Moriarty Reviews INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL!
Published at: May 23, 2008, 9:49 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
That’s a headline I genuinely thought I would never write.
In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve said as much a few times over the years. “Oh, you’ll never see another INDIANA JONES film. They’ll talk about it and talk about it and talk about it and they’ll write drafts every few years, and they will never... ever... ever... make it.”
And now they have.
I think I’ve been fairly quiet about INDY 4 during production. I sat it out for the most part, reporting on a few things here and there and offering some impressions along the way. I have not spent the sort of energy on it that one might expect, though, based on the way I’ve covered big movies in the past. Part of that was because it genuinely seemed like Spielberg and Lucas wanted it that way. They were so hyperprotective that it wasn’t fun to try and run coverage. I didn’t want to get sued by my childhood heroes, and I didn’t want a series of angry C&D letters to be what I was thinking about when I walked into the theater. It just felt like there was so much anger every time I reported anything... and not just me, but everyone who writes for any of the film geek news sites. We all felt the heat on this one.
And it’s not for lack of material that we were quiet, either. INDIANA JONES 4 was one leaky boat. Leaky, leaky, leaky, and since it’s always pretty much been leaky, not only had I read the Jeb Stuart and the Frank Darabont and the Jeff Nathanson drafts, but everything we heard about the Koepp drafts during production just completed our picture of what the film is, generally speaking. If we’d wanted to, we could have published a complete plot synopsis last year. That’s what Lucas and Spielberg don’t get when they talk about the internet. We’re not looking to hate their films. And we’re not looking to ruin them. The idea that any real film fan would want to hate an INDIANA JONES or a STAR WARS film, sight unseen, befuddles me. These are the movies I literally grew up on, my childhood icons. I love INDIANA JONES. I love STAR WARS. Of course I want these movies to be great.
And some part of me still reveres the experiences of seeing those films as much as the films themselves. When E.T. came out, no one knew anything. There were no pictures of E.T. in magazines, no video footage of him on TV, no clips that revealed him. The only place you could see E.T. in the summer of 1982 was inside a movie theater, and the way that worked to drive audiences back to see it over and over again was magic. The same thing was true of Spielberg with JURASSIC PARK. I was working at Universal as a tour guide in the fall leading up to the release of JURASSIC, and then all the way through that summer when it actually hit. On the lot, we were all crazy about getting a look inside the soundstages where Stan Winston’s dinosaurs were hard at work. For a tour guide, access to a soundstage was never an issue. We got onto any stage any time we wanted, and never in any “authorized” capacity. I watched a lot of film roll during my time at Universal, but we were not able to get into the JURASSIC PARK stages. Not at all. When we were able to get in, the dinosaurs weren’t there. They were hustled on and off the stages when no one was around, and it was amazing how well they kept them under wraps. It’s one thing to keep photos of them out of magazines back in 1992, but to keep the dinosaurs completely secret from people who are actually working in the place where you are filming the movie... well, that’s impressive. There was a lot of buzz in LA during that build-up to JURASSIC PARK, most of it bad, and a lot of it boiled down to “I don’t know what the hell Steven Spielberg is doing right now, so it must be awful!” Then they showed the film to us, all the guides, about ten days before it was set to come out. We were one of the first audiences, and it was so we could talk to the tourists we had at the park every day and tell them to go see it. They screened it for us on the lot, at the Alfred Hitchcock theater, one of the best-sounding theaters I’ve ever been in. We were skeptical walking in, but when it got to that T-Rex attack, the temperature actually went up 10 degrees in that theater because of the visceral effect the film had on everyone. It was amazing, and it was even better because we hadn’t seen any of that stuff in the trailers. It was all new. All a surprise. And, man, it worked.
So as I left my house for Paramount this morning, I put all the negative buzz I’ve heard from people working on or around the film out of my head. I shut out all memories of the other drafts, good or bad.
All I wanted was to see a real Indiana Jones film. And to like it.
Not even love. Just like. At this point, with the ways I’ve been disappointed by hype and expectation, I would settle for like. I figured I’d go to the first of the four screenings happening at Paramount today, so I could digest it before I started hearing a tidal wave of reactions from other people. I didn’t want to get all film nerdy with it ten seconds after it ended, and I didn’t want to sit there in a row of people who all had chips on their shoulders about it. All I wanted was to sit in the dark theater and let it happen... whatever it was.
So. Now here I am four hours later, finally at the computer, on the other side of a half-dozen conversations with close friends, and I am finally able to sort it all out. And?
It’s an Indiana Jones film. And I like it.
I like it a lot more than my least favorite of the series, LAST CRUSADE, and I think a second viewing may help. The first time through, I just found myself bumped out of the movie a few times by a few of the most preposterous moments, and those missteps are so jarring because of how enjoyable the rest of the film is. I’m sure some fans are going to be all glass-half-empty because all they’ll see will be the false notes, the mistakes. Fuck that. I’m shocked they got it as right as they did, and I’m delighted by one thing above all others.
Harrison Ford showed up.
I’ve taken a lot of heat for “being mean” to Harrison Ford over the years, but you have to understand... he was the first movie star who ever mattered to me. He was Han Solo. He was Rick Deckard. And, hell yes, he was Indiana Jones. And for a brief time, it seemed like he could do anything he wanted. I love his work in WITNESS and, particularly, THE MOSQUITO COAST, and I thought for sure he was going to start going back and forth between great blockbusters and smart, challenging personal films. But then something happened, and it felt to me like he gave up. He quit. He started phoning it in. And it got easier and easier until he just... disappeared.
So more than anything else, I was concerned that the Harrison Ford who was starring in this movie was going to turn out to be that pale shadow, that half-recognizable zombie from THE DEVIL’S OWN or RANDOM HEARTS or SIX DAYS SEVEN NIGHTS. My entire review of that film, perhaps unkindly, was just “Wow, why didn’t someone tell me Harrison Ford died?” I’ve gotten more and more frustrated watching his movies over the years. FIREWALL? WHAT LIES BENEATH? HOLLYWOOD fucking HOMICIDE? Really? How could a movie star with such great natural instincts wind up so far off course?
My guess is that directors don’t know what to do with him, and they don’t know him well enough to inspire him to any sort of greatness. Peter Weir obviously understands what to do with him, and so does Steven Spielberg. As a result, the Harrison Ford who showed up for this movie is the same guy I grew up amazed by, and if there’s any one thing I’d say you need to see in this film, it’s his work. From the moment he turns around to face the camera for the first time, he’s Indiana Jones again, 100%. He perfectly summons the world-weary tough-guy persona again in a way that I’ve never seen him accomplish away from this series. He carries himself differently as Indy... walks different, talks different, just plain stands different. And it’s all here, just as it was, making Indiana Jones feel real, not like he’s just a hat and a whip.
I’m not going to go into detailed spoilers in this review, although I’m sure it’s inevitable that I’ll include a few. Much of what I enjoyed here was the discovery of myriad small Spielbergian details, the sorts of visual flourishes and witty touches that have always distinguished his work. By now, you can read about how they handle the Paramount logo at the start, or whether or not we see cast members like Connery or Denholm Elliott, and you can read details of what Easter eggs show up and in which scene. There’s been a rush by critics around the world to quickly post laundry lists of spoilers, but very few of those lists seem to have actually digested the film at all. I’m sure you’d rather see those moments in the movie, and what you want from me is more a sense of context. How does this fit into the series? Is it really a sequel to RAIDERS? Will there be more of these, and if so, who’s going to star in them?
Like I said, I think it’s a better movie than LAST CRUSADE, and I think it’s more successful as a whole than any of the STAR WARS prequels. It’s got some of the same problems that LAST CRUSADE has, though, and what makes it ultimately work is the way it rolls right over those problems, determined to entertain and succeeding more often than not. The opening of the film, a prolonged sequence of about 10 to 15 minutes, drops you right into the middle of the action, and very quickly, we find ourselves at Area 51, which turns out to be a very familiar warehouse where the government stores... things. And one of those things is the reason Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) has brought her envoy of Russian soldiers with her to the middle of the Utah desert. She’s determined to find whatever it is as a way of turning the Cold War hot and conquering the world. Spalko’s actually a riskier character than Mutt Williams (who we’ll get to in due time) because she’s the most outrageous character I think we’ve ever seen in an Indiana Jones film. For one thing, she’s psychic, a mind-reader, part of Stalin’s ongoing effort to create a psionic army. That’s drawn from historical record, of course... like the Nazis, the Russians tried more than a few crazy schemes in their efforts to tip the balance of world power, and in theory, the military applications of psychic powers sound like a pretty good thing. Spalko’s not played “real,” though. Instead, Lucas and Spielberg and the parade of screenwriters who have worked on this have pushed things into a more overtly pulp place than I think some audiences will expect. Modern audiences have no real knowledge of pulp and very little taste for it, and I’m curious to see if they manage to jump into this one without getting weighed down by the occasional knowing absurdity.
Spalko and her soldiers have something with them in the trunk of a car, something that’s going to help them find whatever they’re looking for, and when they finally pop the trunk and introduce Indiana Jones and his buddy Mac (Ray Winstone), Spielberg starts to turn things up quickly. That’s where you can really feel Spielberg at the helm. I’ve liked many of his recent films, and even the ones that don’t work completely are always interesting because of how effortlessly he speaks the language of cinema. But when he gets cooking, as he does several times in the first half of this film, there are very few action directors who can call themselves his peers.
There are several places in the film where Spielberg gets to crank it up, and those are the moments where the film stops being a reminder of past glories and just starts being a great piece of entertainment. I wish the second half was as strong as the first half, and I wish the film wasn’t drowning in awkward exposition in almost every scene, but those complaints don’t derail the fun for me. What I’ve always liked about the Indy films is the way the action sequences build, the way Spielberg piles on the danger and the obstacles, and the way he keeps creating ways out that are both funny and thrilling and crazy. A great Spielberg action sequence is like a Miles Davis jazz solo, both out of control and perfectly structured, and there’s enough of that here that I found myself laughing and applauding at the end of at least three sequences.
One of the things that shocked me was how mild-mannered this film is considering it’s got a PG-13 rating affixed. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is like a snuff film compared to this, in terms of onscreen brutality. It’s a real sign of how inconsistent the MPAA is when this gets a PG-13 and PRINCE CASPIAN, which is far more grim and ugly about its violence, gets a PG. I’ve long since given up trying to understand the actions of the ratings board, though. Suffice it to say, there’s no Wrath of God here and no Mola Ram yanking out hearts. Even in the darkest moments of this film, things stay bloodless and feather-light. I’ve made peace with the fact that RAIDERS stands apart from the rest of the series, but this film fits neatly onto a shelf with DOOM and LAST CRUSADE. It feels of a piece with those, and anyone who calls themselves a fan of those movies should easily find a place in their affections for this one.
I have complaints, certainly. Perhaps the thing I’m most conflicted about is the introduction of Mutt Williams, aka Henry Jones III. Shia LaBeouf will no doubt become the whipping boy of this film among fanboys, and that’s a shame. He’s good in the movie, and everything he’s asked to do, he does well. He’s got an easy chemistry with Harrison Ford, he handles both the comedy and the action easily, and my favorite overall setpiece in the film, the motorcycle chase across the University campus, is a real showcase for LaBeouf. It’s the role itself that I have a problem with on a conceptual level, and there’s nothing any actor could have done to make it work any better than it does right now.
I question the need to introduce a child of any gender for Indiana Jones. I think it’s a fairly rotten idea. It’s desperate. It’s the sort of thing an aging sitcom does to try and squeeze one or two more seasons out. I can’t think of a single time in the history of a franchise where introducing a kid has worked to creatively revitalize the proceedings, and IJATKOTCS has not broken that streak. Could they make more movies after this using Mutt as the main character? Sure, I guess. Do I have any burning desire to see those films? Nope. I’d rather see Shia move on and use his obvious ability to establish some new series, something he can help define. Here, the very best he’ll ever be able to do is mount a decent imitation of Ford, and that’s just not a good enough reason to make more movies.
I wish that instead of shoehorning in another father/son “awwww, we really like each other” storyline that’s just a rehash of the Connery/Ford story, they had spent more time on the reunion of Marion (Karen Allen) and Indy. Marion remains one of the great female leads in action movies because she stood toe-to-toe with Indy in every scene and gave as good as she got. She was the perfect foil for him, and each of the female leads since has been a let down because, as Indy himself says in this film, “None of them were you, honey.” The smile that line earns from Allen is a nice reminder of just how potent their chemistry was, but since that’s basically all they wrote for her to do in the film, it feels like a bit of a squandered opportunity. I heard a few people after the screening complain that she can’t act anymore, but I don’t really think that’s fair. There are a number of great performers who you can’t really judge based on their work in this film. John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, and Ray Winstone are all fine, but they’re playing suggestions of characters instead of actual characters. Blanchett’s Spalko has the most to do, but even she is a distant second to Belloq and Toht in terms of how she’s written.
In fact... that’s the one major complaint I have. All of my other complaints come back to one big one: David Koepp’s screenplay. It’s a Frankenstein monster of a script, stitched together from the corpses of several other better drafts. It’s weird watching the film unfold having read all those drafts. It’s like “Oh, that’s Jeb Stuart’s. That’s Darabont’s. That’s Nathanson’s.” There’s no elegance to the patchwork that Koepp did. Then again, there rarely is with him. He’s functional, and he seems to be one of those guys you call in to make sense of complicated development nightmares, but there’s no soul to his writing. There’s no awe here. Remember how much character the Ark had in the first film? This inanimate golden box somehow managed to have a personality because of the way they wrote everyone else’s reactions to it. It was terrifying at times because Lawrence Kasdan’s script gave people room to breathe, while still managing to feel like it moved 100 miles-an-hour at all times. Koepp’s script stumbles through page after page after page of Indy explaining things, none of it particularly captivating, and I think people will quickly get tired of the backstory and just wish for a fast-forward to get back to the thrills. Considering how much I love even the quiet moments in the first film, that’s a letdown. It makes all the human stuff feel perfunctory. Most of the wit comes from the way Spielberg approaches even the hoariest joke visually, or from the pleasure that’s obvious in the interactions of the cast.
Janusz Kaminski does a fair job of imitating the distinctive look of Doug Slocombe’s phenomenal cinematography in the first three films, and there were very few moments where it felt like I wasn’t looking at a real Indiana Jones film. You know what ruined it most frequently? CGI. And I’m not that guy. I don’t spend pages and pages griping about CGI because, frankly, I think special effects and visual effects are more remarkable today than they’ve ever been. We are seeing the genuinely new so often now that the fantastic is almost commonplace. I remember hearing how there would be “almost no CGI” in this film, but that’s just not true. There is a fairly steady stream of computer generated images in the film, mixed in with some great practical effects and not nearly enough stunt work, and the result is a grab bag. I’m entertained, but I rarely felt that same sense of real danger that used to be so routine in films like this. I love the staging and choreography of most of the truck/duck chase in the jungle (the less said about that miserable TARZAN joke, the better), but there are several key shots in the sequence that are so blatantly fake that it undermines the sense of peril. The John Williams score serves to patch some of the roughest spots in the film, pure audio nostalgia served up just right, and it’s amazing how the RAIDERS march still gets my pulse up.
The last act of the film is the weakest stuff in the movie, and I think it loses its mind a bit once they actually reach the temple of the Crystal Skulls. It goes through the motions, and it does what you figure an Indy film should do at the end, but it all just sort of happens around Indy, and he makes very little difference to what occurs. Again... I’m not saying it ruins the film... it’s just the difference between a good summer movie I enjoyed and a classic that we’ll be revisiting twenty years from now. This film will be remembered primarily for not fucking up the legacy of Dr. Jones, and considering the still-smoking ruins of the STAR WARS franchise, we should count ourselves lucky. There are a few things that came close to pissing me off, like the “joke” involving a statue of Marcus Brody, which seems to just compound the hatchet job they did on his character in LAST CRUSADE. Still, there are definitely things I’ll carry away from this, pleased to have added these scenes to the jukebox in my head. The AMERICAN GRAFITTI/hot rod opening. Mutt and Indy on the motorcycle. “It drops three times.” Karen Allen’s smile, timed to deadly effect at least twice in the film. Doomtown, which works better than I expected. The shot of Mutt at the end with Indy’s hat in his hands.
More than anything, I’m just glad that this latest (I’ll never say last again) adventure for Indiana Jones contains some real pleasure. Considering the alternative and having to write that review, it is a relief to feel like I want to go back to the theaters with my friends and my son this weekend so we can see the film together, all the pressures of a review off my shoulders at that point. Watching a film like this with my critic’s hat on is never as much fun as just handing myself over and watching with the eyes of a fan. Thanks for making that second viewing something I’m looking forward to, Steven and Harrison and, yes, even George. I had little faith. Thankfully, you guys had enough for all of us.