Thursday, October 30, 2008

REVIEW: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Let's see you make a slick marketing acronym out of THAT title, promotions department!

You can’t accuse me of not wanting to like this one. Yes, when I heard that they had finally gotten started on Indiana Jones 4, I wondered if they could still find any ancient artifacts that actually predated Harrison Ford. But cranky old Gramps Jones actually sounded like fun the more I thought of it, and it’s not like Indy was ever not grumpy to begin with. Yes, I wondered why the heck they could have let George Lucas reject a script by Frank Darabont; it was like hearing that Dennis Kucinich had given Bill Clinton some political pointers. But then I saw The Mist, and all of a sudden, I was willing to give George the benefit of the doubt that they were going to cobble together a better script. By the time I sat down in the theater, I was aware that the movie had scored fairly well with the critics and public, and I was thrilled to be sitting down to watch the first new Indiana Jones adventure since Last Crusade, released when I was just a kid. And I was also pulling for this movie to be a smashing success that would finally prove that as good as Star Wars had once been, Indiana Jones was, and always had been, the great adventure series of the last half of the 20th century.

These days, this is Harrison Ford's "good angle."

And that fact is still true. Although Spielberg and company did not help my case. Spielberg’s an odd director to me. He’s been building up his resume as a great “serious movie” director ever since Schindler’s List. But he sometimes either just miscalculates a movie as badly as someone miscalculates the $100 question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? or he directs an entire movie he clearly didn’t care about for one second. His popcorn movies, once the only thing he was known for, have been very erratic in particular. The Lost World: Jurassic Park couldn’t have been less original if it had actually been a George Lucas-esque re-release of Jurassic Park with some scientists riding on Hadrosaur backs digitally inserted into the background. AI: Artificial Intelligence was the result of someone deciding that fusing Pinocchio with Blade Runner with Eyes Wide Shut was a good idea. And now, we have Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And the movie starts up on an ominous note from the very first shot: that of a CGI prairie dog (no kidding) that’s only slightly less realistic-looking than the groundhog from Caddyshack. And you’ll get to see the prairie dogs several more times for goofy little reaction shots, as if George Lucas had decided that fake-looking desert vermin are the new Ewoks. Damn you, Lucas!

Way to suck in that gut, Indy.

Let’s get it out of the way: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, if you’re an ignoramus who needs to be told) is old, and the movie acknowledges it, although boy, does Spielberg avoid close-ups. The 1940s have completely passed by since Last Crusade, which means that rock and roll’s in fashion, Eisenhower’s in office, and the Nazis are now in Argentina (and not in this movie, disappointingly, despite the fact that the movie mostly takes place in South America). Instead, the Russians are the new bad guys, and to its credit, the movie doesn’t bother empathizing with them or giving them moral equivalence with the Americans, aside from some mandatory bashing of the McCarthy-era FBI. But after the movie gets that out of its system, it’s the ‘50s and they’re Commie bastards, so let’s get to business. A group of Soviet soldiers starts out the movie by taking control of Area 51 in the middle of the Nevada desert. I’m not sure why Area 51 is a lone warehouse populated by five guards and no scientists, but okay. They’re led by Col. Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett, who is making her third appearance on Satan’s Jockstrap. I sometimes wonder why human beings are so cruel to each other because of petty politics, even to the point of vandalism and murder; I often wonder why Cate Blanchett is on three movies on my site. Although she’s going to be wearing the Golden Sombrero if she picks up too many more roles like this one. Playing a devious Russian scientist/military leader, Cate has the voice of Natascha from Rocky and Bullwinkle, the haircut of a Bulgarian gymnast, and the subway station-blue jumpsuit of a Satellite of Love inhabitant. To be fair, she’s not a bad villain for a non-serious film like this, and it’s not like the traitorous Frenchmen and power-hungry Nazis in past films have been subtle or original creations. I guess I just wouldn’t have expected that they’d need an actress like Cate Blanchett to deliver lines like, “Dohnt toy vith meee, Doktohr Johnez!”

Steven Spielberg once brought dinosaurs to life. Now he's going to do the same for prairie dogs. In theaters, this summer.

The Russians pull Indy out of a trunk, along with his pudgy, British cockney-accented sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone, not looking so much like Beowulf anymore). Spalko takes Indy and Mac (Indy Mac? Oh God.) to the warehouse full of boxes--Look a bit familiar?--and demands that Indy help them find whatever landed in Roswell in 1947. Hmmm, the movies have gone from Judaism (Raiders) to Hinduism (Temple of Doom) to Christianity (Last Crusade), and now… Scientology?!?! Yes, aliens are going to be behind all the wacky ancient stuff in this movie. Indy finds the alien pod thingy by tossing gunpowder into the air and following it as it gravitates toward a powerful magnetic force--so powerful that you kind of wonder who manufactures all the plastic nails they must have used to fasten all the other boxes in the warehouse. Inside the Roswell box is a well-preserved dead alien, because apparently the Army’s completely done with experimenting on it, and just decided on the Army equivalent of stuffing it in the crawlspace behind a stack of National Geographics. The Ruskies are about to steal the alien, but Indy of course manages to overpower one of them during the five-second timeframe between when a bad guy recognizes a threat and when his reflexes kick in and he fires the gun he has held at the ready. He threatens Spalko with a machine gun, but it turns out that Mac is a double-agent. Gee, a traitor in an Indiana Jones movie? At least they gave us a whole four minutes with which to get to know him before the devastating betrayal. Apparently, having one more machine gun-wielding villain directly in front of him suddenly makes Indy’s Mexican stand-off futile, so he flees instead, racing past bullets that somehow miss the slow-moving old guy who barely avoids throwing his back out. He climbs up boxes and swings across rafters with his whip, which the Russians apparently didn’t consider a weapon they should confiscate when they took him prisoner. In the chaos, they smash open the box containing the Ark of the Covenant from the first movie, one of several references to past entries in the series.

"Damn you, Short Round!"

After escaping, Indy wanders through the desert to a lone town. Upon arriving, he discovers that all its inhabitants are mannequins. Either he’s in one of about eighty Twilight Zone episodes, or he’s stumbled upon a fake town built to be destroyed in an A-bomb test. Which is of course going to happen exactly one minute from now. So how does Indy survive? By hiding in a refrigerator. Ah, but it’s a refrigerator with lead lining, as the movie makes sure to give us time to notice, so that makes sense. He then takes extra precaution by activating his Go-Go Gadget Nuclear Fallout Repellant and dousing himself in unicorn pee. And that lead not only shields Indy from the force of a nuclear blast, but it cushions him so that he doesn’t break every bone in his body while bouncing around in a refrigerator that’s flung several miles away. Or suffer radiation sickness. Or melt from the heat. And that door sure managed to stay shut nicely, even without any kind of locking mechanism. Although I’ll give this much to the movie: IJATKOTCS’s man-inside-fridge-survives-nuclear-explosion is more realistic than even the dialogue scenes of the average Heroes episode.

Mooning: you're doing it wrong.

Having escaped, Indy is accused by the FBI of being a Communist agent since, after all, he was good friends with Mac, who was a traitor. And the FBI is very evil for accusing a man as trusted as Indiana Jones of possibly being a Communist agent. For what possible reason? Because the man Indiana Jones most trusted turned out to be a Communist agent? Puh-shaw. Indy promptly gets canned from his teaching position (You’d think that his frequent unannounced mid-semester excursions to fight Nazis would have done that a long time ago.) just in time to start a new adventure. He’s approached by Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), who’s a leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding, fancy prep school-dropping-out-of rebel with street smarts and a free spirit. I’m not sure if he was written as a movie character or a Pepsi mascot, but either way, he couldn’t have been more out of place in an Indiana Jones movie if he had brought Alf along as a wacky sidekick. He tells Indy that he needs his help finding his mother and his surrogate uncle, Harold Oxley, who was a friend of Indy’s and a fellow mad archaeologist. Oxley disappeared while searching for Akator, a lost city along the Amazon. According to myth, which means according to absolute irrefutable fact, whoever finds an artifact called the Crystal Skull and returns it to Akator will gain ungodly amounts of wealth and power. Which means that this movie has the exact same premise as Raiders and Last Crusade, except with Russians and aliens instead of Nazis and God. Cool! I can make Indiana Jones movies too! If they keep advancing the chronology a decade each time, the movies will just write themselves!

"Is it an ancient artifact containing power we cannot even comprehend, Indy?" "No, kid. I think it's the $150 Special Limited Edition Blu-Ray disc packaging they're going to sell this movie in within a couple of months."

Villains: Vietcong
Source of Mystic Power: The Beatles

Villains: Richard Nixon’s thugs
Source of Mystic Power: Reggie Jackson

Villains: The Golden Girls
Source of Mystic Power: Apple stock

Villains: Teenagers who turn murderous after playing Mortal Kombat
Source of Mystic Power: Lycos

Villains: Oh, I think you know who
Source of Mystic Power: Fuel-efficient cars and public transportation

Anyway, they escape both the FBI and Russian agents and head to Peru. After the mandatory mission through a dark and cobweb-ridden tomb (Let’s see, we’ve done tarantulas, snakes, cockroaches, and rats, so…. scorpions are next on the agenda!), Indy and Mutt wind up with the Crystal Skull, but are immediately taken prisoner again by the Russians. Spalko reveals that they have Oxley (John Hurt; gee, do you think this character might have been Sean Connery again if they could have signed him?) prisoner, and that he knows where Akator is, but he’s a babbling loon after spending too much time with the Crystal Skull earlier on, and they need Indy to help translate his cryptic mutterings. They believe that the Crystal Skull and whatever lies at Akator will give them great psychic powers, which will allow them to control the world. Well, at least they have a more concrete idea of what their magical artifact would give them than the Nazis did with the Ark of the Covenant; you have to give them credit for having a goal.

"I've got to know one thing, Mom. And I need you to tell me the truth. Are my eyes really going to look like that when I'm your age?"

Indy initially refuses to help, even when the Russians threaten to kill Mutt. But he has to rethink it when the aliens bring out… a green-skinned, bug-eyed alien! Holy crap! Wait a minute… is that… oh dear Lord. I’m sorry, it’s Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s love interest from Raiders. I really don’t mean to make juvenile insults about people’s looks on this website; I’m far more into insults that really strike at the inner lack of qualities people have, insults that can’t be easily forgiven. But when I look at Karen Allen, dredged up from semi-retirement for this movie, I can kind of realize why she hasn’t been in many movies lately. There haven’t been too many movies about fortune teller ladies who live in Louisiana bayous. So I guess the sex appeal for this movie has to be carried by Cate Blanchett made up like a matryoshka doll and Karen Allen made up to look like that Nazi after he chose the wrong Holy Grail. With Ford and Allen as the leads and source of the film’s only romance, I can imagine Spielberg screaming at his director of photography, “More Vaseline on the camera lens, dammit! And zoom out! Out, out, out! Hey, is there any way we can add rain to this scene? Or a massive solar flare? If this image looks any sharper than the Zapruder film, we’re doomed! IMAX will be my undoing! Any chance we can just slap a wig on LaBeouf and make him the love interest instead?"

Children of the Cranberries

Oh, and by the way, Mutt is actually Indy’s son. Just in case you hadn’t figured that out halfway into scanning the movie poster.

My Mother, the Car

As the Russians haul them down the Amazon in search of Akator, in trucks rather than boats for some reason, Indy and Marion bicker about their failed relationship constantly. When they get tired of bickering, they get back to the perfunctory task of escaping. They take control of a truck, and despite the fact that the bazooka round Indy fires near the start of the scene appears to be the only weapon they have, the machine gun-armed Russians appear to be deathly afraid of Indy/Marion/Oxley/Mutt killing them all. Thus begins a chase through the jungle in which Spielberg appears to have measured the audience’s excitement by the sheer number of times that people jump from one car to another while they’re still in motion, and how many times the damn Crystal Skull gets tossed back and forth between the two sides. Apparently realizing that the scene goes from tongue-in-cheek to drooling-down-the-chin stupid very early on, Spielberg hams it up. He has Mutt sword-fight Spalko while straddling the good guys’ and bad guys’ cars, plants smacking him in the crotch along the way--couldn’t the Russian driver have killed him by just slightly slowing down or veering to the right for a moment? But that’s not enough, so Spielberg has Mutt swing through the vines like Tarzan, befriend an army of monkeys, and swing onto Spalko’s car to recapture the Crystal Skull--if that sounds like a joke, you weren’t one of the 5 trillion people who saw this movie in the theater. But the action scene isn’t long enough yet, so let’s just throw in a swarm of killer flesh-eating ants. I don’t know if I want to live in a world in which an Indiana Jones movie rips off The Mummy, in this case the swarms of killer flesh-eating scarabs. And to top it off, let’s have Marion confidently drive her car off a 100-foot cliff, knowing that she’ll be caught gently by a tree and eased down so that she can drive off to ford the river below. It’s a feat of timing and coordination that people in The Matrix would find it audacious, but it’s a breeze to Granny Marion! And to top off the topping off, Indy and his happy family manage to easily survive driving off a massive waterfall three consecutive times. I’m sure that the scene cost about 1,000 times as much to make as the truck chase scene from Raiders, so you should all be appreciative to all the hard-working graphics designers who created the cartoon world that Indiana Jones now lives in.

"Hey, Hurt. LaBeouf's getting on my case for looking so old. Tell me, what's your secret?"

Having escaped the Russians, Indy and his gang (which now once again includes Mac, who’s assured them that he’s actually a double agent working for the CIA) continues on into Akator, solving various Myst-like puzzles and solving every other problem by having Oxley wave the Crystal Skull at it to make it go away. Of course, Mac is actually still working for the Russians, and Indy fell for it yet again. Remember, if you’re a traitor in an action movie, yelling, “I’m a double agent!” in the middle of an action scene doesn’t give the good guy enough time to ponder the likelihood of this statement, and after the action scene ends, it would be awkward for him to now kill you, so you pretty much win by default. Mac leads Russians into the pyramid of Akator, and despite Indy and company no longer being of use, the Russians are sporting enough to not kill them yet.

Archaeologists have long sought out the great ancient Aztec Applebees of Central America.

Remember the end of Raiders where the bad guys got exactly what they wanted, completing the ceremony and tapping the awesome power of the artifact they had strived for, but it turned out that the ceremony unleashed power beyond their reckoning and it annihilated them in a special effects-filled sequence while Indy and Marion survived simply by not participating in that ceremony? And the similar ending to Last Crusade? Yeah, it’s exactly like that. The pyramid explodes after Spalko reaffixes the Crystal Skull to an alien’s Crystal Skeleton, resurrecting the alien (So how did the damn thing die in the first place?), and the good guys run away while Mac, Spalko, and the Russians get sucked into another dimension, along with the flying saucer buried underneath the pyramid. The whole scene looks very expensive, although none of it really involves Indy or Marion or their friends, who basically just jog away while things explode all around them. I guess that the great stuntwork Harrison Ford and Karen Allen were originally asked to do would have violated the terms of their AARP life insurance.

This is what you get when you don't change your oil every 3,000 miles.

The final scene has Indy and Marion getting married in a whiter-than-white church, with Mutt and a newly-sane Oxley in attendance. I wonder how Shia LaBeouf, rising young force in Hollywood, felt about getting completely ignored in the second half of this movie in favor of that chick from Raiders and Animal House and no other movies that human beings have ever seen. But just to remind the public that we haven’t forgotten about Mutt, the lone human being under the age of 45 in this whole movie, an unearthly gust of wind rushes into the church and blows Indy’s famous fedora to him. As he picks up the hat, we’re wondering if this is Spielberg’s promise that Mutt will be replacing Indy in future adventures, like Mutt Jones and the Samurai Sword of Great Justice and Mutt Jones and the Voodoo That You Do. I think I'd rather see Margaret Mead and the Mystery of Adolescence. Fortunately, Indy swipes the hat back on his way out of the church, barely resisting the urge to punch the skinny kid square in the nose and tell him that even by the time the next movie rolls around, Harrison Ford at age 126 will be the only Indiana Jones worth having in a movie.

IJATKOTCS is about what you’d expect when you take a mythic and beloved movie character and suddenly revitalize him a decade and a half after his previous movie. The movie exists purely to make money, not tie up any loose ends (Rocky Balboa), explore new angles for the character (Rambo 4), or even give some new director a chance to mess with the existing conventions (Live Free or Die Hard). Indiana Jones 4 just rehashes the same formula from the first several movies, with the Russians/aliens/South America storyline masquerading as originality. Whereas each Indiana Jones movie prior to this had a bit of a different tone to it, this time around the formula and spirit is exactly identical to Last Crusade. I’ll grant that the movie’s not all that terrible until the Tarzan sequence begins its death spiral; I even thought that the nuclear bomb sequence was amusing in a Roger Moore-as-James Bond sort of way. But even a series built on credibility-straining stunts needs some vague connection to reality, or else we’re not going to laugh or be impressed when Indy actually does pull off some outrageous stunt. At a time when the James Bond movies are going back to semi-plausibility, Indiana Jones is going Octopussy on us.

Worried that Heather Ledger was going to upstage his famous role, Jack Nicholson made an uncredited cameo as the Joker in a competing summer film.

But this is supposed to be Indiana Jones. And there’s a whole generation of kids who think The Mummy's Rick O’Connell’s the greatest action movie archaeologist of all time. And if this is the only Indiana Jones movie those kids have seen, I might not be able to blame them.

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