Friday, June 13, 2008
Indiana Jones: A Chicken Bone that Won't Exit my Craw
My wife Rita posted a much more direct (and immediate) reaction to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but after watching Raiders of the Lost Ark again last night--and the entire preceding trilogy over the last couple of weeks--I had to add my two cents.
I truly went into the new Indy film with the straightforward, simple expectation of a couple of hours of undemanding fun, and a comfy reunion with some old friends. Crystal Skull actually delivered that for me during its first, oh, fifteen or twenty minutes. Heck, even the Atomic Test Site scene genuinely amused me, and I momentarily (but enthusiastically) questioned why so much of the fanboy community had its collective Star Wars Underoos in such a bunch.
Then came the remaining 104 minutes. And I'm inclined to blame most of it on George Lucas.
The George Lucas who co-piloted Indy 4 is not the George Lucas who directed American Graffiti. Nor is he the brilliant-idea-laden visionary who knew when to cede substantial creative input on his best ideas to other, better writers and directors. No, the George Lucas behind Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the obscenely wealthy, powerful, and out-of-touch techno-baron whose reverse Midas touch effectively turned the Star Wars franchise from gold to feces. I'm not disputing the man's technical genius, nor the fact that he's been a vital force on some of my favorite films ever. But bluntly put, he can't screenwrite his way out of a paper bag.
Crystal Skull's script brims with all of the trademarks of Star-Wars-prequel-era Lucas. Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay for the original Raiders honed Lucas' and Phil Kaufman's basic story to sublime pulp-cliffhanger perfection, creating characters as vivid and memorable as the slam-bang action: Crystal Whatever takes most of those same characters and rewrites them with the subtlety of a finger-painting five-year-old. One paragraph of tired exposition won't do when Lucas can cram six pages' worth into a scene. Characters' motivations and fates can't just be implied: THEY MUST BE SPELLED OUT IN BLOCK LETTERS AND DRAWN OUT WITH MAGIC MARKERS. And that numbing literalness just brings the movie's cornucopia of irritating faults into stark relief.
Does any of Skull's insufferable arguing between Indy and Marion ring remotely true? Is there any basis in reality to the manufactured Lifetime-Movie-of-the-Week backstory behind the couple's split? Would any remotely rational human being besides Lucas be dense enough to create a central McGuffin as alternately far-fetched and dull as that in Crystal Skull? Do the characters played by John Hurt and Ray Winstone even need to be in the movie at all? Does Cate Blanchet's Boris's-Natasha-gone-dominatrix schtick hold even the dimmest candle to the elegant villainy of Paul Freeman's Bellaq or Ronald Lacey's coldly malevolent Toht? Does anyone care about the masturbatory alien-porn visuals that clog the movie's finale?
Gifted as he is, I can't let Spielberg off the hook, either. He's spent so many years being a grown-up making (relatively) grown-up films that he seems inordinately rusty with the young-at-heart sense of adventure required to make the whole enterprise fly. There's just no joy, no lightness of touch to his work here: He's giving the fans what he feels they want, instead of investing any of himself in it (longtime friendship aside, how else to explain his willingness to even work with Lucas' lousy, lousy script?). Spielberg may feel like he's beyond the poppy fizz of the Indy films artistically, but if that's the case he and Lucas should've turned over the reins to someone who cares.
Yes, Temple of Doom and Last Crusade have faults, and neither attains the seamless perfection and magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The former's probably the most completely worthless of the series, what with Kate Capshaw's strident harpy bleating and its utterly cheapjack look and visuals; and Last Crusade sports the series' most asinine denouement (some old coot in chainmail guarding a clay cup? Puh-LEEZE!). But at least Doom moves, dammit, and Crusade's attention to the relationship between Indy and his father is worth its weight in gold. Crystal Skull lumbers when it should bound, and it shouts and meanders when it should just tell the story the best it can. And don't even get me started on how totally the movie wastes the still-engaging Harrison Ford and the still-luminous Karen Allen (I'm hopeful that they received rich financial rewards for their souls).
Most staggering to me is the overwhelmingly enthusiastic critical response to this latest Indy film. It's a textbook example of what I call The Revenge of the Sith Syndrome: Viewers are so desperate to see a new Indiana Jones film--ANY Indiana Jones film--that they'll immediately see quality in the end product. It's movie viewing through beer goggles. And once the beer-goggle haze lifts, audiences and critics will wake up and wonder what in the hell possessed them to climb into bed with Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull in the first place.
I'm feeling extra metaphor-rich this afternoon, so I'll toss another one out: Throwing a shiny piece of special-effects spaceship tin foil over the Emperor's head doesn't make him any less buck-assed naked, people.