Thursday, May 22, 2008

Review: Indiana Jones 4

After seeing the trailer with Iron Man, I posited that Steven Spielberg was a good enough director to overcome any shortcomings George Lucas might have as a story writer. I seem to have been too generous with that, however. Okay, here's the short, spoiler-free version:

Don't waste your time on it. This film should have never been made.


So there I was, good seats in a semi-crowded movie theater. It's 12:20am and I've endured a quarter-hour of previews and Coke commercials, and the movie is starting. I've got a Cherry soda, a flask of Bacardi with which to sweeten it, and high expectations. We're treated to the Old-School Paramount logo which fades into a mound of dirt and out pops a digital mole.

Yes, this is the beginning of the movie. Making a mole-hill out of a mountain. This is followed by a credit sequence that seems horribly out of place with the rest of the film. And then fifteen minutes in and the big secret comes out. Aliens. And I called it. I fucking called it.

And here we have the inherent problem with letting George Lucas make movies anymore. No longer constrained by technology, by budget, or by executive producers, George can make whatever movie he wants. But what he wants is to make the cheesy matinée serials that he enjoyed as a child. This fixation has colored his opinion (and by "colored his opinion" I really mean "poked holes in his brain") with regards to what constitutes quality cinema, compelling plot or effective storytelling.

And I'm usually pretty forgiving. We just watched Raiders of the Lost Ark to psych ourselves up for Indy 4, and as it drew near the end I began to ask stupid questions. How, for example, did Indy get inside the submarine after swimming over to it? How does the monkey talk to people? If they've tried to kill Indy three times already, and he's killed countless men and threatened to blow up the Ark of the Covenant, why tie him to a pole? Why not just execute him? Perfectly valid questions. But I'm willing to let them slide because you have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief.

But Crystal Skull takes things rather far, starting with some fairly loose interpretation of how magnetism works and progressing through the loose accounts of Indy's activities for the past twenty years. Apparently he took some time out of being a tenured professor of archeology and globe-trotting relic hunter to fight in World War II, becoming a highly-decorated colonel and also a double-agent in Berlin (something all colonel's do, I'm sure), as well as become an expert on the nuances of East Ukrainian accents and learn half a dozen obscure South American dialects.

And it doesn't stop there, and I can't help but blame the technology. Imagine if twenty years ago, Lucas had said "let's have this one character Mutt get into an elaborate sword fight while standing on two moving vehicles and getting whapped in the nuts with foliage as they speed through the jungle--then we can end it with him grabbing a vine and doing a Tarzan swing onto the back of a car!" There would have been someone with a clipboard to say "Wow, George, what a great idea, but it's not really in budget--so how about we just do an elaborate sword fight on the back of one moving vehicle?" But now, in the digital age it's "Sure, we can animate that".

But I think the most atrocious crime is that Indiana Jones has fallen into the X-Files trap of fantasy dilettante-ism. Rather than establish a mythology and play with it, the series has jumped around with whatever happened to be interesting, no matter how incongruous it may be against the other parts of the series. First it was the Ark of the Covenant, then glowing stones, voodoo, and a cult to a Hindu Avatar (for those of you who've blocked out Temple of Doom), and then back to Western tradition for the Holy Grail.

And now aliens. I get that after the Ark and Grail the Judeo-Christian tradition is a bit picked clean for relics, but who the hell has ever heard of a Crystal Skull? At least people have heard of Kali (which almost excuses Temple of Doom... but not really). Would it have been too much to suggest the Shroud of Turin? Or maybe something from the Buddhist or Muslim traditions? Or something else that doesn't ignore the diametric opposition between fervent believers in God and fervent believers in aliens.

And it's me, so I have to bitch about the sound design. Magnets don't make noise. They really don't. Giant ants don't rattle. And why go into a diatribe about the difference between a dry sand pit and wet quicksand if you're going to have the dry sand pit make burbling noises? At least the music was okay. And the fight sequences were fun, if you can ignore the fact that it's a 60-year-old beating up young, fit, red army men. But stock jokes were contrived, the dramatic moments were underwhelming, and the ending was unforgivably glurge-y. And whoever was Cate Blanchett's dialect coach forgot to teach her how to pronounce "Dr. Jones".

And to add insult to injury, it turns out students of archeology loathe crackpot theories that involve aliens teaching humans how to build the pyramids--the same group that flocked to the science inspired by Dr. Jones in the first place has to hate a film like this on principle alone. Ah, cruel irony.

They should have re-cast Jones, kept it in the 30's, and acknowledged the difference between historical fantasy and science fiction. And I should have put more rum into my Cherry Coke.


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