Thursday, May 22, 2008

Once more with no feeling [Indiana Jones]

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [PG-13]
Grade: D
Cast: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt
Director: Steven Spielberg

After nearly two decades, Indiana Jones remains one of America’s favorite action heroes. But here’s the thing about that. For one American hero, there are actually two of him.

No, I’m not referring to the split personality between the tweedy university archaeologist and the whip-cracking, fedora-wearing adventurer. The first Dr. Jones, best seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is a semi-real man caught in a Saturday morning serial. He does real work. The object of his interest, the Ark of the Covenant, has the benefit of purported historical existence. He fights those real-life villains, the Nazis. And despite the fantastical nature of the stories, his adventures possess a touch of realism and palpable apocalyptic dread. I wouldn’t call this reality, exactly, or even plausibility. But in Indy’s world the stakes are real and high, as is the danger.

Then there’s the other Dr. Jones. He fights Amazonian natives who crawl from the walls of ancient temples. He watches hearts ripped from chests by high priests. He survives a nuclear blast in a refrigerator. He thinks Asian orphans unable to reach the pedals make the best drivers. His adventures are clearly comic book, with comic book stakes. This Indiana Jones runs on thrills and spectacle, without true danger, and his films usually end up lacking for it.

And it’s more the latter Jones that returns to the screen after 19 years in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Ghouls can attack in graveyards. Giant ants can chew up grown men. Cate Blanchett, as a Soviet interrogator pinup, can rattle her sabre to her leather boots’ content. And I just couldn’t care. The race to find a crystal skull of possible alien origin didn’t excite me. And most of all, the comic-book stakes never moved me to fear. Although the film has some splendid action sequences, it too often wearies on madcap Saturday serial overstatement.

And so Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ Indy revival evolves into a strange brew of cinematic accomplishment and self-parody. In the middle of the rambling, incoherent story is at least one lengthy, brilliant action set piece— a car chase/swordfight rushing through the jungle – that will have the water cooler abuzz. Yet too often the film’s terrific action scenes finish with a cringe. Other cringes come alone. Take an agonizing gag involving Jones, quicksand, and a python. (He hates snakes, you know. We gotta work that in.) And leaving the theater, you might feel an uncontrollable impulse to immediately walk into a field and shoot a groundhog. Be advised, I don’t know if that’s legal.

With Harrison Ford’s advancing age, the time period for this adventure has shifted from the 1930s to the 1950s. Strangely, 20 years and a change in evil empires, from the Nazis to the Soviets, hasn’t improved anyone’s aim. This crack team of Soviet soldiers might be able to efficiently break into America’s most fortified secret base, Area 51. But there’s still no one in the platoon that can hit a 60-year-old man who makes John Wayne look like a sprinter.

And it’s there that we get the first hint of this adventure. The Soviets are looking for an alien body. It’s part of an effort to retrieve a skull made of crystal, believed to hold psychic powers. These will appear when returned to El Dorado, the legendary lost city of gold in the Amazon. The Soviets hope to use it to control the minds of capitalists and take over the world.

Professor Oxley (John Hurt), hunting down the skull, sends word for Indy to come and help. Being the 1950s, a time before Thomas Edison invented the telephone (right?), the message arrives in leather on a motorcycle, in the person of youngster Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). Mutt also arrives with a secret that even he doesn’t know. Of course, even in his sixties, Dr. Jones can’t resist a new chance to crack the whip.

The return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, the feisty love interest from Raiders, is a lift to the film. Time hasn’t dimmed the fire between her and Ford; you’d pay to watch them argue over the right restaurant for the evening. Yet their rapport points out a problem – they’re the only two characters we greatly care about, and that’s mainly a matter of legacy.

The film fails to introduce a single character that makes a significant mark. John Hurt mumbles a lot. The script wastes the great Ray Winstone, who as Jones’ turncoat drinking buddy Mac does little except switch sides and yell “Jonesy,” over and over and over. Blanchett, while good, is underused and under-imagined. LaBeouf has a moment or two, including a fun motorcycle chase through campus. But he still seems like he should be off auditioning for Sha-Na-Na.

When not saddled by a messy script, Spielberg turns in an energetic directing effort. He’s a much more skilled director than at the time of the original series, and the conception and choreography of some of the action scenes are truly masterful. I’m personally pleased that his most recent weakness, the easy escape, only shows up once. Yet the film feels like a creative compromise with Lucas – a greaser for me, a spaceship for you. I wanted the film to be more than just one for old time’s sake. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there could have been more.

That leaves me thinking of one moment in Raiders, the moment when Belloq, the rival archaeologist, implores Dr. Jones not to fire his weapon and destroy the ark. In the middle of this gigantic blockbuster is this small, realistic speech about the importance of the historical moment. Most importantly, it appeals to Jones’ deepest beliefs. Could you imagine such a speech in Crystal Skull? No, you can’t. And that explains a lot of what is missing.

6 comments:

Pinko Punko said...

It is John McClain in Die Hard versus the one in the sequels.

It is Han Solo in Empire Strikes Back versus Han Solo in Return of the Jedi.

This was nothing but predictable.

I could only skim the review, because I still want to be disappointed in person.

K. Bowen said...

I would say, yes, there's a difference in John McClain.

Han changes, but I think that Han actaully grows up. I didn't see it as lazy writing, but rather maturation.

christian said...

Too bad they didn't give Indy the regrets of age that Kirk was given in Wrath Of Khan... Something...anything..

K. Bowen said...

Exactly.

alfred said...

love your work.
how did you get into film criticism?

K. Bowen said...

Hey Alfred,
Welcome aboard!

I'd always had an interest in film and criticism, I worked at newspapers, and I voluteered, basically. Good fortune for everyone involved.