May 28, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Rating: 28,345 out of 52,977 mysterious crates.

Indiana Jones is back, blah blah blah.

I have to admit, it was difficult to muster my enthusiasm for this latter-day installment in the "Indiana Jones and the ______" series. My love for Raiders of the Lost Ark and a reasonable fondness for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were tempered by ambivalence toward Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

When rumors began to surface that this movie had Indy mucking about with Roswell aliens, alarm bells started to sound. More significantly, however, I have been burned by George Lucas before, when he managed to retroactively wreck Star Wars for me with a trilogy of nonsensical, craptacular prequels. I worried whether Steven Spielberg keep Lucas's legacy-defiling tendencies in check?

The answer is, "mostly, but we don't get away clean."

Surprisingly, the aliens aspect comes off as one of the more well-written aspects of the movie (at least early on). After an introductory sequence in the famed warehouse full of crates (one of which -- surprise! -- holds the Ark of the Covenant), we get a little background on what's been going on with Indy for the past couple of decades, as well as a reasonably plausible link between his character and the "Roswell Incident."

Lucas then uses a couple of quick scenes as shorthand to show us how the Red Scare made people act irrationally and caused bad things to happen to innocent people. The subtlety here is about on par with his anti-Bush allusions in the Star Wars prequels, but the fact that he's using a real historical phenomenon helps him avoid most of the groan-inducing obviousness he smacked audiences of those movies with. (Yes, George, we get it. Lying to start a war is bad. Palpatine is Bush. We GET it. Jesus!)

The introduction of Shia LaBeouf as "Mutt Williams," Indy's greaser-kid sidekick, is handled fairly well, if a bit obviously, and followed by a chase scene that is probably the high point of the movie, action-wise.

Aaannnd ... we're about 1/3 of the way through at this point.

Things begin to fall apart pretty quickly from this point out. Indy and Mutt do some decent bonding for a while, but there is a huge, glaring, stupid problem: Despite the fact that Mutt tells Indy that his mother's name is Marion, that she knows Indy and specifically told Mutt to seek him out for help, Indy spends what has to be several days with the kid and never even asks him his mother's maiden name. It is just idiotic. I mean, yes, it's been many years since he saw Marion Ravenwood, but we learn later that she is actually still very significant to him and it is totally inconceivable to me that he wouldn't associate the name "Marion" with her by default. When Marion eventually does show up, it is a surprise to no one except Indy himself.

I'm not going to go into any detail on the plot, because the movie has precious little else to keep the viewer's interest. The acting is stiff -- even Cate Blanchett is fairly boring as a psychic KGB Nazi stand-in, and Karen Allen, though still amiable, is kind of glassy-eyed -- and there is very little tension at any point. Indy & Co. face raging waterfalls, quicksand-like quagmires, killer ants, and ruins that are apparently designed specifically to kill anyone who actually knows how to get into them, but there isn't a single moment where the survival of any character feels remotely threatened.

To paraphrase my wife's reaction to the movie: I didn't hate it, really, but I didn't like it either. I just didn't give a shit.

Minor Spoiler Alert

For some reason, Lucas felt it necessary to insert a second "sidekick" character into the film, early on, only to have him betray Indy almost immediately. This character and his actions have no bearing whatsoever on the plot, and we never have even a scrap of interest in him as a person. I don't remember the last time I saw a character this utterly superfluous in a movie -- and that includes Jar Jar Binks -- yet this guy is in scene after scene, and we're obviously supposed to care about him one way or another. He repeatedly "switches sides" and you never, even for a moment, give a rat's ass.


Tedwrd said...

I'm afraid I must disagree with my asteemed colleague. Indy 4 is a very exciting thrill ride. The plot is fairly straightforward, but it hearkens back the the fun of Last Crusade, the excitement of Raiders, with some of the creepy of Temple of Doom. When I heard about the alien bits, I feared the return of WTF Lucas wanting to move Indy into the 1950's, and it would be "Indiana Jones and Mars Attacks." Luckily this was not the case.
I do agree that Ray "I AM BEOWULF!!!" Winstone has probably the most useless part to play in movie history.

Ink Gorilla said...

The movie's certainly got some flaws:
-- it's predictable. I mean, there are really no surprises either in character or ultimate plot.
--the mythos requires some handwaving to swallow. How did the skull come and go from Akator so easily? The Skull was in place before the spaniards came in the 1500s, so why didn't all that ILM magic happen back then? Who reset the temple-opening before Ox came along? (there were conquistador bodies on spikes down there...)
--Mac was a poorly executed character (not so much Ray Winstone's fault, tho.) His story arc might have made more sense had his end meant something...
--The magnetism of the skull was somewhat selective. sometimes it looked like a fiberglass shell with a bunch of cellophane and tinfoil crumpled up inside. I mean, alien polymers and advanced compounds your primitive brain wouldn't understand... er...

All that being said, I agree with tedwrd. It was a fun thrill ride, with all the familiar cheesy tropes and pitfalls I expect to see in an Indy film.

I liked the move to B-movie themes of the 50s (from the 30s) -- Red scare, alien invaders, atomic horror. If it isn't vintage Indy, then at least it's fun to see the old gang back together again.

Even Shia LeBeouf was not bad as Mutt - though I admit the thought of continuing some sort of Jones Family Franchise with him as the new lead leaves me a little cold.

I give Indy IV 4 out of 5 Dusty Fedoras.