Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Dir. Steven Spielberg

Viewed: In the Balcony

Generally speaking I'm a fan of Mr. Spielberg. No other filmmaker made such an impression on my childhood imagination and my budding love for film. From Duel to Jaws to ET to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc, Spielberg was mainlining fascinating stories and rich wonderful characters into my most precious of memories. And not only that, but he filmed these stories in a striking fashion that was unrivaled in mainstream film at the time; creating images along with those stories and characters that are forever burned in the minds of a generation of film fans. For these early movies of his, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Empire of the Sun, Spielberg gets a pass on some of his many missteps of the past 20 years or so. It's not that I overlook such botched efforts like Hook or A.I., or turn a blind eye to the problems they have, but I can forgive him and easily dismiss the movies so that I can continue to look forward to his next one -- which at his rate probably won't be too far down the line. For every Hook there is a Munich, every Terminal a Shindler's List.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull falls short of being a smashing success, but it's entertaining enough to just avoid being one of his clunkers. Keep in mind that this is coming from a guy who sat through a marathon of the original trilogy at the Wang Center many years ago. I will say that I'll happily watch this one any day over Temple of Doom. That one is painful, Crystal Skull on the other hand is simply awkward and convoluted at times and never really gets off the ground. It starts and stops in a lot of places -- giving you scenes and sequences that promise to get the boulder rolling only to have it trail off to the side, awaiting the next push. Like Lucas said long before the movie was released, it's neigh impossible to live up to 20 years of anticipation. But there are some glaring issues that make this movie fall short of expectations.

We start off in the desert, Area 51 circa mid 1950s, about 10 years after the Roswell incident. After Indy and his colleague are pulled from the trunk of a car by Cate Blanchett's team of Russian goons we find out that he was on the ground crew in charge of cleaning up the Roswell crash site and now he's being forced to help the Russians find one of the objects pulled from the crash so they may use it for their nefarious means. And so it goes for a little over two hours. Indy gets captured, figures out some piece of the puzzle, escapes, gets captured again, etc. It seems Blanchett's been globe trotting in search of alien remains that contain super psychic powers that she wants to use to give the Red Scare even more menace. One problem is that the sought after crystal skulls don't really offer much in the way of menace or the inherent awe that comes with religious objects like the arc of the covenant or the holy grail. There is of course age old theories about some of our oldest wonders being given a hand in creation by extra-terrestrial (or extra-dimensional?) visitors, but as well as that idea being the lynch-pin of an Indiana Jones story might sound on paper, it comes off a lacking on screen. I can buy the premise for the sake of the movie but I can't help wishing they'd gone off in search for Atlantis or something with more thematic heft than crystal skulls.

But that's not to say there isn't some great moments to be found here. There's a beautifully executed chase sequence early on that winds through the streets and corridors of the university where Indy teaches. It's the sequence of the film that comes closest to sustaining that feeling you get in the best moments of the first three films, when you want to let out a hoot and a holler and run off afterwards to buy a Fedora. There's a few fleeting moments before and after this sequence and they're enough to keep you invested until the big finale. Harrison Ford is still fun to watch in the role, especially when he gets that long lost twinkle in his eye when he cracks some elaborate code or riddle. Shia LaBeouf actually helps the movie rather than harm it like some fanboys had worried. As hollow as Transformers is, I think he did ok there too. But he offers some actual humor and soulful moments in the movie and manages to fit in quite comfortably surrounded by Ford, Blanchett, Ray Winstone and John Hurt -- an intimidating cast a less experienced actor could easily get lost in.

Not that anyone's really given a scene to show off their goods. It's fun to see Karen Allen back in her Raiders part, and she appears to be having a blast judging by the wide grin she has on her face even when she has a machine gun blasting apart the windshield of a jeep she's driving through a jungle, but in her case that's her only contribution to the plot (unless you count giving birth to Indy's kid some 16 years ago as a plot point). Winstone's character seems to only be around to make groan inducing plot twists while Hurt plays crazy old guy strictly from the book.

I'm not going to compare this to Raiders. I don't think anyone was really thinking that this movie was going to top the original. So if we compare it to the scope of The Last Crusade it's easy to see why this one falls short. Not only was the dialog for Last Crusade written by Tom Stoppard, who's wit is sorely missing from Crystal Skulls, but part of the charm of these films is the globe trotting -- seeing that red line zig-zag across the map. In The Last Crusade we get taken to Italy, Germany, Spain -- throughout Europe -- when they're in those rat filled catacombs of Vienna and racing through the canals, I believed it. In Crystal Skull our two exotic locales are the Nevada Desert and the Amazon jungle -- both of which did nothing to prevent me from thinking that they ever left California. I know this series is supposed to be an homage to the B-movie serials of the past but they were always the classy, bigger budgeted extreme of the genre. I don't want to think that they're hanging out on a set in Burbank, I want the movie to take me to South America and make me feel like I can almost smell the sweat coming off of Indy's hat -- not the caft-service table just off screen and Harrison Ford's can of Ensure just out of reach. These back-lot sets also mean you have more boxed-in framing and no natural lighting. It's like they were hedging their bets from the very beginning and trying to keep the budget as low as possible. I guess some of the blame should be directed at George Lucas since Spielberg's only really been a director-for-hire in this series. I'm sure Lucas pushed Spielberg a bit towards his love of shooting everything in front of a giant green screen and filling in the rest later.

Well, hopefully Spielberg is saving his frequent flier points for Tintin. Crystal Skull won't make The Unwatchable's list but comes closer than I care to admit. I'm sure it won't be the worst movie I see this summer, and maybe coming off of the funny, witty excitement of Iron Man set the bar too high. It's enjoyable enough as summer movies go, but unfortunately you have to judge it as part of a series, of which it ranks a solid 3rd.


Padraic said...

I probably won't see this one, so I'll just add on a bit to your comments.

One thing I never understood about Indy was the sense that it was this enduring franchise, or part of the culture in a way that Star Wars was.

To me, Indy consists of one fun movie I enjoyed as a kid (Raiders), one movie I remember thinking was okay but is pretty much unwatchable today (Doom) and one campy movie that left no impression at all (Crusade).

It's just startling to me that Speilberg and Lucas want to return to this kind of thing, aside from the obvious reasons (cash). Based on reviews, it seems the movie lacks any new inspiration or playfulness (or like Bond) a reconstruction; it's just something they did because they knew they could make money on it.

The problem with both Lucas and Speilberg is that they simply lack the investigative and inquisitive minds. Lucas of course has not had an original idea in 35 years, but even Speilberg's serious attempts (Schindler, Munich) aren't really artistic in any sense of the term: they are just exquisitely crafted movies based on a set of shared platitudes that the audience already has going in. He doesn't say anything new.

As craftsmen rather than artists, my sense is that you gain nothing, aside from two hours diversion, from seeing new movies by Speilberg or (if they exist) Lucas: you've seen one you have seen them all.

Sean said...

I can understand if your blind rage towards the guy that helped bring about the "blockbuster" era of 80s movies can prevent you from appreciating his work. But sometimes I'm not even sure if you like the storytelling aspect of film making at all. I caught a review on NPR of Crystal Skull (which was not favorable) where the guy compared Speilberg to Welles in terms of visual storytelling talent. I agree and I would point out that this in and of itself is an artistic talent. The problem is that his choices in stories are sometimes lacking and sometimes flat out bad. But he can tell a story in any genre and do it in a more visually interesting way than the majority of the directors the medium has seen. If you don't find stories about conflicted Israeli assassins or flawed Holocaust heroes interesting or if they didn’t plumb the depths of their psyches enough, than that’s your opinion. But take into consideration that he didn’t write these stories (he hasn’t written a movie that he’s directed since Close Encounters) and any lack of depth plumbing in the story doesn’t speak to a lack of artistry on his part. Lack of intellectualism, maybe – it’s a barb that’s tossed his way often but it’s not one that I think sticks very well. I think he’s happy to leave the introspective stories to other people and search for more transcendent, big story themes. There's no doubt that he has his flaws but when it comes to a director that can touch the powerhouse moments, intricate camera movement and stage the big set-pieces like Hitchcock or Howard Hawks, Speilberg is your man. Scorcese too -- but that's another discussion.

Padraic said...

This is pretty simple: I don't think storytelling is an art in and of itself. It's a craft.

You may think this a silly divide (many people do), but since we agree that Speilberg is not intellectually interesting (which certainly cannot be said about Scorcese, Hitchcock, or Welles!), I'm happy to leave it there.

Oh, and "intricate camera movements" interest me about as much as Steve Vai's intricate guitar solos interest you.

Sean said...

Art v. craft... sheesh... there's an endless can o' worms. But just because I'm happy to leave Speilberg to deal with larger themes like the nature of evil, humanity's self-destructive tendencies, or man's search for transcendence rather than an examination of Joe Schmoe's inner-turmoil or whatever it is you're displeased with him for not investigating, doesn't mean I think he's not intellectually interesting.

And the difference between Speilberg's camera movement and Vai's solos is that Speilberg is contributing to the story with every movement (like Hitch, Welles, etc.) -- not just stylistically masturbating like Vai (Guy Ritchie, Tony Scott, Michael Bay...)