss right from the beginning. Supposedly, Frank Darabont had written a script for a fourth film years ago that Lucas rejected. Considering Darabont hasn’t misstepped once in his career I’d say the odds of it being stronger than Koepp’s are pretty high.

While it may read like it, I didn’t hate the film. It’s mildly entertaining and fun if taken on its own terms. I just hate the fact that these two decided to make another Indy film and this is what they had the nerve to give us. It also feels too late. The fact that everyone couldn’t get their act together and arrive on the same page to do this for this long is pathetic and we should have taken the hint. Sean Connery was wise to sit it out. Lucas and Spielberg claim they did this for the fans but then when the fans don’t like it, with many offering reasonable, constructive criticisms, they start badmouthing them. “BUT LOOK HOW MUCH $$ IT MADE!” Well, The Phantom Menace made truckloads of money also. That doesn’t speak on its quality, although I’d argue it was better than this. Then, as usual, Lucas throws his hands up in the air and complains that the die-hards would have hated anything he came up with. What a cop-out.
The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, along with The Dark Knight, were the two mega-hyped event movies of 2008. I took some heat for giving the latter “only” three and a half stars and saying it didn’t meet expectations. But no film could have met those incredible expectations and in trying it came closer than it had any right to. It’s funny how every movie I've seen since seems inferior in comparison, which makes me wonder if I may have been too hard on it. Despite its minor issues, that film was bursting with ambition and originality. This was just phoned in long-distance to make a quick buck.

Paramount recently got all bent out of shape when an episode of South Park depicted Lucas and Spielberg raping Indiana Jones. If they’re so happy with how the movie did financially and there’s no doubt it will continue to do gangbusters on DVD, what are they so upset about? Unless it hit a nerve. They know how lazy this is and were called out on it. Saying George Lucas raped Indiana Jones is one thing but implying he raped our childhoods is giving him too much credit. All he did was embarrass himself…yet again. And he suckered Spielberg into coming along for the ride. Just like the original Star Wars trilogy the Indiana Jones movies will always be there on the shelves for us to go back to. Unfortunately, this one will be joining them.


JD said...

Bravo, well done!!
I could not have said it better myself.
I did not buy the DVD, I was disappointed with it. I have the score on CD, only listened to it once. Ford is good in this, but even with that and Marion Ravenwood, the script is a big mess.
I was hoping for something better.
South Park hit it right on the head.

Mitch Emerson said...

Now I haven't watched all of the special features, just the two that were on the main disk and I agree with everything you say, just not as harshly. Gophers and fridges and monkeys, oh my! right? I did like all of the characters and feel that all performances were done well, but yes, aliens? I understand that they were trying to play to Ford's age, but there could have been a better plot, still keeping with aliens even!

OK< I'm done ranting

Andrew Simon said...

^Mitch, they are inter-dimensional beings, dude. C'mon, Lucas said it would make all the difference! They're inter-dimensional beings...but LOOK like aliens. It's a entirely seperate concept!

Me, personally, KIGNDOM was alright until the last twenty minutes. The instant when they walked into the temple with the thirteen inter-dimensional beings skeletons, it all went downhill. Biggest complaint: when they meshed into one, fleshy being. That part was uber-bogus.

But overall, nice flick. And as always, enjoyable review, mate.

thebonebreaker said...

I think that I am the only one that actually really liked this movie! :-)

Excellent Review Jeremy!