Monday, June 02, 2008
Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, a Review
It's been 19 years since Indy and his father went on their Last Crusade and found the Holy Grail. Indy is back and the world has changed. Nazis are out, and communists are in. The US now has atomic bombs, so the Soviets have to come up with an even bigger weapon. You can hear the executives telling the script writers to "make it bigger! Even BIGGER!"
So we get Cate Blanchett as Ninotchka, but without the silk stockings to turn her into a decadent Westerner. She is after a weapon that makes atomic capability irrelevent, although it's inconveniently metaphysical and requires some big leaps of logic. Of course, Cate Blanchett has ways of making you obey her orders, so off we go to find a mythical "crystal skull."
The movie as much a roller coaster ride as ever. Colonel Doctor Ninotchka (or whatever her name it) drags Indy and a supposed long time collegue out of a car trunk and turns them loose in an airport hangar numbered "51." This is the place where the U.S. Government apparently stores all the paranormal artifacts that Indy has recovered over the years--and there are an enormous number of them. Ninotchka wants one particular one, and expects Indy to lead her to it. He does, with some nifty CGI effects involving gunpowder and bullet shells leading them to a highly magnetized crate. In the next 15 minutes, he escapes, outruns automatic weapons fire, launches himself and a random communist on a rocket sled and witnesses an atomic test. Where do you go from there?
Well, you go to an anonymous bunker to be bullied by nameless FBI wonks, you ride a motorcycle through the grounds of Yale University, and cleverly discover El Dorado, as well as communing with Ancient Astronauts. Who knew that Erich von Daniken was right?
Sadly, the years have not been entirely kind to Indy. Oh, Harrison Ford looks as sexy as any 64 year old man has a right to, but what is the deal with the baggy old man pants in the first sequence? I think my grandfather wore pants like that, and nobody was making movies about him.
But there is something kind of creaky about this outing: Indy looks too old to be winning fist-fights against the cream of Soviet military. It's a bit disconcerting in the middle of a "death before dishonor" fight to find yourself thinking "what did those Foley artists use to make those spectacularly meaty sounds?" Because, frankly, NOBODY would get up after a punch that was really hard enough to make that kind of sound.
The rocket powered sled was dramatic and funny, but I found myself wondering "But did they get to the eighth dimension?" SPOILER ALERT!!! They do. Eventually.
The stuff that is classic Indy stuff--ancient secrets, outrageous indigenous warriors, booby trapped catacombs--they are all here, but they have also been done better National Treasure I (the cave of priceless artifacts from all the ancient civilizations) and National Treasure II (the floodwater trap that protects the treasure). We see sword fights in unlikely circumstances, but nothing nearly as imaginative or compelling and the three way swordfight in Pirates of the Caribbean II. We've even seen the "don't mess with the DA" schtick--AND the ever present comb--done better by Fonzie. I have to admit, I was delighted to see Karen Allen again.
And yes, the existence of CGI makes the literal cliffhangers less compelling. Sure, it looks like Our Heroes are driving dangerously close to a sheer cliff, but we all "know" that the cliff is just spliced in. Even if it wasn't actually spliced in, we are so used to it being done that way that there is no sense of relief when they make it safely to land--after all, we never believed they were in any danger anyway.
When one of Our Heroes swings through the jungle like Tarzan on vines--it is easy to spot that the sequence was tweaked--there is no physical way that a human could make the kind of leaps that we see because there is no gravitational pull on the trajectories. He simply swings across, letting go of one vine only to travel across space in a straight line until his outstretched hand grasps the next vine that moves him forward at the same height. There is no arc in the sequence, no sense that he is any heavier than the ten in tall monkeys who swing beside him. If there is never any "down," even in the moments he is unsupported in the air, there is no risk in the endeavor and we are simply not engaged. There is no risk, no danger, no reason to cheer on this character, for whom even the laws of physics have been suspended--how could he fail?
The CGI list goes on: the CGI ant horde isn't really frightening--and the couple of ants that are squished release more goo than is possible to contain. The heroes go over a waterfall, and pop up out of the water still clinging to their boat-car. And then they do it again. And then they do it YET AGAIN. It's not believable the first time--doing it twice more, each time with a slightly higher waterfall doesn't actually increase the stakes.
It comes down to the loss of the truly human element. The original Indy wasn't so infallible, so superhumanly gifted. Remember that wonderful moment in the first movie when Marion and Indy have a quiet moment together, and she helps him off with his shirt. He is dirty and bloody and SORE. He winces and moans as she tries to ease him out of the shirt without hurting him. "It's not the years, it's the mileage" he says, and we see a hurt and weary human being, faced with a nearly impossible task, exhibiting the toll the job is taking on him.
There are other such moments from the first film "Why did it have to be snakes?" Harrison Ford put real humanity into that phobia--he really did have fears that he had to work to overcome. Or, remember the female student in Indy's classroom, who had written "I love you" on her eyelids. She blinked at him, and he lost his place in his lecture--startled and a bit scared by the predatory maneuver.
The Crystal Skull Indy is never so vulnerable, despite being visibly older. And that is what flattens this movie into being merely a thrill ride. Spielberg has taken out all the moments of recognizable human emotion, and made Indy a cartoon and no longer a man.