Monday, May 26, 2008
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
That title is kind of a mouth-full, but that's fitting since much of the movie is kind of hard to swallow. Produced and set almost two decades after the previous Indiana Jones film, the pulp feel of the 1930s has been replaced by the paranoia and B-Movie vibe of the 1950s, the Nazis are removed as the villains in favor of Stalinist Russians, and the merely middle aged leading man is replaced by a decidedly over the hill Harrison Ford. Oh, and the wide-eyed thirteen year old who saw the Last Crusade in the theatre has been replaced by a 31 year old man.
But I liked it.
In fact, I liked it a lot, once I returned home from the theatre, allowed some time to pass, and managed to distinguish between the expectations of what it would be on my way into the theatre, and my memories of what it actually was on my way out. In the end, it wasn't exactly the movie I wanted it to be, or at least it wasn't the movie I was expecting it to be, but it entertained me and left me mostly satisfied. Most importantly, I'm glad I saw it, I'm glad they came back after so long to make it, and I hope they make at least one more. It was a mixed bag that was more than the sum of its parts, with more that worked than didn't work.
Here's what worked:
Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones. After George Lucas came up with the original concept for the film, and after he brought it to Spielberg to direct, the single greatest boon to the series was casting Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Casablanca wouldn't have been Casablanca without Bogart as Rick. Raging Bull wouldn't have been Raging Bull without DeNiro as LaMotta. And Indiana Jones wouldn't have been Indiana Jones without Harrison Ford in the titular role. He just brought a sense of humor, physicality, and effortless charm to the role that no other movie star has had in the right doses or to the same degree. And he's still got it. He's a little older, a little slower, and has a lot of gray hair, but he's still got it. I never doubted for a minute that, old as he obviously was, he could still kick ass.
And the rest of the cast was great as well. Ray Winstone and Cate Blanchett are both excellent, veteran actors who managed to take two characters who were, frankly, under-written and poorly defined and make them work and stand out. Winstone's Mac in particular was a lot of fun to watch when he was on screen, even though he never had enough to do and his motivations were always changing and kind of hard to follow. But he was a good addition to the series. Karen Allen, also frankly, isn't a veteran actor, so her inclusion in the film was based more on nostalgia than on her actual merits as an actor. She still has a beautiful, winning smile and a lot of charm, but acting wise, she really stood out as the weakest of an otherwise fantastic cast. But bringing back Marion Ravenwood, Indy's love interest from way back in Raiders of the Lost Ark, mostly still worked because she was a good character, even if most of our affection and love for the character from from that first film, and not from this one where she never has enough to do.
And then there's Shia LaBeouf. I've been a Shia fan since way back. I first saw him on Even Stevens and knew he'd be famous someday. He was just one of the funniest, most charming, and all around likable child actors I've ever seen. And I've watched almost everything he's done since, because he's that good. So I've been pretty excited to see him in blockbusters like Transformers, and I was excited to hear he was going to be in the new Indiana Jones film. And he didn't let me down. He's still funny, likable, and talented. Even if his character was slightly annoying and cliched. But he played it well.
So many sequels have been disasters because the creative teams behind the original successes weren't involved. Luckily for us, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have been behind the cameras for all four films, and the series has been the better for it. Lucas has taken a lot of beatings in the past (somewhat justifiably so, at least in regards to his predilection for putting technical spectacle over story or nuanced acting performances), but the man is definitely a genius at producing, and his love of history and Americana are what ground the Indiana Jones films in the real world and make them more than just the pulp films from which they were inspired.
Steven Spielberg is the greatest visual stylist in film history. No other director, with the possible exception of Hitchcock, could tell a story purely through visuals as well as Spielberg, and no director makes films that look anywhere near as good. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is one of Spielberg's best looking films. The camera work, set design, photography, and everything else were stunning. It's nice to see a big budget film with actual sets. This might be the last big budget, spectacle film that actually took place on large scale sets and location shooting, and not on a green screen that would be fixed up in the computer later on.
And then what doesn't work:
Where were the villains? Cate Blanchett is a wonderful actress who was very good in this film, but Irina Spalko just didn't do it for me as an arch villain worthy of Indiana Jones. What can I say about a villain who's so forgettable I actually had to check the imdb to double check her name? Remember Toht from Raiders? Now that was a villain. That guy's laugh was enough to give me nightmares when I was a kid. Or Mola Ram from Temple of Doom? He pulled a guy's heart out of his chest and showed it to him before he lowered him into a pit of lava. Now that's a villain! Irina Spalko? I don't think so.
Russians just can't compete with Nazis in terms of villainy. Stalin was an evil man to be sure, but communism, at its core, is a political ethos that is more naive and unrealistic than it was misguided or evil. Nazism, at its core, was evil in its most pure form. No matter what else is going on in the story, the idea of the Nazis achieving any kind of victory is disheartening. But would it really be so bad if the Russians found the Crystal Skull? Probably not. Or, at least, not on any kind of emotional level that can strike a cord with movie goers.
So the film, on a basic level, lacked any kid of real conflict or emotional center for the audience to rally behind. Raiders was a race to stop the Nazis from harnessing the power of God. Temple of Doom was about Indy's emotional journey from a man who only craves power and glory to one who sacrifices everything to reunite those kids with their parents. And Last Crusade was about how Indy rekindled his lost relationship with estranged father. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, at its essence, was just about... Indy searching for a Crystal Skull. There was really nothing deeper beneath the surface, nothing else for the audience to care about.
The Crystal Skulls are pretty neat, but I never really bought into their whole mystique, nor why they were supposed to be such a big deal. The Ark of the Covenant, Shankara Stones, and Holy Grail were also mysterious and enigmatic, but they mostly acted as metaphors for the larger story as a whole. The Skulls don't really do that. They're just skulls. But at least they're crystal skulls. That makes them cool enough, I guess.
And as great as the sets were, what was with the overuse of CG? To be sure, the first three films were special effects extravaganzas that used pioneering technology, but I still felt the CG in this film was overdone. The Indiana Jones films have a certain look and feel, which they captured perfectly in the cinematography and set design, but that look just doesn't work with the obvious computer imagery. Computer generated car chases, prairie dogs, and monkeys swinging through the trees with Shia LaBeouf in full Tarzan mode just didn't look, or feel, right.
Some of the CG did work, however, especially the special effect laden finale in the collapsing temple. That was probably the best CG I've ever seen. Also, the computer generated fire ants were pretty awesome and suitably creepy and disturbing. But car chases need to feel real, and cute, animated animals don't belong in this kind of movie.
Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull was the kind of movie that kept me on the edge of my seat, but unsure of how I actually felt as I walked out. But as more time passed, and as I worked on this review, I began to enjoy it more and more. Many of the complaints I had faded away and seemed to work with the proper perspective added in. This wasn't Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I'm no longer a teenager. Nothing could recapture that same magic or sense of wonder, especially since so many films since then have been inspired by, imitated, and down right copied that original trilogy. But I liked it. I'm eager to see it again, and I guess that's the only compliment a filmmaker really needs.