Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Obviously, Harrison Ford's 2008 self, aged 65, can't carry an action-adventure film as credibly as his 1981 counterpart. But even though audiences will forgive a lot because of their fondness for Ford and the character of archaeologist Indiana Jones, they still want an action movie to star an action hero. That's just how these things are done.

I think Steven Spielberg had a plan to work around Harrison Ford's advanced age in this new Indy movie...and I think that plan was kind of a stupid one. Essentially, Spielberg has slowed the entire movie down considerably from its predecessors, taken his foot off the metaphorical gas, if you will, to make Ford's slower Indiana Jones appear dashing, energetic and spry by comparison.

I'm not kidding...I wish I were. Everything's slower about this Indiana Jones movie. The plot develops slower. The jokes and the big set pieces and the puzzles roll lazily by, separated by periods of relative inaction, rather than rattling off in a steady stream.

There's just something off about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The pieces are all there, it's well-directed and shot, and it's a lot of fun in spurts. I recognized the elements of an Indiana Jones movie immediately - the props, the music, the tone, the little tongue-in-cheek moments, some of the actors, the structure - but they didn't ever coalesce into anything that felt as compelling or immediate or delightful as a real Indy film.

It just never settles into place, and I think the issue here is the pacing. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom race along at breakneck speed. Crystal Skull kind of ambles around, takes its time developing its stately, familiar plot, then shuffles off. It's like getting a visit from an aging relative you rarely see around the holidays. You're happy to see them, and they probably brought you something even though they're on a fixed income, but all you really end up doing with them is sitting around discussing the Old Days. Great-Aunt Dot can't get around like she usedta...

To make sure I'm being clear...I don't think Harrison Ford or his age is the real problem here. He did just fine; it's a better performance, more lively and with more attention to small observations and details, than any he's given since The Fugitive.

No, it's as if the movie itself is old, like it's afraid it's going to break a hip if anything surprising, original, unexpected or sudden happens, or if a single concept is introduced that doesn't recall one of the previous Indiana Jones movies. The only twist in the whole thing comes about 5 minutes in, and it doesn't even take. You'll get more turnabouts and dramatics during a "Lost" episode's opening credits than this entire film. Seriously. That's not hyperbole.

The plot is, essentially, Last Crusade all over again. Dr. Jones (Ford...duh...) is informed by a '50s greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) that an old friend (John Hurt) has disappeared while searching for a priceless artifact, in this case, a magical Crystal Skull that was treasured by an Ancient Mesoamerican civilization and hunted by a conquistador. Only if Jones can find this dead knight's final resting place will he be able to piece together the mystery of the Crystal Skull and find the temple to which he must deliver the prize. Ah, but, he's being chased by a brilliant, cruel Soviet psychic (Cate Blanchett) who wants to use the Skull to conquer the world.

That's all well and good, although there's a science-fiction element introduced at about the halfway point that feels really out-of-place in an Indiana Jones film. Is it an affront to organized religion that these films, which always vested their supernatural phenomenon in some version of God (either Jewish, Christian or Hindu), have now removed the Deus from their Machina? Or were screenwriter David Koepp, Lucas and Spielberg so tickled with the notion of introducing a '50s B-movie plot into a movie set in the '50s, they overlooked how this material would play in the Indiana Jones universe? Mulder and Scully will be pleased...but will anyone else?

This backstory's a bit more complicated than a search for, say, the Holy Grail, an object that's already relatively famous and easy to describe. ("Jesus' Cup!") Which works out well for Koepp and Spielberg, because they get to avoid shooting too many of these pesky action scenes the kids are so crazy about.

There's one big action set piece in the entire film - a really solid chase scene that culminates in a spill down a massive waterfall. It's pulled off nicely, and looks really good, and is exceptionally well shot by Janusz Kaminski and cut together by Michael Kahn. And I love the way Cate Blanchett delivers the line "Do svidaniya, Dr. Jones" before kicking Indy out of a moving truck. But it still feels kind of bloodless for the film's big action climax, and though it's far better than average for an American action film, it's nowhere near as memorable as the Mine Car Chase or the Bridge Climb in Temple of Doom, nor is it up to the standard of the tank battle in Last Crusade. And I'd rather watch b-roll taken on the set of Raiders than this chase or anything else in Crystal Skull.

The film's remaining action is incredibly brief, and frequently shot from far away. Spielberg has a tendency to place his actors in the foreground and show us extremely impressive feats happening in the middle distance, out of reach, letting us fill in the excitement going on for ourselves as the cast takes it easy. I'd imagine it simulates quite well the experience of being a tired middle-aged father of 3 on a long weekend day spent at Magic Mountain. "No, no, you kids run along and do Viper again...I'm just going to hang out here, maybe get a diet soda or something..."

Cate Blanchett's performance as the evil Irina Spalko is essentially note-perfect, but she isn't given nearly enough to do. (Plus, her final send-off is far far less awesome than that of any other Indy villain in history. Again, it's like Steve was afraid of over-exerting himself. EVERY Indy villain gets an sweet, gruesome comeuppance. It's goddamn tradition!)

Spalko's a better foil for Jones than Elsa Schneider in Last Crusade or Mrs. Spielberg in Temple of Doom, but she gets far far less development or screen time than either of these characters. We're at the point where it seems there's no kind of movie or character Cate Blanchett can't pull off...She's equally effective in high fantasy, period drama, serialized action-adventure and fucking Bob Dylan biopic. She was the only thing in the movie that left me wanting more.

Maybe that's not fair. I liked the film well enough, but the whole experience felt like going through the motions. Even as an audience member. I found myself chuckling at things I recognized, not things that were actually chuckle-worthy. Near the end, the film starts hinting that young Mutt will get his own spinoff adventure film series, but no one - from Indy to Mutt to Steven Spielberg to the fans in the audience - seemed terribly excited by the prospect. Unless they just don't want to get anyone too excited this close to nap time.


Michael Midnight said...

I haven't seen the movie yet but it sounds like a a good and honest summation of the movie. I've heard similar thoughts about the movie and I can't wait to watch it. I don't really have any history with Indy besides the Last Crusade so I can't wait to see it now without any baggage like for example, a Spider-Man movie.

Michael said...

Kuddos Lon - thanks for the review - I knew after you said yesterday that you were going to see it that you would write a review!

Sounds like a pretty big disappointment, especially for anyone who's seen the original movies. Definitely one I can skip on the big screen and wait for the DVD. Maybe the special features will be more exciting than the movie. :-P

Laura said...

This movie was pretty silly - sometimes in a good way, but also in a bad way. The action was good, Cate Blanchett was cool, and it was great to have Karen Allen back.

That being said:
Excessive soft-focus lighting + cutesy CG animals + aliens = Riduculous. Very NOT Indiana Jones.