Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones and the Crushing Disappointment
The opening of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull tells you almost all you need to know about the movie. Up comes the Paramount logo, restored to its 80s incarnation, and you feel a smile crawl across your face. That great old logo, just how the other Indy movies began. It's a promise of respect, of consistency.
Then we dissolve, as with the previous three films, to a shape that matches the shape of the Paramountain. Not a rock formation or an engraved gong, no - this time it's... a 'molehill' created by a prairie dog. Inches tall, CG enhanced with the animal itself, then run over by a truck.
And that's what IJATKOTCS (fuck it, let's just go with Indy 4) is really like. It's like watching those promises of respect and consistency being run over with a particularly heavy tread. It's a joke at the expense of the audience's hopes and expectations.
What follows over the next two hours essentially maintains this impression.
It turns out that the reason for Indy 4's much-hullabalooed plot secrecy has nothing to do with fantastic twists or shocking revelations - it's to hide the fact that the whole thing is a pretty empty experience. Which is why I'm happy to go ahead with spoilers. For one thing, the Indy films are B-movies, and you know what you're going to get with a B-movie - predictability isn't really an issue. For another thing, you'll guess what's coming five scenes before it arrives even if you missed the spoilers that appeared online.
In fact this is part of the problem - the only person who doesn't catch sight of the bleeding obvious is the hero. Jones gets introduced to 'Mutt', whose mother sent him. His mother's name is Marion. Indy's stumped, there have been a lot of Marions, and this one has confusingly changed her surname. In the way that people who get married do. Nope, still lost; who could she possibly be?
Then we learn that the whole thing relates to aliens. If you didn't get this from the unwieldy Crystal Skull prop that the characters carry around, which looks for all the world like exactly the kind of skull a bog-standard, seen-it-before alien might have, the story starts with Indy being taken INSIDE AREA 51. Yet still the bleeding obvious is missed.
Underselling the intellect of your hero is a mistake when his mind is also the reason he gets into these adventures in the first place. Indy's intro in this film is being pulled from the trunk of a car (an apt enough metaphor for the project, frankly) to help the Russians ransack Area 51 - taken from the end of Raiders, despite Area 51 not being around in 1936.
The teaser sets up an awful lot of what's not-quite-right about Indy 4. With minimal coercion, just to keep things moving, Indy agrees to help the Russians find the artifact they're after. Because apparently they don't have time to look at the storage catalogue. No problem - the object is heavily magnetised. Well, some of the time. It pulls metallic gunpowder through the air in a cloud, bends light fittings its way, yanks spectacles and crowbars from the people... but it doesn't attract anyone's guns, belt buckles, or indeed any of the metallic objects in boxes and on tables all around it.
There's also some blather about how Jones had consulted on this object once before, though like all of Indy's 4's exposition it's clumsy, dull and often incomprehensible. There's also a bizarre moment where Cate Blanchett's character claims to be psychic. Initially unable to get into Indy's mind - he's "hard to read", apparently - this skill is never, ever touched on again. With anyone. At all.
Indy escapes via some all-too-staged action, a perfunctory fight, an underground rocket and, ultimately, hiding in a fridge that just happens to be blown clear of (and by) a nuclear explosion. There are reaction shots by the aforementioned CGI prairie dogs (sigh) and at that point there's a collective clicking sound as the entire audience dials down their expectations even further.
Sure, these were always knockabout movies, with their own logics and rules, but even Daffy Duck physics have to be used with care. You have to know what you're doing. You can jump a cart across broken tracks and land safely on the rails because it's an incident in the middle of a chase. What you cannot do, ever, is conclude the chase that way. End on ingenuity. Realising that the fridge is lead-lined is clever - just kinda hoping that it'd be blasted clear of a nuclear test site is moronic.
There's little to be gained from churning through the entire film this way - it's a catalogue of mis-steps and dropped clangers. What became of the subplot of Jones being blacklisted? Was Spalko psychic? Why doesn't the magnetism always work? What exactly is the great power? What causes the skull's influence? And why doesn't the title character get to do stuff?
Where did the hordes of natives come from? There's a weird one. Twice in the story our heroes - and that term is getting looser and looser as we go along - encounter a site where attackers literally crawl out of the stonework. The vague implication is that they're the living dead, somehow resting in place to protect what they were buried with. This happens in two separate locations, with not a word of 'Huh, that's weird'. In the former case, the attack happens in a tomb already raided by a doddery old geezer. Did they just not bother with him? I guess not, because he returned the stolen object a bit later. For some reason.
The geezer in question is Oxley, played by John Hurt and given nothing but British nutter dialogue to work with. (He's also implied to be a sort of father figure to Mutt, though you'd be hard-pressed to see how this came about.) And, in fact, it's his place in the narrative that further derails the story.
You know how Indy is an expert on ancient cultures? How he is, in fact, an archeologist? Not this time. This time his job is to decipher the mystic runes and legends... written by John Hurt a few weeks ago. I'm not kidding.
Carvings on walls and cryptic notes - Oxley has the solution, it transpires, he's just lost his marbles. So Indy's job is a nutter translator... or, to put it another way, as the little boy from the Skipper TV series. ("What's that Ox? Pan-dimension beings landed here centuries ago? And Sheila's fallen down a well and broken her ankle?")
In the final moments we get a redux of Raiders, with the baddie who wanted the power destroyed by it. Now, the reason this worked in the original movie was painfully clear - the power of God cannot be used in the service of evil. God just won't truck with such things. Here we have the problem that the Russians can hardly be described as 'evil' (Spielberg may look back disapprovingly on the way he trivialised the Nazis, but it's far easier to see a dictator's quest for domination and genocide as 'evil', however simplistic that might be, than the cold war clash of opposing ideologies), and the further problem that it ain't God at the controls. It's a dead alien hive mind...or something.
The 'power' of the skull is left stupidly vague, and when it comes, the ghosts of an alien race (possibly) make a snap decision to kill the person who revived them (possibly). It's hard to say why.
Still, all these confusions and stumbles would be more acceptable if the film delivered on other counts. Exciting action, clever gags and neat character beats can all go some way to overriding a clumsy plot. Plus, it's Spielberg, right? Creating a sense of awe and wonder is what he does. He makes the mundane magnificent.
Bafflingly, the Spielberg who shows up here hasn't existed in a long time. Maybe not ever. This is a TV movie director with a budget. Indy 4 plays out like a Mummy movie, robbing from the Jones history but failing to add the class, the sophistication, the sheer cinema, that we've come to expect. There's ugly greenscreen work, CGI overload, and absolutely bog-standard beat-by-beat shot choices and edits. It feels like the second unit did all the heavy lifting.
People may criticise the hollowness of the the second Jurassic Park film, The Lost World, but when you watch it back there is, at least, some level of invention there. Watch how the motif of breaking glass is used again and again it that film. Check out the shot where the characters walk in silhouette through a skeletal dinosaur ribcage and it merges into similarly-shaped ducts. Watch the raptors' wakes in the high grass. It may not be his best movie, but at least the guy showed up. He brought his imagination to the party.
Here, Spielberg's imagination is on vacation. It's in space. It's on Pluto. The whole thing plays out more like Joe Johnston's inexorable third Jurassic Park movie. Cribbing from better films and going through the motions.
A scene where Indy is forced to stare into the eyes of the crystal skull is a case in point. Where once Spielberg would have imbued this moment - which is potentially going to drive Indy insane - with power and terror, now it feels like a bad day on the Charmed set. Shot of skull, shot of face, standard music, blah blah. Remember how hard you willed him not to swallow that black liquid in Temple of Doom? Remember how vital it was that he keep his eyes squeezed tightly shut at the end of Raiders?
Remember how you didn't really care about him looking at a skull for a bit?
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski - hampered with trying to mesh his own gorgeous style with what went before in the same way he was hamstrung on Lost World - finds no way to make things work. For every shot that feels organic to his more bleached-out, rough-hewn style, there's one that unsuccessfully tries to emulate what went before, generally leaving scenes feeling flat and false. (It's been a long time since interior-exterior sets looked this obvious.)
So for half the film Indy and Shia Leboeuf - who really shouldn't have to be known as 'the only good thing about the movie', making the misshapen dialogue work better than it deserves to and acquitting himself better with the action than the obviously-taking-steps-carefully Ford - rattle through iffy exposition and predictable developments. Then we come to the mid-point, deep in the heart of a hastily-built jungle set (remember when Indy used to actually go to places?). And in the course of about five minutes, both the characters we've been searching for sort of... wander up and say hello.
It turns out the the grand plan for part two of Indy 4 is to ditch the character work completely - and fair enough, because it wasn't really working - and go all-out for the action. So we rattle through the bits that are left ("Oxley, it's you, and you're nuts now!" "He's your son." "I never stopped loving you Marion") to leave the way clear to... well, the kind of characterless, second unit-y action that Stephen Sommers churns out on a daily basis.
To be fair, Marion is so badly written that it's probably best she stay quiet. From the powerful firebrand of Raiders to aww shucks mom in one quick jump. Realistic? Sure, maybe. Indiana Jones? Not even close. There's a poorly grafted-on backstory that Indy left her at the altar, but rather than exploit this to create an interesting redux of their original embittered relationship, easily-managed screenwriter Koepp coasts along on flimsy one-liners. Noirish regret is dumped in favour of Karen Allen shrugging at her son that, well, hey, that's pop for ya.
So the second half is a rollercoaster. But only in the way Spaghetti Junction is a rollercoaster. CGI and faux-location rubbishness abounds and we just follow along the white lines. The villainess has a sword, Mutt mentioned his fencing skills in the first half, so that'll be where that goes, then. The huge, knockabout vehicle fight/chase through the forest pushes relentlessly on, wishing it was more like Raiders truck sequence or Crusade's tank battle, but too unwilling to put Ford in the firing line - or to take itself seriously enough - to be much good. This despite the fact that the main cast barely left the safe confines of the bluescreen stage.
Blundering down the waterfall Jaws went over in Moonraker the team drag themselves out onto a riverbank set in front of yet more bluescreen. Things climax in the Mayan pyramid/alien spaceship with the second of the film's two 'count the bodies, that means we're here' moments. Ray Winstone, having done nothing but double-cross for the entire film, performs one more double-cross, John Hurt states as categorical fact that these aliens are inter-dimensional and everyone goes 'Oh, okay' (rather than querying either how he knows this, or what the hell it means - maybe Indy's a closet SF fan), and then we get a ghastly, pointless wedding scene that will make you gag on whatever popcorn you have left.
It's incredibly hard to see why this took so long to get made. Was Lucas waiting for a script with all its subtlety and sharp humour sucked out? (This is more Jar-Jar stepping in shit and less Han Solo promising he can arrange a kiss with a Wookie.) Was the idea of a good artifact really so hard to find? (Vague alien skull power really beats a mystical Excalibur adventure, or the lost city of Atlantis, does it?)
Every so often an idea will show up that feels like it should be decent - the nuclear test town and an army of killer ants being by far the best - but every time things threaten to get interesting, cartoonish execution renders the audience indifferent. A lightness of touch does not mean keeping your distance. Where previously the heavily-overdubbed punches felt at once solid but comfortably cinematic, now they feel only a half-step from Batman's 'Bosh!' captions. The film is meant to take itself seriously so we don't have to. It doesn't. (The nadir being the use of a - sometimes rubber - snake as a rope.)
I hate that I feel moved to write a review like this. I'm not Indy's biggest fan ever, but I adore Raiders and really enjoy its sequels. I am, however, a massive admirer of Spielberg. To the point where some of his less lauded - and, generally, more recent - movies rank as some of my all-time favourites. I'm the guy who thinks Always is one of the best hankie-fillers ever made, the guy who thinks A.I. is a genuine masterpiece, who got totally caught up in the fairytale of The Terminal and who felt the terror coming off the screen in War of the Worlds to be more potent than anything else in the last ten years. With the exception of 1941, I don't think he's ever directed a film I don't at least like enormously. More usually, I fall in love. Because he speaks 'cinema' more eloquently than any other living filmmaker.
Watching him sleepwalk though this film - and calling him on it - makes me feel hollow inside. You come out of Indy 4 with no stronger impression than this was a director doing his Saturday job. Something that doesn't take up too much time, and doesn't really matter to you one way or the other. You feel like it was made on the understanding that the crew never had to spend more than two days away from home at any time. Like an 80s TV action series it all feels like an LA-bound shoot bulked up with stock footage and cheated backdrops.
Indiana Jones isn't just about scope, of course. But when the characters are so poorly utilised, when there's no awe or wonder or adrenaline left, let alone any good jokes, where can we take consolation?
The irony that there is literally no magic in this story is not lost. Where once we had religious and mythic iconography, now we have alien technology and biology. Where once we had ancient legends now we have the ramblings of a dotty old man. This is a film that replaces gods and magic with something mechanical, replaces the sweep of history with echoes of something recent and misremembered.
With the possible exception of my example at the head of this review, I can't think of a more accurate summation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull than that.
IT'S ALL WRONG
When I was about five years old, I keenly remember being vaguely aware of the character of Indiana Jones - a charming history professor who seeks out ancient relics and gets into all kinds of scrapes - and thinking it sounded like the best thing in the world. I badgered my Dad incessantly to get hold of the films for me. It's quite likely that the reason I like films at all is because at an early age, Indiana Jones taught me that it is possible to look at a screen and for it to show you exactly what you want to see.
Which isn't to say I believe the films to be perfect. I could sit here for hours talking about their flaws, particularly the sequels. Temple Of Doom is wildly uneven and strange, but contains some of my favourite scenes of the trilogy ("so long, Lao Che!", "Maybe... but not today!"), and I admire the balls of following up Raiders with something so gleefully different. The Last Crusade can feel a little manipulative as the similarities to Raiders stack up, but by this point the cast are so comfortable in their roles and fun to watch that it charms the pants right off you and gently massages you to a thrilling climax anyway.
With big event films like this, even the people who enjoy it seem to be calculating a defence in their head while they do so. I can only imagine it's because as much as they want to enjoy it, they need to find a way to excuse that, as it'd be nigh on impossible to watch this film without realising on some level that it was severely flawed. As such, I've been told quite a few times that I didn't like the film because my "expectations were too high". Not only does this infuriatingly sidestep any discussion of the film itself (as if my love for the earlier films has severed my connection to objectivity and reality, which it hasn't), it simply isn't true.
I wasn't expecting a perfect film. I wasn't expecting another Raiders. What I was tentatively hoping for was a film that felt of a piece with the others, which would sit comfortably alongside them as enjoyable pulp. What I got wasn't an Indiana Jones film in anything other than name, according to these criteria what I have just thought of.
1. An Indiana Jones film shouldn't leave you wondering what Indiana Jones was actually doing for most of it at the end. Harrison Ford barely leaves the screen, but his character has very little impact on events. He's just the guy who gets to hold the map.
2. An Indiana Jones film doesn't have ugly computer generated monkeys in it. We have seen what monkeys look like in this fictional universe in the earlier films - they're real monkeys, not computer monkeys. This is a minor grumble, but it underlines the half-arsed attitude to continuity this film has. Sure, we can throw in a picture of Sean Connery, but we can't make this film anything like the others in terms of style, tone or quality.
3. An Indiana Jones film shouldn't have a female lead who is completely devoid of personality. Marion was feisty, quick-witted and resourceful, Willie a screeching cabaret harpy, Dr. Elsa Schneider a fucking power-crazed Nazi. While the merits of their characters are debatable, they at least have characters. This time out, it's... Marion again! Except that the sands of time have completely eroded her personality. Where once she was the perfect foil for our hero, now she's just some woman in a weird Charlie Chaplin outfit who grins vacantly.
4. An Indiana Jones film ought to feature some convincing peril. It would have been nice, at least once, to be surprised by the way Indy got out of various scrapes. Remember the feeling of "How will our hero get out of this scrape" which dominated the original trilogy? Well, it's entirely absent from this film. In the traditional bit where Indy gets beaten up by a guy much bigger than him but triumphs due to dumb luck, we see the solution before a single punch is thrown. It's crushingly predictable when the guy that was having a fight in the middle of a swarm of giant ants gets eaten by a swam of giant ants, and if the writer was expecting to create a stand-up-and-punch-the-air moment on a par with that big Nazi getting his head chopped up in a propeller, then he needs to take some fucking lessons in scene structure. Remember that feeling of "oh, what a surprising way to get out of that situation"? Also gone. Fall off a waterfall? Everyone's fine! Fall off three waterfalls? Everyone's still fine! Drive off a cliff? Don't worry, there's a computer-generated Road Runner joke to save you! And everyone's still absolutely fine!
5. The Indiana Jones films are primarily comedies. While it is possible to view them strictly as action films or to focus on the various themes of greed and lust for power, the fact of the matter is that almost every scene has quite a few gags in it. They're slapstick comedy, but with a tangible sense of danger. This new one weren't funny. Compare Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman in Raiders to Shia Le Boeuf getting hit in the bollocks by a branch. Over and over again. If that doesn't tell you all you need to know about this film, by all means, go and waste two hours of your life watching it, and days of your life fantasising about how different it could have been.
6. The Indiana Jones films are globe-trotting adventures. The bit where this one fades to a map and the red line indicating Indys journey moves to a slightly different part of South America is particularly ridiculous. If you're so paranoid about SpOiLeRs leaking onto the internet that you film nearly the entire thing on sets and soundstages, why do they all have to be in South America? The stage-bound, claustrophobic feel of this film is another serious error of judgement on somebody's part. They used to able to make sets more or less convincing. That whole bit on the boat at the start of The Last Crusade - that looked great, and it was a boat, which is surely a greater technical achievement. Why did all the sets in this film look like they were from The Crystal Maze? I literally do not understand why this is.
7. I'm going to have to whine about the CG at a bit more length. The Indiana Jones films are a showcase for creating tension and energy without resorting to computer graphics. It's all in the timing, the stunts, the editing - it's the real, tangible quality of the action that makes these scenes exciting. Even when you're looking at a stunt man rather than Harrison Ford himself doing barmy shit, it's still a real guy, and that sense of danger is present. This one eschews all that for a load of bluescreen work and bits where everyone stands around going gee whizz and looking at a special effect.
8. "But Harrison Ford is a million years old! How can he portray a convincing action hero!" was the main concern of many people going into this film, but the truth is, he never has played a convincing action hero. He's cool and everything, but every time he throws a punch he nearly falls over and looks like he's forgotten his name. Most of the fight scenes involve getting beaten up at length and then the other guy gets his head done by a propeller. The tank-chase scene is amazing, but he spends most of it hanging off a gun he's got his belt caught on. Yet in order to silence these naysayers, they've got Indiana Jones dodging bullets and leaping about the place like a superhero. IT'S ALL WRONG.
9. Indiana Jones films paint good and evil in broad strokes. The villains are total, absolute, unequivocal bastards. There's the Nazis, best known for THE HOLOCAUST, and the Thuggee, who conduct human sacrifices over a burning pit of lava and enslave absolutely loads of children. This new film gives us... psychic communists? I'm no historian, but I'm a little uncomfortable being asked to regard communism as on a par with slaughtering millions of Jews or worshipping a bloodthirsty voodoo god simply because one of the Russians has an absolutely ineffectual psychic power which she never uses. Literally, not once. She tries to read Indiana Jones' mind, but can't. There is no reason whatsoever for her character to be psychic. It's a nice idea, but you need more than the nice idea - you need to do something with it! If there's a reason for it to be in the script, it must be to provide some vague motivation for her hunting the Crystal Skull, but we aren't ever told enough about the skull for it to make any sense. She wants the Crystal Skull because she's psychic! This also gives her eventual downfall considerably less resonance. Previous villains have been lusting for power beyond that of mortal men and found themselves destroyed by that very power, and there are attempts to recall that sort of character arc. Such as when her head explodes like him at the end of Raiders. But "psychic communist seeking alien skull for very confusing and vague reasons" doesn't carry any of that dramatic impact. It's a more convincing lonely hearts ad than it is a plot element.
10. For Indiana Jones films, beginnings are a big deal. Scenes relatively unconnected to the main plot, but which introduce, or re-introduce, or somehow expand upon the character of Indiana Jones and usually whoever else will be on his team this time around, whilst providing a few thrills. They're the equivalent of the same sort of thing in James Bond films. Idiot screenwriter David Koepp instead chooses to begin his scene with Harrison Ford being tossed out of a car onto the floor, at which point we're supposed to go "hooray, he's got the hat on!", not mind being thrown into a story which has already started, and watch excitedly as several boring minutes of expository dialogue and Indiana Jones co-operating with the enemy pass before the thing lumbers into an action sequence that we already don't give a fuck about for the reasons listed above. Having introduced the main villains a bit too early, the film has to bungle through a literally entirely irrelevant nuclear explosion, and a sub-plot about Government blacklisting which everyone involved seems to literally forget about moments after it's happening. It's an extraordinarily wobbly way to bring the character back to the screen, and things frankly don't get much better from there. Constant attempts at "fan-pleasing" scenes, culminating in a TERRIBLE snake joke, feel entirely contrived and terrible. All the magic is gone.
A few Lucas CG flourishes and the overly-photoshopped feel to the film might not be so damning sins were the whole not so flawed to begin with (since it is exactly that flawed, it's a bit like icing a cake made of shit with some more shit), and it all can be traced back to a script which utterly fails to understand what made these films work in the first place. On every conceivable level. And also fails to create a single engaging character. And also feels every inch like it's been cobbled together from elements present in various, unrelated, earlier drafts of the script, by someone with very little idea how to unify those elements. Wikipedia tells me (and why would Wikipedia lie?) that Lawrence Kasdan, screenwriter of Raiders, "helped" with some of the "love dialogue". Which probably means that the one line in the whole thing which I can remember wasn't even written by him. Fuck you, David Koepp! You wrote a really terrible film. You'll notice I haven't talked much about the performances in it. Well, it doesn't matter. The films full of great actors doing relatively solid work but there's nothing they can do to improve the film. I am embarrassed for all of them, particularly Harrison Ford, who probably thought his recent streak of really fucking god-awful movies was at an end. Bad luck!
I grew up watching the original films on shitty, worn out videotapes, with dog-eared corners, that had been sitting in a video shop for years. And they lost none of their power to excite or entertain, because nothing in them was based on the current presumption that it's entertaining enough for an audience to watch an actor watching a blue screen with something cool happening on it. Those films have their role, but what could have been an exciting opportunity to offer something slightly different in a Summer market dominated by that sort of film instead feels like a half-arsed marketing exercise by a bunch of old guys who wanted to buy Gold-plated Bentleys.
I should also add that this is without a doubt the worst film that Steven Spielberg has made in his whooole career.