Making Mountains Out of Mole-Hills
I've heard this film being called "critic-proof", and I'm not even sure what that means, but it implies that whatever the reviews say, people are still going to line up to see it, as if it's a critic's job to discourage people from going to see something they want to see, like it's part of the job description to trash something on your "Must-See List." And that if something truly acidic and toxic is written about it (and a Big Tall Wish is made) nobody'll see it (And they call this movie unrealistic!) Even Ford, Lucas and Spielberg were all talking (before the film's premiere at Cannes) that it was going to get savaged, and, since these guys are pros who know their stuff, it has been in some circles, mostly by mouth-breathing fan sites where "sux" dominates the descriptors.
So, despite the lowering of the bar of expectations by the film-makers, does it suck?
No. No, it doesn't.
In fact, I have to say I haven't been this delighted with a film in a long time. I will even go so far as to say that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fulfills the promises made by the very fine, original Raiders of the Lost Ark, something that its two sequels, however enjoyable they are in parts and particulars, never did.***
Before we go further, let us go back and recap what happened in the previous chapters...
This series (like I shouldn't have to tell you) is based on pulp serials in the B-movie tradition--episodic, cheesy, toying with History and making it up as it goes along. This one, being set in the late 50's, has to have more of a sci-fi bent than the religious-themed stories of the past set in the 30's and the 40's. It is, after all, the first adventure we've seen of Indiana Jones in a post-nuclear world. Think on that for a moment. Crystal Skull fits the period, at least cinematically, however much it messes with folks' expectations of what the film "should be" about (and let's face it, the biggest obstacle Lucas' films have are people's expectations for the "next" installment, and whether it compares to the film they already have in their head—in that case, you can't compete with what they have in mind*). Indiana Jones' timeline has finally caught up with the memories of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
The filmmakers can't escape the fact that it's been 19 years since the last installment (and they've set it nearly twenty since the events of Last Crusade), and Harrison Ford's appearance is the nearly-constant reminder of it--he's broader, shlumpfier, more doughy in the face. But something magical happens a couple times in the film (once at a malt shop, once at a Mayan burial ground). Whether it's some CGI-gauze trick, or Ford's sense-memory playing the character kicking in, but once the dialogue turns to ancient civilizations and archaeology, the lines seem to disappear from Ford's face, and he slots back into the old/ young Indiana Jones the same way the camera "slotted" into the Bogart-drinking-his-sorrows Casablanca-shot in Raiders after Jones has seen Marion supposedly killed in a truck explosion. It's eerie, but like the occasional forays into the transcendent in the series, it's a good kind of eerie.
We've mentioned Marion, and, as the posters tell you, Marion Williams nee Ravenwood (Karen Allen) is back, and she's terrific--a breath of fresh air after Kate Capshaw's and Allison Doody's ingenues (the one too high-pitched, and the other tamped-down into irrelevance). The years have treated her far better than Ford, and she still has that incandescent smile and has been given a lot of "Dr. Jones-take-down" dialogue that suddenly snaps Ford's performance into a higher level of energy. Allen has remained well-versed in what Spielberg informed her during the first film was the "Sam Peckinpah School of Acting," something that Cate Blanchett is equally fine at--she's looser and more fun than she's been in years, and just the sight of her Commie commandant standing in a careening jeep during a bumper-cars jeep chase through the Amazon jungle is one of those things you think you'll never see.
So, Shia LaBoeuf. Is he "Short-Round"-irritating, or made too much a thing of? Neither, though he has a prominent role throughout. For some reason, whether it's the magnitude of the project, or Spielberg directing, LaBoeuf's not as energetic or inventive as he's been--maybe we should call his character "Short-Leash"--but, he's a good foil for Ford and their interaction, especially in one pause in a motorcycle chase deliberately recalls the Ford-Sean Connery relationship in Last Crusade.** One is never sure if he'll be pulling out a comb or a switch-blade when he reaches into his motorcycle jacket (his aping of Marlon Brando's gear in The Wild One is a clever 50's variation of Indy's gear), and there is a great visual joke when he confronts an Amazonian resident with the same hair-cut.
As for director Spielberg, he reportedly re-studied his earlier "Indy" films to recall the way "kid-Spielberg" shot films and there are plenty of his early "headlights-into-the-camera" adrenaline shots (and even one of his Sugarland Express pans), but the takes are a bit longer-held, he's not quite so anxious to cut away, and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski brings a new visual beauty that supplants the grit-in-the-lens of the earlier films. The elder Spielberg is also incessantly filling the film with visual ironies--grace-notes--that the younger Spielberg would save for a separate shot. There's an awful lot of stuff going on under the surface of the fire-fights, the explosions--some big ones--that betray the more mature film-maker, and man, Spielberg has become. And unlike the last two, which were short on background, and long on chase sequences, this film is over-stuffed with references, languages and the accustomed meta-recall of the past films.***
Not to say there isn't a lot of action. There is. That Amazon-chase between the particulars (the film is structured like a race--like Raiders and Last Crusade--with the good-guys and bad-guys all after the same thing and never too-far away from each other) is an invigorating combination of possibilities like a puzzle with every combination of inhabitant in vehicle and opponent in combat possible. It's dizzily constructed. And just when you start to think, "Wait a minute, where's..." your questions are answered.
A lot of the action is outlandish, but, surprise! It always has been. How can you complain about verisimilitude when you've had melting Nazi's from the vampire-angels and God's death-ray of the Ark of the Covenant, or Thuggee priests pulling out sacrificial victim's flaming hearts, and how some victims in a lava pit burn, but the heroine-in-diaphenous pants doesn't, or 700-year old Knights Templar still guarding the Holy Grail. Get real, people. Because the movies aren't. Like Indy in The Last Crusade film-goers have to make a leap of faith, and it needs to be done with an open heart. Or at least an uncynical one. Or one open to the possibility of enjoying oneself.****
Okay now, go out there and have fun.
Wilhelm Alert: the book-carrying nerd in the library during the motorcycle chase.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------* Somewhere along the way I've talked about "Mom's Apple Pie Syndrome"--where our memory of a cherished movie runs counter to the actual quality of the work, ie. "Nothing tastes as good as mom's apple pie," but only because that was your first run-in with the concept, and your impression of what "good" apple pie should be like may include a runny interior and scorched crust (I was blessed with a mother--God love her--who was a lousy cook, so I tend to be immune). So, too, the cherished movies of your youth may actually be crap, though we may delude ourselves otherwise, with our 'gee-whiz" innocent first impressions. The phenomenon became real for a few incredulously chagrined "Man from U.N.C.L.E." fans who, seeing the series for the first time in years on DVD last year, endearingly wondered why MGM chose to run the shows through a "crap filter" making the sets look like back-lot soundstages with cheap "foreign" localization, lousy effects, obvious writing and some horrible performances. Ah, deluded youth. Nothing is so sweet as a young man's fancy for a film of their childhood. And nothing is so rancid as the bitterness that follows a fan-boy's crush.
But it's not the film's fault. Ever. Beauty is in the mind of the beholder.
** And if you haven't figured our the "Indiana" Jones-"Mutt" Williams relationship yet, what can I say? You're either a) five years old, b) this is your first movie or c) "denial ain't just a river in Egypt, honey." Look at their names, kids, and remember where Dr. Henry Jones, jr. came up with the name "Indiana." These films are all about clues.
*** Sometime, when Summer is over and there are no more surprises, I'm going to do a big-old analysis of this movie and why it is the natural sequel to "Raiders." (Hint: It involves the clockwork-intricacies of ancient civilizations as well as the conflicts when a Man of Science is confronted with the "hard rain" of spiritual mythology) It's roots go pretty deep--which is refreshing after the previous two--and bear a full airing of the secrets buried within it. To do so now would give away far too much and contain too many spoilers of large and small varieties.
**** Do I have ANY complaints? Yes, the frankly extraneous character of "Mac" McHale played by Ray Winstone. McHale is designed as an untrustworthy character, but he is so untrustworthy that one wonders why he's not just shot by either party at any time during the proceedings. He's so greedy he's a bit reminiscent of Daffy Duck in a hall of treasures: "Mine, Mine, Mine!" The character is such an unnecessary plot contrivance that he might have earned the name "Aringarosa" if the name hadn't already been taken.
"Indiana Jones and the Terrible Age of Wonders"
Last year's fourth entry in the "Indiana Jones" saga was met with derision while it raided a diamond mine at the box-office (making it to the top of many lists of 2009's more successful films—including a conservative publication that used its Commie villains to claim that it heralded a surge by the public to right-minded films, despite the fact that the rest of the films mentioned on the list flopped...and flopped badly; Indy 4 alone raised all boats). There were complaints that it wasn't as good as the first three (a clear case of "Mom's Apple Pie" syndrome* among the fandom in fedoras—I felt it wasn't as good as the first one, but that's it): there was too much "Mutt" (Shia LaBeouf) and CGI, the familial complications too obvious, some characterizations a bit spurious,** and that it "nuked the 'fridge"—which briefly supplanted "jumped the shark" for hitting a false note in the national media (they always chortle when the fan-base eats its own) before they went back to not reporting the news.
That last one stuck in my craw; it showed that the fan-base didn't "get" what the movies are—a post-modern, hi-tech take on the past and the low-ditch movies' past, in particular. It didn't have to adhere to "reality"—it never did. Look at Raiders of the Lost Ark, admittedly the best of the bunch—a 30's film filled with flying flap-jacks, Nazi's (Nazi's everywhere, even melting ones), Hitler myths, and tales of apocalyptic power. Nobody questioned "who" would put the rolling rock back after it crushes an intruder. Nobody asked why a tomb unopened after centuries would still have live snakes in it. One or two might have asked how Indy rode the back of a sub all the way to Nazi Island (It didn't submerge? At all? Then, why'd they take a SUB?!). Nobody questioned the ark. It didn't have anything to do with reality, but rather with a mythic age of B-movies and wishful thinking that never existed, a cross-roads ("'X' marks the spot") between gritty, slithering reality and far-fetched fantasy, and the other films in the first trilogy followed that same map of fictional territory.
But not as well. Where the other two films, The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, failed to engage me were their wholesale abandonment of the what made the first film a Boy's Adventureland, and became a series of drawn-out chases, and half-hearted attempts at Mythos. The Temple of Doom—a favorite among some film-critics, as it challenged Indy's hero-concepts and went to darker psychological places than mere musty caves—bugged me not so much for its inaccuracies (the long fall from a plane on a life-raft, the ripping out of a sacrificial victim's flaming beating heart to the SV's—and the audience's—disbelief), but it's insistence to present a Disneyland-like "mine-shaft ride" that looked for all the world that it was populated by puppetoons. Then, there's the small detail of it being a prequel in which Jones "learns" that there's more to his mythic quests than robbing graves for fun and profit—which is intrinsic to the character, and is part of the make-up of the somewhat less-than-honorable "Indiana" Jones we first meet in the chronologically later Raiders. That lesson must not have "stuck."
The rest of the time, he's a student himself, still learning.
In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent), says to Dr. Henry Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford): "We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away." They have both aged, lost colleagues and parents, and their jobs are on the line. And "Indy" has just ridden the crest of a nuclear shock-wave in the Nevada desert, where he has seen two amazing things, off and on the Earth: the corpse of an ancient astronaut, and the limit of Man's power in the form of the mushroom cloud of a hydrogen bomb. This is the extent of our knowledge on Earth and it is a fearsome one, one that could mean our destruction at the hands of our abilities and our arrogance to use it. Behold the power of knowledge and fear.
This is the first of two images (that Spielberg deliberately composed) of "Indiana" Jones in rapt observation of an unfathomable thing that buttress Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In both, he is dwarfed by the event, small and helpless—all he can do is watch. In the first, he is witness to the extent of Man's knowledge. In the second, as he watches the launch of an alien race's*** craft to inter-dimensionally travel "the spaces between spaces," something far beyond his ken and catechism. The one represents all that we know, and the other opens up another Chamber of Secrets. "Indiana" Jones can travel the four corners of the Earth, and there is still so much more territory to explore, and, indeed, more than he can know for certain.
The personal myth that Jones must resolve is that of age and the taking away (the bomb) and the giving (the new experience). For the loner Jones, that includes new worlds to conquer...and that is celebrated here...but he also, like The Outlaw Josey Wales, finds himself, in this one, acquiring a family he didn't know he had and never wanted, flying in the face of Stanforth's gloomy assessment of their lives as being "one foot in the grave" (like "Indy" hasn't been there before). In this terrible age of wonders, there is always more to learn...more "treasure," translated by the Incas to "knowledge" and prized more than gold. Life, no matter how old we get, never stops giving.
Not if we're observant, anyway.
For me, ...The Kingdome of the Crystal Skull represented the best, most true, antecedent to the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, fully embracing the era it is set (the 50's) and the B-movie concepts being put out at the time, and it is the strongest presentation of the concept of the "learning teacher" since Raiders... ...The Kingdome of the Crystal Skull represented, to me, the true sequel, while the others were just regurgitating concepts. This one, like Raiders, raised the stakes.
MY only disappointment with it was, that if it's set in a 50's B-movie world, where's the giant scorpion that the hydrogen bomb creates—there were all sorts of "nukular monsters" in the films of the time, their own metaphors of the costly nature of Knowledge. But Lucas and Spielberg's intentions were to turn that metaphor inside out. Knowledge isn't destructive. It inspires creation. And new worlds to explore.
There is talk (and only talk) of a fifth Indiana Jones movie, and while it has moved some to despair, for me it has given me fits of giggling anticipation. Imagine Indiana Jones in the B-movie drive-in 60's, with the good doctor investigating SDS students planning a lysurgic acid dump in a city resevoir, while a Beatle-browed Mutt has joined a Hell's Angels sect that practices Trascendental Meditation, and only an exploration of "The Silver Chord" can save Indy from the Ultimate Bad Trip. Meantime, there are rocket-packs, video-phones, IBM computer-rooms, and ESP experts, all figments of a 1960's that briefly sparked the imaginations of the time, but never seemed to catch on. We were too busy going to the Moon, at the time.
I think it would be groovy, man.
Call it "Indiana Jones and the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."
** Admittedly so, with the characters of "Mac" (Ray Winstone) and Oxley (John Hurt)—the latter a last-minute re-write when a "retired" Sean Connery decided not to reprise his role as Indy's father. He probably decided there weren't any golf courses near filming, or his dismal experience filming The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in Prague left such a mark it didn't compensate for his affection for Spielberg, Lucas and Ford.
*** Here's another instance of last-minute tinkering. Lucas wanted aliens, and Spielberg with three E.T. movies under his belt didn't want to go there. So, the ancient astronauts became "interdimensional" beings, rather than space-aliens. It actually works better that way. Aliens = space. We know all about space. But, other dimensions? That's a concept that expands the mind and the territory we inhabit. "There are more things in Heaven and Earth..." And even, in between.