Friday, June 27, 2008

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

The INDIANA JONES series of films are inextricably tied into my youth, much the same way STAR WARS was. I recall sitting in the back row with my friend Terry Brennan when our elementary school had a special screening of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK we had to get permission from our parents to attend, completely swept away as the Paramount Logo dissolved into an ominous mountain peak. I remember cutting off the end of my jump rope to make a whip and wearing my grandfather's fedora, fighting off jungle natives and crossing raging rivers in order to get to safety. Sure, the jungle was a weeping willow tree and the raging river was the small creek behind my house, but you get the idea.

The biggest gamble for me going into INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL was, would I be able to view it with the eyes of the young boy who grew up with these movies, or would my older, more knowledgeable and (sadly) more cynical eyes be too busy picking out issues to enjoy the film?

Turns out the answer's a little bit of both.

So let's get the basics out of the way. Yes, I liked it. There's more than a few inspired moments that feel exactly like an INDIANA JONES movie should feel - that combination of boyish exuberance and gee-whiz action that's not only a staple of the previous films, but of the serial adventure stories from the 30's that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg sought to emulate. For the most part the acting is great: after a rocky start Harrison Ford completely makes Dr. Henry Jones, jr. come alive in a way that's not ridiculous (with one MASSIVE exception I'll get to). The sheepish grin, the stubble, everything works. He plays an Indiana getting on in years, still capable of daring escapes and beating the bad guys, but with a weary sense that he'd rather be lecturing on field archeology and ideograms. Supporting roles by Jim Broadbent and John Hurt are short but wonderful, especially Hurt, who I can watch in anything and would have loved to see in a meatier role. And although I'm sure I'll part ways with a lot of people, Shia LaBeouf was fantastic. His interplay with Ford, his demeanor, look (I'm assuming here that the overt WILD ONE reference was an intentional wink), everything (again, with one MASSIVE exception I'll get to) worked great. He's not Short Round, and he's not supposed to be.

And since it's pretty much common knowledge that she's in the film, let's spend a brief moment talking about Karen Allen. Marion's back. It's not a huge role, but it's an important one. There's a scene where she, Indy, and Shia (playing a character named "Mutt" Williams - figure it out) are tied up in the back of a military vehicle heading into the Amazon. All three are arguing while simultaneously trying to escape. Finally Indy gets free and as he's attempting to climb to the top of the truck is stopped by a question from Marion. His response, uttered in typical Indy fashion as he scrabbles through a hole in the tarp, leaves a beaming smile on her face that instantly transported me back to 1982. It was that smile, the smile that explained everything - who she is and what it was that could snag the heart of someone like Indiana Jones. It was frickin' beautiful.

So what else worked? Spielberg proves that no one can string an action sequence together like he can, and when allowed free reign, he's perfect. There's a motorcycle chase through a college campus that ranks up with any of the set pieces from the earlier movies. There's a lot of play off the earlier movies and it when it works (like the great "snake" moment) it's priceless.

Or almost priceless. Because as great as those scenes are, they unfortunately don't remove the bad taste of others. Excepting the very beginning logo/driving sequence, the entire opening of the film felt lifeless. There are some serious lighting/set issues at work here: why, after an establishing shot outside an airplane hanger would we so obviously move to a sound stage when all they're doing is standing outside talking? Between the pale, almost purple lighting and the lack of any background detail it looks ridiculous, and for the life of me I'm stymied as to why Spielberg couldn't have shot that scene outside. This follows a pattern where you get a wide shot of an exterior or a model, and then cut immediately to a sound stage, so suddenly you can feel the ropes and chairs just out of frame. I know the other films were sometimes guilty of this; I can't watch TEMPLE OF DOOM without commenting on the different colored lights in the mine shaft. But here (the opening) it's just unnecessary.

And speaking of TEMPLE OF DOOM, a lot of people make comparisons of SKULL to DOOM, saying it's merely an additional adventure without furthering the overall Indy mythos, like THE PAST CRUSADE did. Without giving away key storylines or plot points, I would argue the exact opposite: both CRYSTAL SKULL and LAST CRUSADE are essentially silly adventures with a familial element thrown in to tie the two together. In both cases it felt (to me) that the family pieces was the window dressing that added to the adventure. Great window dressing to be sure, but dressing nonetheless. I also admit to having a soft spot for TEMPLE DOOM - it's been unfairly maligned for too long now! The "Anything Goes" opening sequence is brilliant. In fact, I would say that CRYSTAL SKULL has the weakest opening of the series so far.

Now on to the two "Raft" moments in the film. The two moments that so severely stretch the limits of belief you're left wondering how could Spielberg let that slide? And while I don't want to automatically wag the finger at Lucas, it's hard not to make a prequel reference. If you've already seen the movie you know what two scenes I'm referring to. If you haven't, one involves a refrigerator and one involves CGI monkeys. For completely different reasons, both scenes feel hollow and completely out of spirit for the film. It's easy to blame the monkey scene (involving Shia) on Lucas: once you see it you'll see what I mean. The good news is that it goes by pretty fast, and you don't have to recall it afterwards.

But the refrigerator episode, along with what follows, was far more damaging to the film, because it asks you to change your impression of Indiana Jones, and to accept a vague backstory about his time between LAST CRUSADE and now that feels completely at odds with how he was established as a character in the movies. Forget the television show, I don't want to be told that these things were hinted at there - the show is a separate entity than the films, and that sounds like weak justification to me.

Despite some pretty large problems (and I haven't even talked about the somewhat iffy script), I'm going to go back to my original thought. There is a lot of fun here. You can't dismiss the entire film (or claim "they killed my youth" a la the STAR WARS prequels) based on those shortcomings because there are simply too many things here that do work, and that are fun, and that pay perfect homage to the films that came before. See it for Marion. See it for the motorcycle chase. See it for a definition of quicksand. See it for Harrison Ford, who ably steps back into the old leather jacket and shows us a hero that is both all too human and larger than life.

See it because it's a damn INDIANA JONES movie, and you want to remember those days in your backyard, reaching for the idol with the bag for your recorder filled with dirt.

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