Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Warning: Some spoilers

Some movies get made because people have a story to tell. Some movies get made because the makers are looking to get paid. And others get made because the people involved just like making movies. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was, I suspect, made almost entirely for the third reason. It certainly wasn't made for the first.

When Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in the summer of 1981, it was a throwback for a certain generation, and a revelation for another. It was modeled on cliffhangers of the 40s and 50s, the black and white serials, and at the same time, there had never been anything like it. They had a wonderfully appealing hero, tremendous production values, and a story that moved from peril to peril seamlessly, allowing just the right amount of time to catch your breath before moving into the next hopeless situation. And while there were certain liberties taken with reality, at no point during that movie did the action strain credulity to the point where the suspension of disbelief was broken.

"Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," on the other hand, was made as if they were concerned that the first three Indiana Jones movies were too realistic, and they wanted to ensure that this one could never be mistaken for a documentary. When Dr. Jones climbs out of the refrigerator and walks away, the filmmakers have already made it clear that all critical thinking skills must be suspended in order to remain in your seats. Don't bother wondering how it's possible that a special truck can cut a road through the heart of the rainforest at 30 miles per hour. Don't bother wondering why the truck is there in the first place, since it gets blown up and the chase continues on what appear to be two parallel roads. Don't wonder how Mutt's Tarzan act is a) possible or b) perfectly coordinated with the car chase. Don’t look for suspense on the river, or a clever response from anyone involved – just wait until they get to the bottom so they can set up the next set piece. It's all there, not because it's an integral part of any story, not because it's necessary, but just because they can do it.

But the more the action gets ratcheted up, the less interesting and exciting it is. The need to constantly top what came before has resulted in a situation where there is nothing plausible remaining. (See Bond, James for further examples.) You go into a movie like this knowing beforehand that the main characters are going to survive, but the thrill and suspense in a tight situation is the "how."

As the action removes from reality, the "how" becomes "movie magic" and suddenly ceases to be interesting other than as an exercise in visual effects. When Indiana Jones is hanging over a pit on a vine in the first movie, you know that he'll survive but there is still suspense - the vine could break, or he could slip, and save himself another way, but it feels like real danger. When he plunges over a waterfall in the fourth movie, there's no suspense, no sense of peril at all. There is no way to survive it, so they just blithely move on to the next scene. A "thriller" as this is supposed to be should have the viewer on the edge of his seat. It does not.

I have a couple more little quibbles. The first is one that no one else seemed to notice, and it is certainly true that it concerns a subject about which I am, possibly, overly sensitive. It irritated me - greatly - when Dr. Jones was fired from his teaching job. There is no question that the anti-communist environment of the 1950s ended up damaging some people. But it's an article of faith with the Hollywood left that Joe McCarthy led a "witch hunt" worse than anything that happened in Salem, and the anti-communist patriots in this country during that age are, at this point, a convenient, conventional and clichéd "bogeyman." It's tiresome and it annoys me. That scene served no purpose in the film - it contributed nothing to the story other than to give Jim Broadbent a few lines and let us know that Denholm Elliot was dead. There were other ways that they could have done that, and possibly even moved the story forward. They took the easy way out, and annoyed me in the process1.

The second thing that bothered me was this - the movie inhabits a different universe than the first ones. One need not be a religious person to recognize that one of the key precepts of Raiders of the Lost Ark is that the Old Testament is true. The Ark of the Covenant was real, meaning that the God of the Old Testament was real, the wrath of God was real, the Jews were the chosen people, and the biblical story was true. The third movie established that the New Testament was true. The Knights Templar were, in fact, guarding the real Holy Grail, which existed and confirmed that the New Testament was true.

That universe has no room in it for trans-dimensional aliens in a flying saucer2. It is out of context.

All that said, the movie is fun, and most fans of the first three will enjoy it. Harrison Ford still has great screen presence, and everyone involved does the job that needs to be done. But it's not a great movie, and more than a sequel or even an homage, it a caricature of the first one. The production values are strong, it never gets boring, and there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple of hours. But, with the possible exception of “closing” the Marion story, it does nothing to enhance the franchise.

1 - As I say, I'm sensitized to that. Two other people who'd seen the movie had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned it. The firing is, as I say, utterly irrelevant to ANYTHING else that happens in the film.

2 - When we left the theatre, my 14-year old daughter said, "Not just a spaceship, but a flying saucer! Could it be any more cliché?"

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