30 May 2008

Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Okay, so in retrospect, I was kinder to this movie at the time than most folks were then and I would be now. Sue me. It was refreshing to see Spielberg just having fun, and I still think I was right about the charms it does have.

Nothing really needs to be said beyond what you’ve doubtless already heard: yeah, it delivers the goods.

No, it doesn’t measure up to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that was simply a charmed film ... and in my own case it benefits from having first cast its spell over me when I was ten years old. But Crystal Skull is fun, it gets the important things right, and it gave me the thing I wanted most. (I’ll get to that last.)

Sixty seconds into the movie it reminds you that Mrn Steven Spielberg really knows how to move the camera. All the gripes that cinephiles make about Spielberg are true: his tendency to drift into schmaltz, his incapacity to understand women, the deliberateness that squeezes out any interesting ambiguities, the lack of story sense, and so on. But I think the real reason for all the kvetching about Spielberg is resentment that these weaknesses are yoked to his uncanny talent for putting the camera where any normal director would think it shouldn't be ... and making it work.

Likewise we see George Lucas’ great strength on display as well. Like many, I curse Lucas’ many deficiencies, but the man knows how to get magic out of his production designers. All of the stuff in the picture is delicious. There’s a scene in a sort of a rocket lab that I wished was longer, just so I could enjoy looking at the set. Mutt’s motorcycle is the stuff that biker dreams are made of. And the picture’s one sequence with real satirical bite, commenting on ’50s suburban culture, works in large part because the production design is so spot-on.

All of the action scenes are brisk and fun, though I had a couple of quibbles. First, though Mr. Spielberg has crowed about resisting the temptations of computer generated effects, favoring real stunts with real people — including an awful lot done by an impressively spry Harrison Ford himself — there’s still more CG in the picture than there should be: grubby matte paintings and miniatures are part of the look of the Indiana Jones, for me. Second, there are a few bits that violate the compact of “realism” I felt was kept in Raiders: Indiana Jones’ acts of derring-do may be wildly implausible, but should never feel impossible.

The crystal skull itself is a bit of a departure in tone from the mystical artifacts of past pictures. (There’s a bit of a possible spoiler there that I’ll resist, though the picture gives it away pretty early.) I was happy to roll with it, since I felt it was still in keeping with the the pulp tradition, but I can see how other folks might feel otherwise. What can you do? The Ark of the Covenant is pretty much the best MacGuffin ever, so nothing else is going to fully satisfy. I think I was sustained in large part by the hint of the Lovecraftian about the Skull's story ... which made me dream of going all the way to Indiana Jones and the Fish Men of Innsmouth or Indiana Jones and the Mountains of Madness. How cool would those be?

The actors are all having a hammy good time. It’s still a pleasure to see Harrison Ford in the hat; his greatest talent has always been his screen presence, and we still believe him as Indiana Jones ... though in every scene he communicates the old joke about “I’m getting too old for this” without having to spoil things by saying it in so many words. Just about everyone else in the picture is also pretty keen. Cate Blanchett manages to be more weirdly, delightfully inhuman than she was as Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, if you can believe that. Shia LaBoeuf gets a role that’s almost as big an opportunity for embarrassment as his part in Transformers and makes it work. Likewise Ray Winstone, who keeps it together in a part that was obviously originally written for Daffy Duck. The movie doesn’t give the mangificent John Hurt enough to do, but then no movie ever could, so he quietly chews the scenery just the right amount.

Which brings me to the real reason I wanted to see the movie.

When I was ten years old I fell in love with Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, and I’m not too proud to admit that I’m still carrying a torch for her. George Lucas insisted that like James Bond, Indiana Jones should have a different love interest in every picture, but in my heart I have always known that Marion was Indy’s true love. When they revealed at Comicon that Karen Allen was back (you can see it at 3:00 on this video) Im told that the assembled crowd broke into hysterical applause, so I guess I’m not alone. It’s said that Frank Darabont’s attempt at a script for Indy 4 played her as Indy's equal partner in adventure, and I’m peeved that in Crystal Skull she’s mostly reduced to looking gorgeous and driving the car. But Harrison Ford plays Indy as giddy at the sight of her, as he should, so I walked out of the theater a happy man.


Erik said...

Word, word, word.

Some thoughts:
-- The only movie I've seen that gives John Hurt his due is The Field (also featuring the incomparable Richard Harris and a suitably awed Sean Bean), though his turn in Jim Henson's Storyteller series is delightful.
-- I was a little put-off by Marion's lack of spark up until the scene along the river; there's a sparkle in her eyes when she sees her chance that spoke volumes to me about her talent and ability.

d a r k c h i l d e said...

We of Clan Darrington went to see this movie over the weekend.

"I think I was sustained in large part by the hint of the Lovecraftian about the Skull's story ... which made me dream of going all the way to Indiana Jones and the Fish Men of Innsmouth or Indiana Jones and the Mountains of Madness. How cool would those be?"


For me (probably as a singly mother who has raised her spawn solo) I just didn't buy the shmarmy "Oh Indy, thanks for ditching me a week before our wedding and I know we've had common peers for the past 18 years, but I kept my son's paternity from you JUST so I could fall in your arms and wallow around like a good happy ending"

After that lovely moment I had to choke back my own bile of reality!

What can a one do? Scripts!