Untimely meditations (filmic): "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"
In which I reflect on the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones saga long after most people have stopped caring about it.
I was born in 1974, so the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises formed the center of my cinematic universe as a child.
I can't recall exactly, but I probably first saw "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) on VHS. I saw "Temple of Doom" (1984) in the theater; twice, I think. I greeted "Last Crusade" in 1989 with about as much excitement as can be generated for a movie, except for maybe that Italian girl who saw "Titantic" 70 times. I basically had each of them committed to memory at certain points over the years.
So when I first heard about "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," I was fired up. There was no question that I'd see the movie as soon as it was released. I'd probably wait a few days at most to let the crowds thin out.
Then my expectations cratered. First came the negative responses from those who'd seen early screenings. Later came the official reviews, and I realized to my dismay that the only favorable responses were coming from the usual cretins and industry stooges.
I decided I'd still see it in the theater, but I'd wait a few weeks. But my interest slackened further, and eventually I figured I'd wait for it to come out on DVD.
By the time it showed up last month at Blockbuster, my curiosity had waned to the point that my primary motivation for checking it out was to see whether Trey Parker and Matt Stone were justified in having George Lucas and Steven Spielberg rape Indiana Jones in brief parodies of "Deliverance" and "The Accused."
The South Park guys didn't really spell out what they thought was wrong with "Crystal Skull," though there are certainly plenty of grounds for complaint, but one of the things they apparently didn't like was the fact that -- spoiler alert -- aliens are involved.
They have a valid point, but I disagree. "Interdimensional beings," as they're called, aren't really that much of a departure from the first three movies when you consider the supernatural elements each of them involved: an Ark of the Covenant that, when opened, emits wailing spirits and flames that incinerate those who gaze upon it; a set of magical stones that can relieve drought and pestilence and a priest who can reach inside a person's chest and pull out his still-beating heart; and an invisible bridge, a knight who's 700 years old and a Holy Grail that heals fatal wounds.
That's not to say there weren't a slew of problems with "Kingdom," however. Here's a few of them.
There's an over-reliance on studio sets and computer-generated backdrops, as opposed to actual locations. The opening scene at the entrance to a Nevada military base, for instance, uses a CGI backdrop that looks obviously fake. Some of the street scenes at Indy's college look like they're shot on a studio lot. The jungle backdrops once the action moves to South America are at times utterly unconvincing. This is staggering when you consider the budget of this movie and the technology that Lucas and Spielberg had at their disposal.
(This reminds me. The last time I saw "Crusade" I was shocked at how poorly some of the special effects hold up, particularly the scene on the beach where Sean Connery shoos the birds with his umbrella, getting them to fly into the path of the fighter plane that's pursuing them. Spielberg seems less interested in going back and tinkering with past projects than Lucas, but it would be worthwhile to redo the special effects in "Crusade" a la what Lucas did with Star Wars IV-VI.)
Cate Blanchett's character -- Col. Dr. Irina Spalko, a Russian dominatrix wearing a slightly shorter version of Uma Thurman's wig from "Pulp Fiction" -- is so preposterous and trite that every scene she's in becomes a live-action cartoon. And she's further evidence that neither Spielberg nor Lucas, despite their storytelling gifts, are skilled at or particularly interested in creating compelling female characters.
There are some exceptions to this rule, and Marion Ravenwood, Indy's brassy love interest from "Raiders," is one of them. She reappears halfway through "Kingdom," but as heartwarming as it is to see her again, the sharp edges of her personality have softened with age. And any hope for a dramatically satisfying reunion between the ex-lovers is quickly snuffed by a hackneyed screenplay.
Witness, for instance, Indy and Marion bicker about their past while sinking dangerously into a sand pit. (It's a dry sand pit, not quicksand; to employ the latter would be cliche.) Watch as they engage in more petty bickering in a military truck before and during an all-too-easy escape from their KBG captors.
The action scenes are ridiculous. Indy's ability to dodge semiautomatic-weapons fire has gotten out of control. He gets into a fistfight with a Russian goon that lasts several minutes, even though he would have broken both his hands with his first punches. Vicious ants swarm a bad a guy and, like a bunch of a miniature land pirahnas, devour him in seconds.
I could go on with my complaints, but ultimately I have to differ with Parker and Stone's take on this movie. On the charges of aggravated sexual assault and forced anal intercourse, I find Spielberg and Lucas "not guilty."
This movie certainly doesn't rise to the level of Lucas' failure with Star Wars I-III. There is no Jar Jar Binks here. No mitochlorians. There is nothing that compares with Lucas' hideous botching of the Anakin Skywalker story.
The Indiana Jones franchise has always been a vehicle for Spielberg's infatuation with the romance and escape that classic Hollywood movies offered him as a child. "Kingdom" may not be at all believable, but then none of the previous installments was particularly believable.
These are movies are for kids, mostly boys, between the ages of 8 and 18. If "Kingdom" ends up feeling, when subjected to an adult's cold skepticism, too much like a comic book, there's no sense in getting worked up about it.
I came to this realization during a long car chase through the Peruvian jungle, in which Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) fences with Spalko while straddling two vehicles. I decided it was time to let go of my frustration. (I was prepared to be annoyed by LaBeouf in this role, incidentally, but he's actually pretty good.)
Still, I could have done without the part where Mutt gets hung up in some vines while the convoy speeds away from him, is greeted by a family of macaques (same kind, based on appearance, as the mischievous monkey from "Raiders"), then swings Tarzan-style about a mile across the jungle -- judging by the speed and direction of the convoy -- and jumps back into one of the cars.
The difficulty Lucas and Spielberg had in coming up with a MacGuffin for the fourth Indiana Jones movie is well-documented. And I think the struggle they had devising a storyline wound up preventing the movie from realizing its potential.
I got the Jerry Garcia box set this year for my birthday. In the booklet that comes with it, Garcia discusses the long back-and-forth with lyricist Robert Hunter that went into the creation of the song "Rubin and Cherise": "It was one of those songs that had to be slammed and banged and adjusted until it was right. Usually, if you work that long on something it ends up sounding forced, but in this case all the work became invisible and the result is a nice, sophisticated song that's invisibly complex."
Whether or not you like Garcia or agree that "Ruben and Cherise" is a good song, I think what he's saying is pretty universal when it comes to the creative process. "Crystal Skull" feels like a movie that was slammed and banged and adjusted. Unfortunately, you can sense all that strain and constipation in the final product.