Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Makin' it up as he goes

A few months ago, after some waffling on my part, I decided that it would be OK to introduce The Daughter to the adventures of Indiana Jones. I wasn't sure if she was ready for Temple of Doom yet, with its high levels of violence and gore, but I figured that she's nine, and so was I when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, and when I saw Raiders I hadn't been prepared by having seen things like the Lord of the Rings movies, so one night we sat down to watch Raiders. Watching her react to that movie was as fun a Family Movie Night as I can recall.

The Daughter's reactions to Raiders mirrored my own reactions, at least the ones I can recall, almost exactly. It was uncanny. At times she was on the edge of her seat, literally, quivering with the certainty that Indy was about to die horribly, starting with inside the Hovitos temple when Satipo has run off with the idol and Indy's trying to climb out of the pit as the stone door descends, and again later when it looks certain as hell that Toht is about to use that poker to scar Marion for life. She laughed uproariously when Indy shot the Impressive Swordsman, and she tensed up later on when Toht's chain-link torture implement turns out to be a coat hanger. She cheered Indy's victory in the Desert Chase, and went "Ewwwwww!" when the Nazis' faces started melting.

Next, of course, came Temple of Doom, which I waffled on allowing The Daughter to watch since it's quite a bit darker and quite a lot more violent than Raiders. Of course, she loved the banquet scene, and she squirmed a lot during the bug scene; The Daughter is petrified of bugs in general, so this was highly effective. The rest of the movie she didn't find all that scary, oddly enough. Hmmmm. (I did not let her see the plucking of the sacrificial victim's heart, however. I skipped past that.) As always, I found Temple to be better than its reputation holds. Sure, Willie Scott gets to be too much at times, but it's a fun movie.

Last up was Last Crusade, which remains the least of the three. Did so much of it have to be played for laughs? Did Marcus Brody, who had been implied in Raiders to be what Indy will become when he's older, have to be turned into a complete buffoon? Was there really a purpose in having Indy seduce Elsa early in the movie, when he's never been a seducer in the prior movies, other than to set up the fact that Indy and Henry Sr. both slept with the same woman? In fact, was there any purpose to having them sleep with the same woman at all? The chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery covers a lot of sins in Last Crusade, but wow, this should have been a better movie than it is.

Of course, watching the original three Indy Jones movies brought us to the most recent one. So. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. We finally got around to seeing it. My basic reaction through a lot of it was to wonder why on Earth so many people seem to think it's crap on a stick, and then to see in certain places just why so many people seem to think it's crap on a stick. Now, I don't think it's crap on a stick – it's neither crap nor on a stick – but I can see where things in it would bug certain people with certain hangups about movies like this. Reflecting after the movie was over, one thought kept coming back to my head: "Wow, this would have been really something if they'd been able to get in just one more rewrite of the script." There's a lot of stuff in the movie that's right, most of it, actually. But there are a few clunker moments and things that are left underdeveloped. By way of a food analogy: have you ever got a pizza from your favorite pizza place that, for some unknown reason, wasn't quite baked all the way through? So while the whole thing's generally satisfactory, there are bites of it that are doughy and underdone? That's what I felt like watching Crystal Skull.

The movie takes place in 1957, when Indiana Jones is nineteen years older than the last time we saw him, in Last Crusade. His brown hair is now gray, he's not quite as trim, his face is rounder, and his voice has a permanent rasp to it. But he's still game for an adventure or two, and as the movie begins, he's been dragged by force into this one. The opening scene tracks a convoy of military trucks across the Nevada desert as they arrive at a secret government base, which turns out to be, naturally, Area 51. The military convoy turns out to be Russians, and when Indy turns up, it's not as a separate adventurer or anything like that. No, the Russians drag him out of the trunk of one of their cars. They've kidnapped him, because there's a warehouse in Area 51 that contains a crate they're looking for. (Actually, that warehouse contains lots of crates. Thousands of 'em, containing, we're told, all of the darkest secrets of the US government. We get a glimpse a bit later of one of those crates, after it's been broken open by accident during Indy's escape; the crate contains what appears to be a chest made of golden wood topped with a pair of angels...but never mind that, the Russians want the crate that's so magnetic it attracts gunpowder when Indy tosses it in the air.)

It turns out that these Russians, led by a female officer named Spalko, are looking for a crystal skull that, when taken to a mythical lost city in the Amazonian jungle called Akator, will somehow yield the ability to read minds the world over. The Russians will know American military secrets as soon as they're conceived, irrevocably tilting the balance of the Cold War. That outcome, obviously, would be bad. Unfortunately, the film doesn't do nearly enough to play up this angle, and the Cold War subtext of the film which is actually nicely drawn in the first half of the movie pretty much disappears in the second. That's problem Number One.

The interesting development is that after escaping the Russians, Dr. Jones is branded a "person of interest" by the FBI because he "helped" the Communists get what they wanted, and he's fired from his teaching job, and for a short while he's followed by the US government. This could have led to some really interesting and fun complications; the only thing that's more stressful for a hero than having to overcome the bad guys is having to overcome the bad guys while convincing the rest of the good guys that he's really a good guy. (The current season of 24 has been milking this particular device for all it's worth.) Unfortunately, this aspect of the plot drops out of sight soon after. That's a shame.

So, Indy, having been fired, is contacted by a young man who goes by the name "Mutt". Mutt's got a whole bunch of chip on the shoulder attitude, but he needs Indy's help, having been sent by his mother to get Indy's help. Oddly, Indy doesn't strongly follow up on the question of who this kid's mother might be, but we learn later on exactly who she is: Marion Ravenwood, the original love of Indy's life. Well, from there, it doesn't take much to figure out that Mutt is Indy's son as well. It turns out that Indy left Marion at the altar. Oops...and somehow, the producers of Crystal Skull failed to do the obvious and have Marion do the same thing she did the previous time she came into contact with Indiana Jones after a long period away from him: belt him across the jaw. No matter, though; the chemistry between Harrison Ford and Karen Allen is as strong as ever, and watching these two characters interact is one of the film's finest pleasures. It's too bad that Marion doesn't have much to do in the film's climax; she ends up just standing there a lot.

As long as I'm talking about the film's climax, well...yes, the movie deals with aliens (or "interdimensional beings"), that are basically the exact alien that's dominated the UFO culture ever since 1947. A lot of people didn't like that an Indiana Jones film strayed so far away from the mystical-religious fantasy of the first three films in favor of sci-fi in Crystal Skull, but I'm not convinced, because I don't think that's what they did. In sending Dr. Jones into the Mayan milieu, it's perfectly logical to bring aliens into the story, as many UFO researchers have done over the years, in suggesting that the Mayans were the beneficiaries of alien technology and that aliens played some part in that culture's shockingly quick descent. Moreover, there is a lot of strong religious subtext underpinning much of UFO culture; you can't miss it if you read into it, and so, one can definitely argue that in Crystal Skull, Indy still is very much working on mystical-religious stuff. Anyone complaining that this movie is Indiana Jones meets The X-Files must have missed all of the strong religious and spiritual content in The X-Files.

For that matter, a lot of UFO culture springs not just from mysticism but also from Cold War paranoia, which the film was trying to tie itself into. It wasn't totally successful on this point, actually; the Cold War subtext is lost halfway through the movie, which is a shame. (For one thing, Raiders and Last Crusade didn't lose track of their World War II subtexts.) It's a shame that Indy's quest, which should also have been a quest to clear his own name, was allowed to lose so much of that emotional urgency.

My other random complaints about Crystal Skull? Here they are, mixed in with some stuff I liked, because I actually liked the movie quite a bit:

:: I can accept the bit with Indy surviving the nuke blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator. I'm fine with that, really. What I didn't like so much was that the fridge got violently blasted something like several miles from its starting point. Now that I had a hard time swallowing. I would have liked this better if Indy had opened the fridge, pushed away a lot of wreckage of the house, and found himself standing in the middle of a bunch of radiation-suited guys who had come to inspect the results of the blast. I'm willing to accept a lot, but this pushed me just a wee bit.

:: Nice bit of scripting: we're set in 1957, and Spalko tells Indy that they need his help finding the crate he had worked on ten years earlier. That would be 1947, which is when the first post-war UFO sightings happened.

:: Another nice bit of scripting: the twist on the classroom scene, which starts off the way the classroom scenes started in the earlier movies, but then whirls about with Indy's firing. I loved that he's still assigning Michaelson to his students; that's exactly the kind of detail the movie had in spades for fans like me.

:: The next scene, in Indy's house, was nicely done. I like that they didn't turn the Dean into a mean jerk; he resigned in protest of Indy's firing, and he's there as Indy remembers his father and Marcus Brody. That Dean has a good line: "I think we're both at that age when life stops giving us things, and starts taking things away."

:: That brings me to the movie's handling of Indy's advancing age. I think the film handled this all very well. Some allusions are made to what Indy's been up to since Last Crusade (he was an actual spy at some point, it appears), and Indy doesn't spend the whole film complaining about things he can't do anymore, but neither does he act in a way inconsistent with the fact that he's now a 60-something action hero. He treats Mutt as a wise elder would, but he's never condescending toward him.

:: Complaint time: the character Mac, who we first meet in the film's opening, is a partner of Indy's, until he's revealed as a traitor five minutes later. In all honesty, this should have been that character's last appearance. He keeps popping up throughout the movie, finally earning Indy's trust again before betraying him again, and eventually dying because he can't let the treasure go when the Temple is collapsing. After the first betrayal, he only clogs up the screen and takes attention away from characters we're actually invested in. Mac should have gone away after the first scene.

:: Well-developed villains really aren't the strong point of the Indiana Jones movies, but this one really shortchanges Colonel Spalko. We learn exactly nothing about her, except that she really wants the power of knowledge. That's too bad, because I loved Cate Blanchett's performance.

:: Who are the weirdly-made up warriors who are guarding Akator and the Temple earlier in the movie? We're never told. They just pop up out of nowhere, twice in the movie. Huh?

:: I've read some commentary about the movie, although not a lot, prior to seeing it, and of the people I read (reviewers and bloggers alike), nobody gave away the visual punchline of the scene where Indy and Marion are caught in quicksand. (Well, not really quicksand, as Indy helpfully explains while they're sinking.) Thanks, folks! Had I known what was coming I wouldn't have laughed nearly as hard.

:: I do recall some people complaining about Mutt doing a Tarzan yell when he's swinging on the vines, but I didn't hear it – did they eliminate the yell for the DVD? Anyway, I'd have been fine with it, really, even though people complain about George Lucas having Chewbacca do a Tarzan yell in two different Star Wars movies. It shouldn't have happened in Star Wars, but I have no great difficulty with it here; I'd simply assume that Mutt has spent some time as a kid in the movie theater watching Johnny Weismuller doing his thing as Tarzan.

:: The climax doesn't work as well as it should, because there's never that moment that came in the first three Indy films where the villain is undone because he (or she) has failed to understand something that Indy is only just now figuring out. (Don't look at the stuff coming out of the Ark; don't use the Sankara Stones in a way that Shiva wouldn't have liked; at the Last Supper, Jesus would have been drinking out of a crappy tin cup.) So Spalko's final demise isn't really explained. I didn't need Indy doing something, per se, but there's no real explanation offered as to what befalls Spalko. It's easy to figure out, but we shouldn't have to put those pieces together. Indy could have shouted something like "Colonel, look at the size of that skull! Do you really think your brain is going to be able to handle what that brain knows? Much less thirteen of them?"

:: The wedding. Look, hasn't poor Temple of Doom been rehabilitated enough yet that we don't have to keep pretending that it never happened? It's actually a pretty good film on its own, so if we're going to have lots of little reminders of Indy's prior adventures, can't we acknowledge that one? Here's how it should have happened. Hey, as Blogistan's official script doctor for George Lucas, you can indulge me!

Just before the wedding, when the guy is stenciling Indy's name on the door as the new Dean:

INDY: I can probably still get them to rehire you.

OLD DEAN: No, I'm looking forward to retirement, actually. Maybe write a book, or even go out into the field. If you can do it--

INDY: The field's not what it used to be, old friend.

OLD DEAN: What is?

Indy finishes tying his bow tie.

INDY: Well, here we go!

A messenger enters, holding out a telegram.

MESSENGER: Dr. Jones? Telegram, sir!

INDY: Thanks. (looks at telegram) Shanghai?

OLD DEAN: You have an old friend in Shanghai, don't you?

INDY: And a few enemies. (reads) "Dr. Jones: Regret unable to attend ceremony but I have found the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. Would appreciate your help. All the best, Short Round."

He looks at the Old Dean, with that familiar Indiana Jones gleam in his eye....

OLD DEAN: Now, now, old friend, you've already broken this promise to Marion once. You're not doing it again.

INDY: I guess you're right.

He heads off to the chapel, but not before tucking the telegram in his pocket.

Then, later on after the wedding, as Indy and Marion are heading back up the aisle:

INDY: I know I promised you a honeymoon in Paris, but you know where it's supposed to be beautiful this time of year? Shanghai.

MARION: Shanghai.

INDY: Yeah.

MARION: My father took me to Shanghai once. He was looking for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan.

INDY: Funny you should mention that...wait a second, I forgot something.

And that's when he'd go back and grab the hat from Mutt.

:: I like that as soon as Indy learns that Mutt's his son, he starts calling him "Junior".

:: Maybe it's that I live near Niagara Falls and am thus highly aware of the fact that going over it in any kind of open craft is certain death, but the waterfall scene bugged me even more than the refrigerator.

:: I chuckled when Indy said "I've got a bad feeling about this."

OK, I think I've gone on long enough. Yes, it was a fun movie. Yes, it could have been a remarkable adventure film, with just a bit more work done on the script. I kind of wonder if the writers' strike of a year ago played a part – maybe they wanted to take another pass at the script, but the strike came up and that meant that if they waited it out and then did their rewrite, the schedules of Spielberg, Lucas and Ford would have been another five years from converging. I wonder if the strike forced them into going into production with a script that wasn't totally to their liking. But I could be wrong.

Anyway, like I said, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is roughly 85 percent of a terrific movie.


Mimi said...

I agree very much with your review as that mostly is where I fell on it - I'd have loved for Cate Blanchett's character to have been fleshed out better- she's a fantastic actress.

jason said...

I had pretty much the same thoughts and complaints about a movie that was better than its detractors claim, but frustratingly far from what it should've been.

I hadn't considered the writers' strike as a possible explanation, though. I figured Lucas had simply pushed ahead with an undercooked script as (I feel) he did with the SW prequels. If it wasn't for those, I'd be willing to give him and Spielberg the benefit of the doubt in the case of Crystal Skull...