Monday, November 22, 2010

Let's Review a Movie: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Oh my god what the hell happened with this movie? For all the problems I had with the recent Star Trek film at least that one has some good acting and potential to improve. This thing takes a beloved trilogy and tosses it through a meat grinder. For nineteen years they were supposedly looking for the perfect script and this was the result!?

A few notes before we begin. Shia LaBeouf’s character will be addressed as Mudd. Yes I know his name is really Mutt, but Mudd is what I keep hearing in the film, not to mention that his existence and the way it was handled is another blot on this movie, so Mudd it shall be for the review. Also I know one of Lucas’ defences of the film was that audience expectations were too high. So I’d like to come out and say that I actually had quite low expectations for this film. I initially didn’t even want to see it because I feared Lucas would totally muck it up after the whole Star Wars prequels fiasco. Still I thought that having Spielberg there would curb the CGI love-fest and this film might not capture that lightning in a bottle again, but it would at least be decent. I should have gone with my gut instinct and stayed away.

You know the first time I saw this in the theatre and the Paramount logo dissolved into a mole hill I got that sinking feeling of impending doom; oh how right I was. The entire movie is a mess right from that CGI mole hill and prairie dog. So, much for Spielberg’s promise that CGI would only be used when necessary. That is my major issue with the use of CGI in this film, it was used, in my opinion, where it wasn’t needed. For example adding a bunch of light and extra foliage to the jungle chase. It gives the whole thing a glossy over crowded look. They might as well have not filmed on location because it now looks like the entire thing was filmed in front of a blue screen. Then for the big gross out scene we have CGI ants, oh how reverting. You know the reason the audience gets so creeped-out in the Indy trilogy is because the snakes, bugs, and rats were real. Having CGI animals makes the whole thing pointless. In all these cases the effect actually detracts from audience enjoyment. I don’t care about the prairie dogs, the locations don’t look right, and I’m not invested in the peril of the characters against non-existent ants.

Well of course effects aren’t everything, so what about the human factor in this film? How are the characters dealt with? Well the entry of the Russians is okay, both in them being in the film as the main foes because of course time has passed both in our world and Indy’s and their physical intro in the opening. Except I don’t get the whole point of the drag racing scene with a bunch of teenagers we’ll never see again, but never mind lets get to the important part: The return of Indy. The Russian car stops everyone gets out and here comes the big moment. This is it. The first time we’ve seen our hero in nineteen years and…he gets thrown out of a trunk to the ground, wow how anti-climatic. However, the shot of Indy in shadow putting on the hat is good. I’ll give the movie a point for that.

Next we see that our new bad guys mean business by talking about some priceless artefacts that Indy was searching for before they drop them carelessly to the ground. You know it would have been really nice to see that. A kind of bookend with Raiders where we see how Indy works now that he is a bit older, wiser, maybe even get a little interaction with Mac so we can see their friendship instead of just being told about it. Oh, well never mind it’s time to show how ineffective the main villain is!

Enter Irene Spelko as she demands information from Indy; and the whereabouts of moose and squirrel. And right off the bat we’re shown that the thing that makes this villain formidable doesn’t work on our hero. Well that certainly makes her threatening and a foil for our protagonist. This continues through every scene that she is in. In the tent in the jungle she goes on about using the skull’s power to win the Cold War by basically brain washing the USA. You know the whole threat of physic warfare might have been really cool if we hadn’t seen already that it doesn’t work! It gets worse when the audience learns why she needs Indy to look at the skull and not her. “The skull does not speak to everyone.” So her powers don’t work on Indy and she can’t speak to the skull. Wow now I’m totally convinced she’s a threat to our hero and the world at large. Where’s Belloq when you need him? The only time she comes close to competence is in the sword fight with Mudd. Considering it’s Mudd we're talking about though and the scene is being played for laughs with Marion giving Mudd fencing advice, the tiny feeling of tension the scene has is quickly thrown under the jeep. We are told by others that Spelko is brilliant, but what we see doesn’t match that and in film showing counts more than telling this is a visual medium after all.

While we’re on the topic of the villains, why does Indy go along with what they want when they have him trapped in the warehouse? He is only been threatened with the loss of his life and we already know that does nothing. Crusade anyone?

“Shooting me won’t get you anywhere.”

“You know something, Dr. Jones, you’re absolutely right.” *Shoots Indy’s father*

Now Indy has an incentive to go get the grail. Even if it means the villains win.

Also if it had been Mac that had been threatened it would make his later betrayal all the more painful. But since they didn’t do that our hero looks stupid. And he does it again later in the camp scene in Peru! Spelko tells him they need him to unlock the power of the skull and he does it! Why was he looking at the skull why does he continue to cooperate with them?! He has nothing to lose except his life! Mudd hasn’t been threatened and he doesn’t know about Marion. They still need Ox, so why does he just look at the skull? Would it really have been too difficult to show two seconds of Spelko or one of her thugs forcing him to look at it?

You know what I now know why every other person in the film was calling Indy Henry, Jonesy and the like, and why I’m no longer annoyed with it. It’s because Indy is not Indy! Oh, he’s dressed the part, and Harrison Ford looks marvellous for his age, but in terms of character actions someone replaced Indy with a pod person during the war because this isn’t him. For instance when he finds the skull in the tomb he holds it up, looks at Mudd, and says “What is this thing?” Excuse me I…I need a moment. Indiana Jones, archaeologist extraordinaire, is asking a high school drop out what an artefact is. And things just get worse from there. After they escape from the Russian convoy Indy isn’t the one figuring anything out, Ox is. Ox defeats the ants, Ox gets rid of the natives who live in the walls, he figures out the sand puzzle in the ruins and he found the flipping skull in the first place! This film isn’t called Ox and the Crystal Skull! It's supposed to be about Indy and for almost the whole third act he’s basically a sidekick!

The only scene of Indy where he really gets to shine, in my opinion, is the graveyard scene. He’s on his game and the blow-gun move rocks…except for what happens afterwards. The guy just falls over. No blood or anything. The same is true of the guards at Area 51, and the bad guys getting roasted by the rocket sled. This is the most sanitized Indy film I’ve ever had the misfortune of watching. Now this is not to say that the film should be nothing but blood and gore, but in the trilogy it gives an anchor to reality. People are sweating, people are dirty, people bleed. It is gritty realism and it is severely lacking here.

Now we get to Mudd. I hate this character and I hate the way the whole situation is handled in the film; with all the depth of a mud puddle. This could actually have been a really emotional issue and have a great tie back to the last film. All through Crusade Indy resents that his father has never been close to him, work always meant more. Now, because Marion never told him, Indy finds himself in that same position. He has been completely absent from his son’s life, why is he not more angry with Marion for keeping that from him? Why is Mudd not angrier at being told this man is his biological father and he should like him automatically? Why doesn’t Marion harp on Indy for being so obsessed with ‘grave robbing’ and ‘trinkets’ over everything else, and we can learn over this movie that Indy is no longer like that Marion and Mudd mean more to him than that, and so the wedding at the end could actually be meaningful and not just fanservice. Speaking of fanservice what the hell is Marion in this movie for besides that? I liked Indy and Marion as a couple and I really wanted to enjoy them interacting here, but Marion literally has nothing to do! If, for example, Mudd was Ox’s son instead of Marion’s the film could be run without her there at all.

Things that annoy me in general about this movie. How come this highly magnetic thing in the warehouse doesn’t attract things like, oh I don’t know, the guns themselves until the box is open? How come the box doesn’t stick to the bottom of the metal pick-up truck? Why must we have a shot of the ark mugging for the camera? We knew it was there the moment we saw the boxes and that was good enough; the audience is not stupid. Why do we need three waterfalls? They established the first time that no one was getting injured, despite all evidence that they should; having three of them, and getting bigger ever time, is gratuitous. Spelko’s line to Mac in the warehouse annoys me: “You did well.” He let Indy escape, how did he do well? This line should really be something like “you did half the job. You get half the pay.” And then we have a reason for Mac to be around for the rest of the movie. Also why is Mac around for the rest of the movie? His only purpose is to be basically a walking homing device that Spelko can follow to get the skull. They really couldn’t find another way to do that besides having a living prop? And frankly they really needed to. By the time we get to returning the skull to Akator we have Indy, Mac, Mudd, Ox, and Marion along for the ride, not to mention Spelko and her thugs, and it’s simply too many characters so none of them can get any real depth.

Finally of course it wouldn’t be a proper review if I didn’t comment on the infamous scene that has split the fandom: the nuclear fridge. I could rant for days about how wrong this whole scene is. Apologists have made the claim that over the top things happen in the other films so what’s the big deal with the fridge? The big deal is that everything that is over the top in the first three movies is in relation to the supernatural MacGuffin of the story. There’s a seven hundred year old knight in a cave because the grail has granted him immortality. The bad guys get their faces melted off in Raiders because they have opened the Ark. Mola Ram can rip out people’s hearts while they’re still beating because of the stones. Indy surviving in the fridge isn’t because of the magnetic alien body they found in a box in the warehouse.

Furthermore in scenes where the supernatural are not in play for example we get realistic, for an action movie, responses to the situation within the rules the world has established. For example Indy is able to take back the truck in Raiders against the odds getting shot, dragged under the truck, and beaten up to within an inch of his life as every good action star should. Afterwards however Indy is an exhausted beat up mess, and acts like it. The same is true of the tank scene in Crusade and the mine car scene in Temple of Doom. Also this is the capstone action scene of the film. We have gotten ourselves to that high point and now we whined down. Here we’ve had the action climax in the opening act of the movie! We’ve seen Indy survive a nuclear blast in a fridge and come out with not even a scratch. There is nothing that can top that. Not the ants, not the waterfalls, not any of the chase sequences. Indy can survive more than what he dealt with twenty years before, while being twenty years older; the tension is gone. The audience has checked out of the movie and we’re not coming back in.

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