Saturday 24 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

So I just about managed to watch the entire Indiana Jones trilogy again just in time for it to not be a trilogy any more. It's been a while and I haven't seen them all so close together before, but what I found was mostly not surprising. Raiders of the Lost Ark rocks. It really really rocks, and stands up awesomely given that it was made in 1981. It's probably the best cliffhanger action film ever made, and regardless what my stepson might think it has one of the best endings. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a disappointment, as a sequel and as a part of the trilogy, but it really isn't that bad and compares well against other action films of the era. Short Round rocks. Spielberg married Kate Capshaw after working with her on this film but she annoyed the crap out of me. It also went way over the top on occasion. Part three, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wasn't as good as I remembered it but it was still an excellent film, marred only by some glaringly out of place green screen work.

Now The Last Crusade isn't the last Indy film any more. No less than nineteen years later we have Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which somehow manages to keep true to the spirit of the films while simultaneously veering off further into the land of complete nonsense than The Temple of Doom ever managed. It may seem on the surface like a film that shouldn't get analysed too deeply but I have a feeling that its the analysis of it may show its true worth and its biggest flaws. There's a lot here and for a change the important things aren't on the screen. They're more to do with the choices made about what to put in the movie and what to leave out.

Thankfully, Prof Henry Jones Jr, better known to one and all as Indiana, is still played by Harrison Ford. It would have been so easy to cast someone else but director Steven Spielberg and writer/producer George Lucas stuck with Ford, even though he's now 66 years old, making him a little old and creaky. That's a good thing. They also brought back Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark, reprising her role as Marion Ravenwood. That's a good thing too, as the heated arguments between these two characters is close to being the best bit about the film.

What may be a bad thing is the addition of their son, as played by current hotshot Shia LaBeouf. And no, that's no spoiler, it's obvious from moment one. LaBeouf is not actively bad, the way I thought he probably would be, but he's still there. He may be less obnoxious than I expected, but he has all the charisma of a paper bag and about as much acting talent, or so it would seem from the basis of this film. Then again even Ford has moments here where he drifts over to autopilot and that's surprising. The potential worst thing of all is what his character may become. If he becomes the new Indiana Jones for future milkings of the cash cow, I don't want to watch. He has half the character already, though that's a stretch, but he doesn't have the other half and only the worst plot contrivances could provide it for any fifth film.

That's a potential worst thing though. The real worst thing is not clear because there are a few candidates. It could be the cute and cuddly gophers or groundhogs or whatever they are, but I'll reserve that judgement for the next viewing, if one comes. Right now they elicited an 'Oh God, did they really do that?' response but I have a feeling that next time through it'll be an active downer. What will probably beat that out now for the top spot on the worst thing front is the solid lean towards over the top George Lucas style contrived escapes.

Remember that leap out of a crashing plane on a life raft in The Temple of Doom that landed Indy and his friends on a mountain slope where they slid down to a waterfall? Yeah, that was painfully over the top but it doesn't hold a candle to the fridge scene here. I can see George Lucas thinking about what would be a cool escape scene in a film set in a definitively fifties America. I can see a light bulb going off above his head. And I can see him say, 'Hey, why not have him at ground zero for a nuclear explosion with four seconds to go and jump into a lead lined fridge that locks and gets hurled up into the air out of the danger zone and unlocks on landing'. No broken bones, easy to get rid of radiation, no worries. Yeah right.

This escape comes early on, after Indy has become the object of government suspicion after an encounter with a Russian commando squad at Area 51, the same military hangar that houses the Ark of the Covenant. He loses his job at the university because of commie paranoia, the whole reds under the beds thing, but never once does Indy mention that it was true! Did Spielberg and Lucas realise that they were pointing out that McCarthy was right? That kind of goes entirely against the whole anti-witchhunt mentality.

Anyway, there are lots of Russians wandering around on American soil, and it seems all the Russians that talk are played by Brits but all the ones that don't are played by Russians. In charge is Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett, who is the same sort of bad guy with a little good streak as Elsa Schneider in The Last Crusade. She's into the weird psychic remote viewing stuff that the Russians got into during the Cold War and is seeking alien bodies at Area 51. The crystal skull of the title ties to these aliens and their powers. The search for it takes Indy and his entourage into the South American jungle where Mutt Williams, aka Henry Jones III, discovers that he's not just a motorbike mechanic who wants to be James Dean, he's really Tarzan and can swing with the best CGI chimps in the business.

Yeah, this goes off in a number of bizarre and very unwanted directions that really help lead me to the conclusion that modern Hollywood is all about the ride. This isn't a film, it's a blueprint for the upcoming theme park ride. Take a seat, keep your hands and feet in the vehicle and we're off! Hey, there's Indiana Jones! The hat! The whip! The smile! Oh, and there are bad guys. Boo! hiss! Oh now we're moving to another continent. Watch out, the bad guys will be back... yep, there they are! Effects, effects, effects. A big drop to the finish and wham! It's over. Go pick up your picture on the way out.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed this film, but very much as a ride. The more I think about it, the worse it gets. It isn't just the fridge and the Tarzan sequence. It isn't just the double standards. It's the fact that Indy is out of place and Harrison Ford obviously doesn't want to be there. It's about the fact that the Russians don't actually do anything, except continually miss a running man without any cover at point blank range with machine guns. It's about the gophers. Oh god, the gophers! It's about the fact that one key character turns out to be a double agent, but when he says he isn't, at the heart of such a paranoid time, everyone believes him just because. It's about the underlying fact that Lucas threw every single thing he could think about to do with the US in the fifties into the film, regardless whether they fit together or not. It's like a kid having a toybox that isn't big enough to contain all the toys. Things get crammed in way beyond comfort. It's about the realisation that this does not feel like a Spielberg film in the slightest. It screams Lucas, and that's not good.

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