Monday, May 26, 2008

Mountain Into Molehill

Maybe the ultimate joke of the mountain-into-molehill thing that we get over the Paramount logo at the beginning of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is that it’s done in anticipation of what the response to the film would be. No matter how good it was, there would still be people who would find things to complain about and those complaints would be making a mountain out of, well, you know. Or maybe the joke is that it’s an indication over the reduction in scale from the earlier films to now. Maybe it’s just a cute idea that somebody had while making it. Maybe I need to stop spending so much time obsessing over studio logos.

I went in with the full understanding that I wasn’t going to get a movie which would be the absolute equal to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. At the very least I wanted it to be an enjoyable romp and that’s what it is in some ways. But even after a second viewing today (All hail the Vista) I found myself already bored with parts of it. During the parts I liked on my first viewing I looked at it as Spielberg’s EL DORADO (i.e. director and star returning to old themes but it’s so much fun you don’t care) and it seemed pertinent that the ancient city of El Dorado is even brought up in relation to the plot. But after thinking about it for a few days, culminating in the more recent viewing, I have to admit that a few times it skirts over a little too far into RIO LOBO territory (i.e. director and star returning to old themes but no one really seems to care anymore). The script by David Koepp, which for all I know already includes elements from past drafts, feels like it’s at the point where you say, “this is getting there, but we need to flesh out some things and clarify the exposition.” I guess that didn’t happen.

Ultimately, I don’t get why the film is about the Skull. The exposition is lengthy and mealy-mouthed to the point that I can barely remember any of it and I don’t get what the Skull means for Indiana Jones either. At the film’s beginning the character doesn’t need to be convinced to go off on another adventure, but he does seem slightly lost in the world, considering how his job is taken away from and his two closest confidantes in the world (Marcus Brody and his father) are no longer alive. There’s a germ of an idea in how he goes from feeling this way to meeting someone from his past who affects what his future will be, but the film does next to nothing with the concept beyond simply having Marion (a very welcome Karen Allen) show up again. They spar, they bicker and they fall for each other again almost instantly but it all feels pretty arbitrary. For that matter, I can Bond not speaking to Willie Scott ever again (or James Bond breaking it off with one of his conquests) but does anyone believe that he hasn’t spoken to Marion for twenty years? Marion frikkin’ Ravenwood?

I’m not even sure what the answer is to clearing up the Marion portion of the plot. If she’s mentioned earlier (which she very well could have been in a plausible and funny way) there might be the danger that the plot would turn into ‘search for Marion’ thing, just as LAST CRUSADE became a search for the father. But if the Grail represented the father, how would the Skull be a metaphor for Marion? If there’s an answer here I haven’t come up with it and while there may be something in there about how the Skull represents knowledge, it doesn’t resonate in any particular way. I also don’t get why Indy feels so attached to Professor Oxley if he hasn’t see him for twenty years. I don’t get why greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) is so attached to the old professor either. These feel like problems that could have been solved or, at the very least, glossed over in an interesting way, but with no real concept where we can understand and empathize with Indy’s search, it feels like the film has no reason to exist except just to give us some more Indiana Jones action. Well, hey, I like the character too, but can’t we get a little more than that? And does the trip to Peru in the middle have to be that excruciatingly dull?

There are things I liked in there. The opening, while feeling slightly odd, is enjoyable if you look at it as a very odd AMERICAN GRAFFITTI reference. I like all the Area 51 stuff, but I do wonder if it slightly diminishes the end of RAIDERS now that we know where the Ark is kept. Besides, what was once a CITIZEN KANE reference is now an Area 51 plot point? The motorcycle chase is mostly terrific and a good example of the lighthearted action sequences that turn up in these films. It’s also given added oomph by being mostly set in a real place—after beginning on the Paramount lot it moves on to actual locations at Yale. It adds a lot to the sequence and it’s one of the drawbacks of the film that too much of it seems to be shot in the studio. This isn’t entirely without precedence in the series, since a few of the others also featured sets that looked a little too much like sets—I always figured it was part of the old-time-movie feel that they were going for. But they also contained extensive location shooting around the world which added immensely to their flavor and authenticity. I can understand why these guys wouldn’t want to fly off to Tunisia or who knows where anymore. But that doesn’t mean I can’t say anything about it.

Hang on, I thought I was going to discuss things I liked about the movie. Harrison Ford seems like he’s in a better mood than in any film he’s appeared in for years and it is fun to see him revisit the character, even if he does seem to get the voice right some times more than others. Cate Blanchett is extremely enjoyable as Irina Spalko—she’s kinda hot too. Karen Allen seems like she won’t stop smiling much of the time and it’s a fault of the film that it doesn’t want to give too much weight to the reunion of Indy and Marion more than anything she does. But it does genuinely feel like Marion Ravenwood and that hasn’t always been the case with an actor returning to a role after a long absence.

The real good news about the movie is that there is a genuine feel in Spielberg’s direction of old-school action. For the most part it’s well-shot, well-paced and you can tell what’s going on. Unfortunately, the real bad news has to do with my honest wish that Spielberg had gone old-school with the effects as well, keeping the CGI to the absolute minimum. Because it was well-done, I enjoyed the chase with the jeeps through the jungle even if I knew a lot of the effects work was digital. But once we got to the ants and everything that transpires in the climax it becomes digital overkill. There’s never any sense of danger to anything that happens and it may be the one thing missing more than any other.

Along with that is wondering what exactly this movie is. If the first three films were homages to films of the 30s set in the 30s, this film is…what? An homage to the 30s set in the 50s? Aside from a few clever topical references there really isn’t anything that makes it seem like a film of the 50s (which reminds me, is the Paramount logo period accurate?). Granted, I shouldn't go too far down this semantic whirlpool, but some bold use of color still would have helped in this regard. Though there is an attempt to replicate the work of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe(lots of dollies into people’s faces) there’s still enough here stylistically that feels like yet another film shot by Janusz Kaminski, which is the wrong sort of look for this film. At least John Williams’ music still sounds like John Williams.

Ultimately, it’s a hard film for me to dislike, but I wish I liked it better. There’s always the hope that as time goes on I’ll find the charm in there and be glad that they actually made the thing. If the first film in the series way back in 1981 felt like the ultimate expression of the joy of filmmaking by those who were brilliant at the craft, CRYSTAL SKULL feels like Spielberg, Lucas, Ford and their other old friends hanging out while making a movie, content to let it be what it will be. There is a difference and it’s one that is felt. But hey, we’ll always have RAIDERS.


Anonymous said...

I agree, 100% if perhaps a little more strenuously.

(spoilers below)
Talk about muddled exposition and confused plot points. Never mind, the parallel in his name is never explicitly stated, for a long while I thought Mutt's name was Mudd, as that's what it sounded like he said in the restaurant.

I didn't seem to be the only one in the audience who was confused and annoyed at the end... Why was John Hurt happy Indy was marrying Marion? I thought he was married to Marion? Isn't that what Mutt said?

Too much of the movie makes you aware that the characters are very limited in motivation. Most seem like blank stock figures from a video game that must proceed through set piece X in order to finish the level.

The duel on the jeeps was truly terrible, ridiculous and I was amazed at how poor it was, technically. It ranks up there with the Brontosaurus stampede in the King Kong remake for big ideas that are poorly achieved.

The shape of the story was all wrong, the pacing was off, and the opening set piece was a bit herk-a-jerk and kind of joyless. Perhaps these things should always open with a setpiece that's unrelated to the rest of the film, as it felt like the plot started too quickly (and the mountains of dull exposition, as well).

As for the overall tone, it appears that it was trying to combine the serials of the 30s and 40s with the sci-fi B movies of the 50s, but the two do not mesh well. Joe Dante could have had great fun with the collision, but Spielberg wants us to accept it straight-faced.

My dad, who went with me to Raiders like 8 times in the theatre, back in the day, did not like the fantasy stuff in Temple of Doom. He'll hate the alien stuff in this one, utterly.

Why does David Koepp's name appearing on a script, these days, make me groan?

Anonymous said...

Also, what really makes these movies sing is real stunt work with real people.

While Pat Roach is dead, what this one needed was him or someone like him, and on-camera stunts with real people.

Just because something can be done with CGI doesn't mean it should. Also known as the CGI monkeys rule, which also applies to the little cute robots whizzing around during the climactic duel in Revenge of the Sith.

WelcometoLA said...

I'm not saying it's deep, but there may be some metaphorical connection between the return of the skull to its rightful head and the return of Marion. Soon after he sees return scrawled on the wall, who returns but Marion? Well, it's a thought, anyway...

Unknown said...

Yeah, I have to agree that this was about as much fun as watching a group of 60 year olds on an amusement park ride.

Spielberg makes films very quickly. Perhaps he should've spent more time with this one. I felt there were very few great things in this new movie, and only a few good ones. Scenes like the waterfall dive seem without any guiding hand at all.

For the first part of the film I felt it was a passably boring entertainment, but then it really felt like it went off the rails at the jeep chase. The cartoon reality where I couldn't understand the rules of physics, the cartoon threats that looked out of a video game, followed by all those studio set-bound scenes with their chintzy feel, useless zowee CGI ending, and last but certainly not least the muddled relationships between the characters all had me shaking my head (and the woman sitting next to me checking her phone messages).

Even the films that Spielberg has done in his last decade that've felt like misfires -- THE TERMINAL, A.I. -- still made me feel like I hadn't wasted my time. The end of his WAR OF THE WORLDS remake is exhibit A in showing how he is capable of making boldly bad decisions, undermining himself. CRYSTAL SKULL has Spielberg's misguided side in spades, and also a weird sense of laziness. It's like his heart was half in it, but even when it was there, he didn't care that much.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

The skull might be metaphorically connected with Marion or the treasure of knowledge or something, but none of that really adds up to anything. I don't have much else to add except to say that I don't have much of an argument for anyone who likes the movie less than I do...and I'm finding myself liking it a little bit less every day. Thanks to each of you for helping to clarify the thoughts in my head.

Mapeel said...

I think the skull represents the antithesis of the years that Indy spent taking artifacts from their rightful place for the "good" of archeology; here he understands, following Oxley, that something must be put back.

I think Marion married a friend of Oxley when she realized she was pregnant, and he was an air force pilot who was killed in the war, so Oxley helped to raise Mutt.

I think what contributes to the joylessness of the piece is that the characters, particularly Indy, don't believe in themselves any more, and that comes through. It's a lazy movie just hoping that the sum of the parts will lead to a compelling whole.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I think you've got something there Mrs. Peel, but not only do I wish the movie had elucidated that in a stronger way, I'm not sure it's enough to hang the whole story on. As a matter of fact, I feel pretty certain it's not. And that only adds to the feeling of laziness you mentioned. It's a shame. Good to hear from you, Mrs. Peel.

Anonymous said...

One technical point. Nothing, not one frame, was shot on the Paramount lot. None of ANY of the Indy movies were ever shot at Paramount.

The original 3 Indy movies were shot at Elstree near London.

This one's studio work was partially shot at Universal California, and part at a new studio in Downey.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Actually, a very, very small amount of this film was shot at Paramount but probably nothing more than this section. When they take off in the motorcycle for the beginning of the chase, some of the buildings, including the front of a school-like facade, are recognizable as being at Paramount. I was also in the vicinity while some of this was occuring so I can confirm it happened. But yes, every other scene in the film was shot elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

I'll offer a late opposite opinion. I find myself drawn to Crystal Skull more and more since its release and prefer its action scenes to those of Last Crusade, which, in comparison, seemed lazy and underthought. Here the action scenes actually have some pop to them and are well choreographed and exciting. The first 45 minutes or so are sublime . . . and I was ok with the ending, which seemed like a repeat of Raiders, but not as memorable, but all in all, a movie that I enjoy more and more each time I watch it. I, for one, hope for a 5th.