Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crysrtal...huh?

As my friends in the back row will attest to: Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is a movie best viewed high. Here's a film that will test survival skills. Not Indy's. Yours. The original Indiana Jones venture managed to be original, while also paying homage to 1930s serials. It was tightly wound, witty, and even thoughtful. It's an incredible mystery that the 2008 edition was made by the same men who are now legends: Steven Spielburg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford. A movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark could not even be made today. Ironically, one of the original blockbusters has given rise to a movie industry which would now mangle such a finely tuned piece of work.

Crystal Skull takes place in 1957 and Ford reprises his role as the Man in the Hat. The old Nazi villains have given way to Cold War Russians, led by Cate Blanchett's Irina, a caricature searching for a the title skull, an object which can literally blow your mind. Toss in a few stock characters--an Aussie, a young Marlon Brando from "The Wild Ones", an old love interest, pictures of Sean Conery, flesh eating ants, wild natives, and a few extra terrestrials, and you have what Speilburg and Lucas now consider a quality summer film. Is it the age, or the millage?

To talk of plot is to give the thing much too much credit. There's really nothing here other than stunts and CGI effects strung together to form a story in only the weakest sense of the term. All the pieces are there, to be sure sure: trains, motorcycles, detonations, a love affair rekindled, a lost son reuinted with father. But we've been here before with all of this, and most of it is unncessary. I'm reminded of a line from another Spielburg movie: they were so preoccupied with weather or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should. The problem is these elements are nothing more than hollow building blocks given no life. By the end Crystal Skull is stuffed to the brim with accents, explosions, books, dust, skeletons, rocks, water, ants, and one spinning UFO. To call it a "movie" would be a stretch. It's more like a Disneyland theme park ride.

Crystal Skull is terrible and I say this as a huge Indiana Jones fan. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my favorite movies. I grew up with it. Even as a kid, when I didn't understand many of the references, the adventure was palpable. The urgency was real. The characters, though exaggerated, were believable and thus likable. Indy wore down and by the end of the movie you can felt his exhaustion. He didn't want to fight the big bald German dude around the plane because he was damn tired and the only thing that saved him was a timely propeller, not superhuman strength. I watched the same movie again before viewing Crystal Skull and those feelings were only heightened with age. The movie is emotional and exciting while also being funny and cerebral. Some of that magic carried over into the next two films Temple of Doom and Last Crusade, but you'd be hard pressed to include the 2008 ride into this collection. The only thing that links are the names in the credits.

You know it's going to be a long movie when Indy's first appearance is met with skepticism. Who's that old man in the Indiana Jones costume? I don't say this to make fun of Harrison Ford, who is certainly to be commended for his courage in donning the fedora again at 60 something, it's just that Indy himself is not believable on any level, starting with his creaky appearance. The movie proceeds like this, destroying any sense of plausible deniability as it goes. Any attachment to reality is obliterated in 15 minutes when Indy wanders into a town constructed as a nuclear (which Indy pronounces "nu-cu-ler") testing site. In the distance you see a atomic bomb set for detonation. Then you hear the countdown. The sense of danger is imminent. Still, in case you were confused, Indy reminds you, "This is not good." He then hides in a refrigerator, the bomb goes off, the town is vaporized, and the Maytag flies through the air, crashes to earth, rolls for half a mile, and Indy tumbles out and walks away.

In the original films Indy was a human. Now he is invincible. And in making him so, much of the magic and charm is lost. Here is a movie where anything can happen and does, even if it's laughable and irrelevant. Crystal Skull has all the earmarks of poor Lucas films: too much CGI, too much commenting through the obvious, not enough human touch. Or, to put it another way, not enough of what made a movie like Raiders so much fun. Bad filmmakers don't trust their audience to put together what is going on, so they verbalize the obvious plot points. They cram in more and more because silence becomes deafening. There's always some actor ready to quip out a one-liner to make what is going on clear, even though this movie has gone from an original to a well worn template.

My quest, with this film, was not to find where the Crystal Skulls came from, but how seemingly intelligent, discerning critics gave it good reviews. How is it clocking in at 80% on Rotten Tomatoes? Is it a nod to Lucas, Spielburg, and Ford--three people who could obviously care less? This is the Indy movie that took 19 years to make, which coaxed Ford to put the hat back on? This is the movie after a massive script re-write, which it ends with a UFO and something about the "space between spaces" ? It's not a bad movie because it's no Raiders, it's just a bad movie. And compared to this movie, Raiders seems as rare and untoucable as the lost Ark itself.

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