Friday, May 23, 2008

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" Reviewed

Here's a sign of how diminished my former film-school era enthusiasm for movies has become: I didn't even know the new Indiana Jones movie came out this week. All along I'd been thinking it comes out next week. Sure, I'd fully planned to see it when it came out on the 28th, but knowing stuff like that is a big part of being a true-blue movie nerd. When I received an IM from the wife yesterday saying it was already out, and then another IM listing the day's show times at our local AMC, I found myself wondering when precisely had I become the middle-aged guy who doesn't know about the movies playing at the multiplex. If that doesn't quite describe me yet, give me another year or so and it'll describe me to a goddamn T.

Anyway, I was unexpectedly but happily able to see "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" tonight at my usual place for filmed entertainment exhibition, and I have some thoughts I'd like to get down while they're still fresh in my head.

And yeah, this is going to be one of those reviews that's going to deal in spoilers (and be long and annoying), so to those who have not yet been exposed to the wonders of "The Crystal Skull", please read no further until you've seen the movie. The come back so you, too, can be bored and annoyed by my review.


Ok. It's just us.

Right now I'm struggling to decide if "Crystal Skull" is the third or fourth best Indiana Jones movie. (Fourth best would, of course, make it the worst.) Right when I think I'm about to make a decision on that score (like just now, when I was thinking it was definitely the worst), some other piece of evidence comes to mind that makes me reconsider (like Short Round and the Prince's voodoo fight in the caves beneath the palace). So for now the jury's out, but I know "Crystal Skull" doesn't lay a glove on "Last Crusade", and I know it's not in the same ballpark as "Raiders."

I think "Crystal Skull"'s biggest problem was that it was trying too hard. Perhaps with the expectations this movie was carrying, it was impossible for two ambitious, reputation-minded guys like Spielberg and, ahem, Lucas, to chill out and make an Indiana Jones movie. Instead they attempted to outdo everything they'd done before with these movies and, in so doing, created something that feels forced and obligatory. There are definitely great things about this movie, but I think some of its excesses really brought it down to where I'm not sure I'd recommend this movie.

Worst thing about the movie: Shia LaBeouf as Tarzan. Ouch. When I saw this awfulness happening right in front of my eyes, one word came to mind: "Lucas." I'll move right past the whole everything-Lucas-touches-turns-to-shit argument which I think, at this point, we could all take a pretty good hack at, and get right to why I think it is that everything Lucas touches turns to shit. It's because he misremembers his own films, and why they work. To him, the first three Star Wars films were intended for little kids who liked the space-age whiz-bang and the funny costumes; the only reason those cute little Ewoks weren't running around eating Happy Meals and singing Barney songs through all three movies wasn't because that would have been stupid, but because it just didn't occur to him. Of course the "Star Wars" films were appealing on levels beyond the comprehension of a 3-year old, but Lucas won't have any of it. He's said as much. So when he makes "Phantom Menace," he puts Jar Jar in there because he figures since these Star Wars movies are really just bedtime stories for sleepy toddlers, and those fussy tykes will probably demand an awful character with a funny voice who does "funny" things to keep them happy, he better accommodate them. And so it was with Indiana Jones. He remembers "Raiders" as a laff-a-minute parody of the goofy serials he grew up with, broad comedy in other words, and so a basket chase through the streets of Cairo, and a tossed-off murder of a scimitar-wielding Arab, and an improbable truck hijacking were all just part of this goofy rogue archaeologist gag he'd come up with. Of course, no one else saw it like that, but this is Lucas we're talking about, and it's his opinions that matter, not yours, you stupid moviegoing public you. Which brings us to Shia LaBeouf swinging through the jungle on vines in the most recent Indiana Jones movie. This moment doesn't fit in at all with any of the three preceding movies, but it sure fits in with Lucas's deeply flawed memory of those movies. If the Indiana Jones movies are broad comedy designed to be palatable to kids, then Shia swinging from vine to vine accompanied by a bunch of monkeys who've inexplicably become his allies COMPLETELY fits the preceding trilogy. I can imagine Lucas during preproduction, arguing over the script with Koepp and Spielberg, and whenever the Tarzan sequence came up for possible excision, it was Lucas standing ready to defend it, probably threatening to pull the plug on the whole thing if they took it out. He'd done it before (ask Frank Darabont). Of course, all of this is supposition, but it fits with what Lucas has said and how he operates. And after "Phantom Menace," why wouldn't you lay the worst thing in a Lucas-co-produced movie at his doorstep? Now, if I wanted to be charitable (which I'm on no mood to be), I'd say that there was always a childlike sense of adventure permeating all of the Indiana Jones movies, and that often Spielberg and Co. skirted the line between escapist action and goofy parody, and with this movie they simply crossed it for the first time. But again: not feeling charitable. Lucas did it.

Another failing of this movie is how fake a lot of it felt. Though it's probably not true, I'd guess about %50-%60 of this film was done on a sound stage. The entire Amazon multi-car, multi-truck sequence was done on a stage (or looked that way thanks to Kaminski's spotty, over-lit cinematography), the campfire sequence was done on a stage (the one that ends with the quicksand), and well, what wasn't done on a soundstage again? Some of the motorcycle stuff I guess? Even the stuff where it looks like they're outside, around and on top of the Mayan temple, was clearly just some elaborate CGI work. I'm sure the stunts were real enough, but when you stage elaborate stunts performed on a green-screen stage, and then add in the CGI cartoon around the stuntmen later, you've drained their movements of authenticity because the context of those actions and movements (their physical surroundings) are clearly phony. For instance, when Shia was balancing between two vehicles going down a bumpy jungle road getting his crotch smacked with jungle fauna, was there any tension or fear for that character's well-being? Contrast that with the stuntman who used a rope to inch himself along the bottom of a truck while being dragged in "Raiders". Sure, the stuntguy was in a shallow trench and the truck was going 10 miles an hour or so, but that movie illusion was all done in-camera and on-location. As was most of that damn thing, and that's part of why it's so great and holds up so well. Why can't our filmmakers be inventive in that way again, instead of just throwing scripts at CGI companies and saying, "Make!"?

I was also underwhelmed by the dialogue. This is more of a minor quibble compared to some of the other stuff, but I thought that in a lot of instances Koepp had set himself up to give Indiana a great line and opted instead for a merely serviceable one. Compare the wit and comedy of "Last Crusade" with this movie, and you'll see my point. In "Last Crusade" Ilsa asks Indy while they're in the catacombs, "Are you sure that's the Ark of the Covenant?" Indy answers, the picture of modesty, "Pretty sure." It played like gangbusters in the theater. Big laughs. And that was just one of many ("No ticket!"). Aside from the snake bit (which I'll get to in a second) nothing really sticks out as being terribly funny in "Crystal Skull" for me. With all the money they spent on CGI, you think they could have thrown $40K to a comedy writer to punch up some of those lines.

But before I go too far down this gloomy track, let me say what I did like. I liked the opening (though I did not understand or particularly like the prairie dog thing. What was that about? Lucas again?). I liked the sequence in the warehouse (a great idea to bring the story back there -- it's one of those places that kind of exists in the popular culture outside of the Indiana Jones movies now). I liked the rocket-car ride. I loved the nuclear test sequence. When the countdown suddenly begins with just 1 minute until detonation, it was the only time I was actually in suspense about how the character was possibly going to get himself out of the situation. His escape was implausible sure, but it was still pretty damn awesome, and the truth is I would have swallowed whatever implausibility necessary just so they could get that incredible shot of the still-firey mushroom cloud churning upward with Indiana Jones in the mid-ground looking on. My favorite single image in a movie in a long long time.

I also laughed very very hard at the quicksand sequence when Shia comes to the rescue with his ... implement. It was a perfect moment, and threw back to the earlier films in an honest, almost touching way. At that point the filmmakers finally allowed the audience to acknowledge that we all really kind of know this guy -- and if we know any one thing about him, it's that he hates snakes. The movie could have used more moments like that.

As for the aliens, I didn't mind them that much. They don't really fit into the Indiana Jones universe (or at least I didn't think they did), but now that they're there, I suppose visitors from outer space are no less supernatural than face-melting spirits in a religiously-significant gold box or evil shamans with the power to extract beating hearts without killing. But by the end of it, the 13 bethroned aliens, the inter-dimensional portal, the swirling boulders, it all seemed a bit much. I mean, I kind of liked all of its over-the-topness. The execution was a bit off is all.

Shia LaBeouf. He didn't bother me as much as I thought he would, but he didn't do anything for me either. After his giggle-inducing entrance, it's a wonder he seemed credible in any of his scenes, which he does. I get that his character is a vulnerable guy putting on a show of toughness but who's really actually tough like his dad, but I never really bought that. He just seems like a wiry actor kid to me. Underlying everything I just thought that if Shia LeBeouf is this generation's answer to Harrison Ford, we're in for some years of not-so-great movies. Man, do I sound old.

Also: why did Indy keep his double-crossing British sidekick around all the time? Even after he'd proved himself truly disloyal, Indy still risks his skin to save him. It was like all the British sidekick had to do was punch a Russian on the jeep and Indy was reappraising him and deciding he's loyal to him after all. It just seemed kind of lazy.

Bottomline: the directors and producers in charge of $100 million+ budget films need to take Industrial Light & Magic off of speed dial, and start taking moving pictures of real people doing actual things in real places. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" would have been a nice place to start, but what's past is past. No more of this "Speed Racer" photo-realistic cartoon stuff. For the $100K Steve spent on the 5-second shot of whatever-the-hell in CGI, he could have gotten 3 10-second shots of real people doing actual things in real places. Say what you want about Michael Bay (and I can say plenty), he understands that the real deal carries a lot of weight on film, and the audience can feel that. Which is why he goes out of his way to stage real people doing real things in real places. Dare Is say Spielberg could learn something from ... Michael Bay? No, I guess I don't dare.

Anyway, that's all I've got for now. I'm interested to hear your comments. That is if anyone still reads this thing, bad as I've been with updates of late.

I hope everyone enjoys their Memorial Day weekends.


Craig Moorhead said...

Your pain is felt. We'll talk more about this soon, Crane, but what I liked least about this one is the laziness of the crystal skull. Basically, if stuff was going wrong - gigantic ant swarm or hostile natives - they whipped out that crystal skull. That'll take care of everything.

That and the "the real treasure is knowledge" crap. Yeesh.

Considering the people involved, I don't think they tried too hard. I think they didn't try nearly hard enough.

Captain Mike said...

"real people doing actual things in real places"


Click below for my extended version:

Speck said...

Brian, I'm actually glad you enjoyed the nuke scene. I think a lot of people I'm taking hated the how Indy got out of that one. Personally, when I saw it I knew I could turn my brain off and smile.

As for the Tarzan thing...I HATED it...its the one thing in the movie I truly call them stupid on.

Other then that, its not without its flaws, but I really enjoyed the movie, and its Indiana Jones for sure.

Anonymous said...

I like Raiders of the Lost Ark and as a kid - Indy was my favorite adventure character - even though LAST CRUSADE was forgettable. You know - I stil remember Temple of Doom and "Ummm..Monkey Brains".

Although - yes - technically Jones is a looter of indigenous artifacts and every villain is either a caricature or racially contrived (think the blood thirsty Indians in Temple).

Anyway - these are based on 30's type serials - so they are campy on purpose - and having Jones deal with aliens and commies is something to be expected and probably funny as hell. I never found any gravitas in Indiana Jones - just old-fashioned American style moviemaking. The type that our country has always excelled in the best.

Yes - I've read horrid reviews but I think everyone's expectations are way too high.

This is an escapist movie - and yes - even I enjoy that some times. So you see - I am not against all H-wood films.

Looking forward to seeing it and not reading Crane's spoilers.

Also - looking forward to Lucas retiring.


blankfist said...

Yeah, it was the weakest of the four, in my opinion. But, Cranesy, I cannot believe you think Temple of Doom was the weakest prior, and came close to being as bad if not worse than Indy 4! Wow. To me, the quality diminishes in order of release. Temple of Doom was great. I watched all three movies just the other day, and they all still hold up (except for the obviously bad 80 green screen effects which are passable enough to forgive.).

harwell said...

I liked Crystal Skull, though I have a hard time arguing with the more negative parts of your review. I thought the first hour or so was a lot of fun: the warehouse, the nuke, the motorcycle chase, the initial grave robbing sequence with the blow darts. There was good energy in these scenes if not good dialogue or good effects.

I won't split hairs with you over the differences between a kid swinging on vines and an old man swinging from rafters with a whip (execution, execution, execution and NO MONKEYS!) but I gotta say - I didn't really laugh at all during the quicksand scene. I saw the snake coming a mile away and I never for once really believed they were in actual quicksand. Seemed like they didn't have the right shots or camera angles to sell it for me.

For me though, I was probably most disappointed with Cate Blanchett as our only real villain. Never feared her for a second. No real menace there. Say what you want about that Voodoo kid in Temple, but he was creepier than her!