Friday, July 18, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) is the kind of film that happens when creative imagination proves less important than the desire to resurrect a successful and popular character. This film is tired and hackneyed. Apparently Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas and Harrison Ford and others dickered for years over the plot of this film. Finally they came to a compromise. It shows. This is the worst of the four films in the Indiana Jones series.

The opening scenes are promising. The film seems shot in a hazy afternoon light, and the effect is pleasing, as if we are gazing back into the golden, halcyon days of the 1950s. Markers of the 1950s abound. For a while they keep the film interesting. Students at the university where Indiana teaches look as if they are straight out of American Graffiti. There are hot rods and long skirts and pony tails and anti-communist demonstrations. The young man Mutt Williams played by Shia LaBeouf has a motorcycle and a leather jacket, is constantly combing his hair (like the Fonz from Happy Days, like Kookie from '77 Sunset Strip, like the original James Dean). Shia doesn't look particularly tough, though he thinks he is. Mainly he looks foolish and narcissistic. But the main way the film references the 1950s is through an A-bomb test and McCarthyism (the villains are Russians, and Indy is suspended from his teaching position because it's discovered that he once worked with a character suspicious enough that the F. B. I. placed him on their list of suspicious characters).

Harrison Ford plays his part with an acceptable simulation of enthusiasm. He's an old man to be pulling many of the stunts he pulls in the film (assuming he did them himself), and there are only rare hints of awkwardness.

In an early scene Indy finds himself in a town built by the U. S. government to test the effects of a nuclear blast on a suburban neighborhood. Loudspeakers announce that a nuclear blast is only seconds away. There's no escape, but at the last minute he finds a place to hide. The whole scene is carried off in an impressive, credible, witty way, even though it's the obvious product of digital manipulation. It's also, I think, not original. Consider this scene alongside The Atomic Kid, a 1954 Mickey Rooney vehicle in which the main character finds himself in a similar town. Other scenes seem borrowed: the penultimate scene in South America seems taken directly from the climax of The X-Files movie (1998). Of course, the Indiana Jones series is a wonderful example of cinematic intertextuality—of borrowings from H. Rider Haggard novels and comic books and numerous Saturday afternoon movie serials and so on. These sources are all part of the fun. There's a lot of intertextuality in this fourth film. But the vitality of the first and third installments, the energy and good humor, is missing.

Things clearly begin to implode when the Russians have taken Indy and Mutt prisoner in South America, where they have gone to search for a strage crystal skull and Mutt's mother, who has been kidnapped by the Commies. To force Indy and Mutt to lead them to the secret kingdom of the crystal skull, the Russians trot out Mutt's mother. She's Marion Ravenwood, played by Karen Allen, Indy's love interest in the first of the films. All of a sudden a film that was plodding along as a passably amusing and fantastic adventure becomes a family reunion. Not only does Indy see Marion for the first time in 20 years—she slugs him for deserting her—but she also tells him that Mutt is his son. Indy spends the remainder of the film trying to reacquaint himself with Marion and to adjust to the fact that he has a son. Mutt can't believe this old professor is his father, so we have an ongoing struggle by Indy to win the boy over. Marion herself seems goofy and tired, and once she's part of the action Indy starts behaving that way too. Everyone is trying to impress everyone else. When Mutt pulls off an impressive stunt, Indy winks and grins—a "that's my boy" reaction. The corniest dialogue in the film comes when Indy and Marion are discussing their long separation. He's surprised to learn that she married a colleague after he disappeared:

Marion: I'm sure I wasn't the only one to go on with my life. There must have been plenty of women for you over the years.

Indy: There were a few. But they all had the same problem.

Marion: Yeah, what's that?

Indy: They weren't you, honey.

This kind of schlock continues throughout the film: Indy's pleased that Marion can drive a car and shoot a gun and that his son can swing on a rope. These warm expressions of family unity compete with the main plot—battles with the Russians and giant carnivorous ants and zombie-like natives, and the discovery of the hidden kingdom deep within the Amazonian jungle. It's all ultimately preposterous and unbelievable. I like stories about aliens as much as anyone else, but the way the aliens with their psychically potent crystal skulls blend into this story of Father Knows Best in Amazonia suggests desperation among the screenwriters.

I remember distinctly an episode from a television program from the late 1950s or early 1960s—I saw it twice, and it made an impression. Explorers of old Aztec ruins in South America discover a strangely shaped skull—the skull of a deceased being from outer space who has visited the earth years before and left strange legends behind him. I can't remember the name of the show. But it's another example of the lack of originality in this film, the sodden derivativeness, which draws heavily from the nutty book by Erich von Däniken, The Chariot of the Gods.

I did not enjoy and was not entertained by this film. It's a cheesy recycling of a beloved character from two decades and more in the past—it would have been nice to encounter him again in a film conceived with imagination and vigor, in the spirit of the original installment. It's incredible to me that Stephen Spielberg directed this film. He's directed some impressive films. Consider Schindler's List (1993) and Munich (2005), or even E. T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Jaws (1975). Why would he associate his name with this mess? Presumably he did so out of loyalty to his friends George Lucas and Harrison Ford, and also because he directed the first three films in the series.

In the closing scene, we see Marion and Indiana getting married. This is, I suppose, one way to end the series, Indy and Marion shuffling off into geriatric domesticity, with their cats and their girdles and their goiters and their false teeth. Where are the keys, honey? Where are my glasses?

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