Thursday, June 5, 2008

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It has been a long time since we heard from Indiana Jones. In the interim, Harrison Ford changed, the world changed, cinema changed, but Steven Spielberg set out to deliver a movie as if it were old times. He waited nearly two decades to film the fourth installment, but if the wait between sequels is a positive boon for a movie maker, I would suggest he did not wait long enough. Perhaps he should have waited an additional two hundred years.

Set in 1957, when Indiana Jones would have been about as old as Harrison Ford is now, the fourth movie of the series replaces Nazis with Soviets, and the bulk of its action takes place in South America. The evil Commies are looking for a weapon, just like Hitler was in the two previous movies that matter, and they think they have found it with a strange artifact, thousands of years old, made of crystal and carved by unknown methods into the shape of a vaguely humanoid skull. Indiana gets caught up in all the fuss, and along the way meets up with some characters from his past while performing death defying stunts and such.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a diseased movie whose manifold infirmities have caused dozens of symptoms which ravage the celluloid. One disease is certainly George Lucas, who, if the tales are true, had too much of a hand in developing the movie. Another disease would be a rich, successful director with little reason to push himself and switch off the auto pilot. A third sickness would be a certain actress who one would swear has not acted since 1981 and failed to get all the rust off before stepping in front of the camera.

The symptoms of these diseases, to paraphrase Shakespeare, maintain such a politic state of evil that they will allow no good parts to intermingle. I say this with only the faintest trace of hyperbole, because in the entirety of the film there is almost nothing worth praising. The first act is an attempt to squeeze every single iconic fifties cliché and scrap of popular history into about a twenty minute time period. Other than Marilyn Monroe getting her panties revealed by an updraft, I think they managed to include them all. I found it distracting and entirely too cutesy. The first three movies were set in the thirties, and that was about it. Costumes fit the time period, at least as far as I could tell, but they never made a fetish of it. For some reason, the filmmakers decided that Harrison Ford, in the fourth film, needed to experience the entire decade in less than a half hour, and the result is distracting and entirely inappropriate for setting the mood of an Indiana Jones movie, on the order of a laugh track for Terminator II.

The characters that we knew from Raiders of the Lost Ark are gone, replaced by caricatures, as if lifted from a third rate sitcom. The banter that passes between them is as uninspiring and hackneyed as can be imagined, with entire exchanges bereft of the slightest mark of distinction, the merest hint that this is a conversation that belongs to these characters and not to any of a million underdeveloped roles languishing, never to be produced, on dusty shelves around Hollywood. These words are not the dialog of artistic inspiration, but merely an average of all the other conversations on like topics, an average that fits as well in your film as mine, but belongs in no film at all. That David Koepp, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, men with a combined total of over a century of experience in the industry, should make characters and scenes and dialog like this at this stage in their careers pleases me very little.

If David Koepp could not muster the energy to fashion a decent script, one can hardly credit Spielberg with a significantly better effort. His action sequences are glossed over, run through with ease, and Harrison Ford and the other actors take their cue from him. At no time does one feel that Indiana Jones is actually in danger, like we did during the magisterial truck sequence in the first movie, or during any one of dozens of sequences from Raiders and Grail. There is no effort to delve into the action and make it feel exhilarating. It feels as safe and secure as if it had been rehearsed a hundred times, like a dance number in a Broadway musical.

There is a moment when Indiana and Mutt (Shia Labeouf) are riding a motorcycle and being chased by bad guys. Indiana gets pulled from the motorcycle into a car, Mutt steers the bike to the other side of the car, and Indy pops out the other window and back onto the bike. It is accomplished in about five seconds with maybe five or six different shots and has no greater effect than that of a moderately clever sight gag. Contrast this with the aforementioned truck fight in the first movie, which is its own miniature film with a good beginning, middle and end. Along the way we feel every bump and bruise, we feel Indy being dragged along the ground, we fret when the grill on the front begins to bend and we see no way out for him. But this can only be achieved with an effort, which apparently Mr. Spielberg could not be bothered to spare.

As damaging as anything else about the movie is the lack of restraint on display, a lack which makes mystery and awe wither. When the credits roll after Raiders, the Ark is still an enigma, still awe-inspiring, still not completely knowable. Crystal Skull manages to turn its artifact and the beings behind it into something mundane. Too much is revealed about them; too much is made explicit and obvious. What a director does not show is every bit as important as what he does show, and Mr. Spielberg did not restrain himself enough.

This problem of restraint is also evident with the action sequences which, when shown in the trailers, made me uneasy from the outset. When Indiana Jones was entertaining back in the 1980's, it was with far more modest action pieces that were marvelously well directed at their best. Spielberg even managed to create a successful sequel with the third movie, but the intervening years have done something to him. Where before the action was grounded in a certain amount of believability, it is now absurdly exaggerated, well beyond the bounds of good taste. Pushed to a certain extent, an action sequence can be thrilling. Pushed too far, it becomes commonplace and boring. The trap of the sequel has ensnared even Steven Spielberg, who, in trying to outdo himself, has instead undone himself. Crystal Skull will take its place next to Alien Resurrection on the shelf of sequels that, I am prepared to swear, never happened.

Final Grade: D+

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dude, that was rough. Have some pity.

J.T. said...

Yeah, I regretted paying to see this piece of garbage ~ 3 minutes in.

Nuts to pity, I feel only for the victims of atrocity.

Spirit of 73 said...

Anonymous,

I have no pity for such as these, sir. But thank you for coming.

J.T.,

Being a Spielberg supporter, I made it to 7 minutes before I turned coat and cursed his name. But that's OK, because Crystal Skull never actually happened!