Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXXI: The Old Indiana Jones Chronicles


Hardly the travesty of the holy Original Trilogy that crybabies constantly say it is, the fourth Indy film is actually a rather fine adventure movie that does almost everything it does pretty damned well—but, unfortunately, does very little perfectly, which I'm afraid does set it decisively apart from its predecessors.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, and George Lucas
With Harrison Ford (Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr.), Shia LaBeouf (Henry "Mutt" Williams), Karen Allen (Marion Williams nee Ravenwood), John Hurt (Dr. Harold Oxley), Ray Winstone (George "Mac" McHale), and Cate Blanchett (Col. Dr. Irina Spalko)

Spoiler alert: you saw it, and you probably hated it

Nevada, 1957.  A convoy bearing the insignia of the U.S. Army moves through the wasteland toward a remote government base in the middle nowhere, and their disguise is good enough to get them up to the front gate.  But from that point onward, they rely more upon their assault rifles—and upon their two prisoners.  One is just some slovenly British spy, who goes by "Mac".  The other is a vastly more familiar figure, however—a man whose shadow only seems complete when he puts on his hat.

Nineteen years have gone by since we saw him last in 1938, but Indiana Jones still seems to have a knack for putting himself between evil totalitarians and the ancient artifacts they crave.  It's not Nazis anymore, though: the locus of totalitarianism has shifted decisively eastward.  And we find that this cadre of infiltrators lives and dies by the whim of Stalin's severe parapsychologist, Irina Spalko.  Indy is, as usual, extremely useful to those who capture him—and he leads Spalko directly to her prize, a certain set of "mummified remains."  By now, we've certainly realized exactly what Spalko must be after, and there's no question she's going to get it.  Even so, Indy makes a break for it—and in the process, he discovers where Mac's loyalties truly lie.  Indy makes it out in one piece, but his troubles are just beginning, for the perfidious Russians are still after our hero.

And so the chase really gets going when Indy runs afoul of "Mutt" Williams, an angry greaser seeking the archaeologist's help.  The lad has a riddle, written in pre-Columbian glyphs, and authored by Indy's old friend Professor Oxley, presently a Soviet captive in South America.  Evading Spalko's agents in a chase through Indy's own university, the duo ultimately make their way to Oxley.  Indulging in a little bit of grave-robbing, Indy and Mutt solve Oxley's riddle, uncovering the clues tying the old man to the ancient quest of the conquistador, Francisco de Orellana—unfortunately, upon finding the object of Oxley's obsession, they learn that the letter was a KGB trap all along.  Worse than that, our heroes now discover that Mutt's mother has been made Spalko's prisoner, too—though, naturally, only one of them is shocked to find that Mutt's mom is none other than Marion Ravenwood.  (And, for the record: yes, that means exactly what you think it means.)

But we can process paternity later, because for the moment, our heroic foursome are busy once again escaping Spalko's clutches—this time absconding with her precious Crystal Skull, the psychokinetic artifact that brought her down here to South America in the first place.  It's the rest of the crystal skeleton that the Russian seeks; and she thinks she's found it, in the legendary city of Akator.  Known to the Spanish as El Dorado, it might be famed for its rich storehouses of gold, but Indiana and Spalko learn the real truth when they arrive amidst its ruins: El Dorado is home not only to lost treasure, but to sleeping inhuman beings, thirteen creatures that, when they do finally wake up, you might very easily recognize as gods.  Still, if you wanted to call them aliens, instead—well, then that would do just fine.

Just don't call them "extradimensional beings."  It explains nothing, Steven!

So: I don't know exactly which obvious point to tackle first.  I think it's probably best to begin on a conciliatory note, and simply say that, yes, of course Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the worst of the four Indiana Jones films.  This is a position that I don't think anyone would argue with, except perhaps the lunatics who think that Temple of Doom is a bad movie.  (And, I suppose, there's the more-respectable crowd—the warm-hearted folks who think that Temple is a well-made movie, but is offensive enough they can't in good conscience call it a "good" one.  Yet even on that count, Skull, made in 2008, still offers a mild dose of this franchise's obligatory colonial-era thrills.  Curiously, though, unlike Temple or even Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade, for which pulpy imperialism was an irreplaceable part of their integral makeup, when it comes to Skull, it could've been removed from the film without interrupting its plot even slightly.  In fact, getting rid of the angry natives at Akator might've tightened it up a bit; for what it's worth, Skull's also the second-longest Indy movie, after Crusade.)

Anyway, it's no. 4 on virtually everyone's list of Indy films, and this is the correct position for everyone to have it.  But, then, that doesn't begin to describe the fury that Skull received from rabid fanboys upon its initial release—indeed, which it receives still.

It has been clear to me since the late summer of 2008, and remains quite clear even as I've become more familiar with the film and its undeniable weaknesses, that a substantial (and vocal) minority of its audience went in with the kind of noxiously bad attitude that nothing but a film of the same caliber as the first three could possibly have overcome.  And if you set your expectations to "Raiders" for any movie, you've set them too high.

But perhaps a merely "really good" Indy film could still have satisfied these baying crowds, if only their prejudice hadn't been stoked into outright hatred over the preceding nine years, by the Gog and Magog of our blighted 21st century blockbuster filmmaking—namely, George Lucas' wretched Star Wars Prequels and Michael Bay's assaultively idiotic Transformers films.  Sadly, Skull had the misfortune of receiving hefty transfusions of bad blood from both of these dubious sources.  The result was apparently quite easy to despise: firstly, it was yet one more attempt by Lucas to extend his legacy, no matter how many people asked him not to; second, it would co-star Shia LaBeouf, a perfectly good actor who made what turned out to be a terrible mistake when he agreed to play the role of Sam Witwicky, a character whom Bay had turned into the most disliked hero of a generation.

I mean, even Bella Swan has defenders.

The reaction was inevitably ugly, the focal point of all the displeased viewers' contempt resting upon Skull's very first scene, which ends—so infamously!—with Indy surviving a nuclear test by climbing inside a refrigerator.  Nothing betrays the eye-rolling fatuousness of their complaints so much as the consensus decision that the worst thing about this movie (no, this whole franchise! no, our whole lives!) was Indy escaping the inescapable, by way of some ridiculous implausibility.  Because, frankly, if you hate this, then you have no honest right to enjoy the other three.  It's an unavoidable aspect of this whole series; moreover, it's what Spielberg reasonably expected you'd want, since you apparently loved it so much in every other installment.

Truth be told, the opening chase of Skull is closer to its best part than its worst: it is action-packed; it introduces this film's cartoonish supervillain in a compelling manner, with Cate Blanchett's preposterous Russian accent, imperious demeanor, and complete unwillingness to dial the camp factor down even a little bit; and, best of all, it does a frankly fantastic job of reframing Indy for a bold new era—the 1950s.

In fact, almost all of Skull's best material arises from this general impulse on Spielberg's part.  Skull is, more than anything, a cinematic history lesson, a narrative allegory for the old-school colonial jungle adventure of our hero finding itself replaced by new genres, specifically a bunch of teenage rebellion melodramas, and (of course) all manner of belligerently dumb science fiction.  (On the other hand, Skull, itself being a product of 2008, is a lot more direct about communism than just about any film made in the actual 1950s—but you've got to respect the cunning in trading in Nazis for a new breed of evil foreigner.  Now, Skull's also a hell of lot more blunt about McCarthyism, too.  As for Indy falling afoul of an FBI investigation, I can only chalk that up to Spielberg's 21st century cynicism, and it's easily the most unnecessary part of the film.)

Yet, taken altogether, Skull bridges the serials of the 30s and 40s and the cosmic sci-fi of the 50s in the best, most natural way it ever possibly could: by remembering that in the 1950s, the first proponents of the ancient astronauts hyopthesis were making their crackpot theories knownThe injection of aliens into this franchise's typical pantheistic mysticism has caused nearly as much controversy as the fridge.  I concede only that it must be a matter of taste, since I can't imagine a more perfect way to tie Indy into the 1950s other than the exact way Skull does it: fashioning an archaeological adventure that begins with Indy wandering around in caves, as is his wont; but ends with an enormous Harryhausen flying saucer, crashing out of the ruins of an ancient Incan temple.

Sure, the actual scene itself is a godawful geographical mess—but that's never stopped this franchise before.

The most memorable contribution of the setting isn't even those rad aliens, though—that would have to be Mutt Williams, and LaBeouf's performance of the same.  The worst thing about Mutt, I think, is that he loses his cool Brando cap not long after his introduction; to my mind, this is the most inexplicable decision in the whole movie, especially considering that the hat physics of the Indy films have ever bent deferentially to our heroes' iconic silhouettes.  The hat is the man in Indy; and it was a mistake, plain and simple, to forget this here.  Everything else about his wonderfully on-the-nose greaser stereotype, however, is exactly right.  (Plus, you have to admit that Mutt is rather more believable as the child of Harrison Ford than Ford was as the child of Sean Connery.)  LeBeouf's the single most engaged actor in the ensemble—for example, while it honestly seems like Karen Allen routinely forgets that LeBeouf is supposed to be her son (Allen is good here only in the sense that she brings her Ravenwood crackle back), LeBeouf himself doesn't; his reactions to his parents' bickering amount to the best acting in the movie.  If the whole thing smacks of rote Spielbergian father-son shenanigans, well, that's exactly what they are—and, yes, they're unaccountably deficient, if you compare it to Ford and Connery's legendary rendition of the same basic themes.  But even then, there's something a little charming about the way that Skull makes Indy the old man in this scenario; there's a moment, one of the best in the movie, where Ford channels Connery completely, glowering at LeBeouf with disapproval (and from the back of a motorcycle, at that).  It happens to come during the best overall joke in the movie, which many have interpreted as disrespectful of the departed Denholm Elliot; but it's certainly a fitting tribute to Marcus Brody, whose contribution to the last film was absolutely nothing but delightfully comic ineptitude.

Rest in peace, sir.  You were enjoyed.

But if Mutt, in himself, is pretty great, then it registers as even more of a pity that when the character really takes center stage, the film tends to become obnoxiously stupid.  Mutt's biggest personal setpiece is a fencing match across two moving vehicles that seems to be more interested in whacking LaBeouf in the balls than it is in building any actual tension (or in suggesting that the special effects deployed here have the slightest weight); soon thereafter, Mutt learns to swing on vines, from monkeys.  Maybe it's not quite "tapestries!"-level bad—but it is on the shortlist of the franchise's worst moments.

Still, if almost none of the problems with Skull are what it adds—nukes, fridges, social commentary, aliens, LeBeoufs—what is it that actually does make it so much "worse"?  Clearly, it's what's missing.

Let's be clear: Skull is still an Indiana Jones flick.  The adventure is there.  The glorious sound design is there.  Even the cinematography is more-or-less there.  Janusz Kaminski does a decent Douglas Slocombe impression.  True, with the grain and the muddy focus gone, so too is a lot of the grit that defined the Indy Original Trilogy.  And Skull simply does not look as good: it's stagey and overly reliant upon CGI, rather than shot in real exotic locations and with practical effects.  But in the firelit cave scenes, as always the heart of this franchise, you can only scarcely tell the difference.

Meanwhile, the actors are almost there.  Ford, happily, is much better than I remembered.  It's a shame, of course, that there is positively no effort made in either the script or in Spielberg's direction to really acknowledge Indy's age in any serious way, and that everybody apparently decided that the best thing to do with Ford's obvious fatigue was to ignore it, rather than use it.  Yet Ford surely gets Indy right: all of his blithe smugness, usually instantly punished; the ease with which he can be distracted by his intellect, showcased when he and Spalko excitedly pore over a map looking for the lost city, apparently completely forgetting that they're supposed to be mortal enemies; and, of course, his snappish, annoyed manner.  It's not a bad performance, all told.

What's really not ever there, in any noticeable quantity, is the punch of the old Indy films.  The back hour offers precious little on the same level as the corresponding parts of the Original Trilogy.  Oddly, Skull actually reverses the momentum of those films, burning through its best action early, then coasting on it, rather than ramping up slowly until you suddenly realize that the last sixty minutes have been nothing but pure adrenaline.  It is noticeably less violent than the OT, too (including Crusade!); it is even more noticeably less grotesque.  Any comparison of the OT's creepy-crawly scenes, done with practical effects (often real animals), and the CGI arthropods in Skull clearly favors the former; but then, when it comes to the flesh-eating ants of Skull's Amazonian jungle, the issue isn't even the CGI, but the baffling decision to not make them a set-piece in and of themselves rather than just a sub-element of an otherwise-mediocre chase.  Altogether, it turns the death of Spalko's chief henchman from something honestly great into something merely cool.

Even less effective is how our villain meets her end: with a computerized lightshow, rather than the genuine sense of grossed-out awe that Spielberg always evoked in the OT.  Skull isn't so much as trying to live up to its forebears in these key scenes, and even a proponent of the film like me can recognize that.

Above all, John Williams isn't there: when Temple and Crusade were given the great composer's full attention and ingenuity, it is the bitterest thing to find that his score for Skull does little more than reuse (and sometimes reorchestrate) old Raiders music, to degraded effect.  It's a lazy effort from Williams, I'm afraid.  It hurts the film more than any other single element can: the Indy films are all about their music, and when Williams' score cannot conjure the same sense of sublime intensity, you perceive a hollowness to the proceedings, even when everything else is working.  Now don't let me go too far: truthfully, it's the kind of score that would be better-than-fine if Raiders didn't already exist; but it does, and we won't forget that Temple and Crusade upped the ante to the point that doing nothing new was never going to be anywhere close to good enough.  The closest Williams ever gets here is in a feint toward theremin music in the climax; more of this, and we might've even had a score to worship, like the first three.

There is an ineradicable impression, then, of creakiness—which is a little odd, given that such modern techniques were used to actually produce the film.  But that impression is altogether unavoidable: the ambition simply wasn't there to make this Indiana Jones film a masterpiece, even if Spielberg and Lucas and Ford and Williams were still capable of making a masterpiece (an unsure proposition in 2008, I know).  In Skull, the flesh is weak, and the spirit is, too—but it is still the same flesh, the same spirit, and I cherish it anyway, because worn-out or not, Indy is still the most lovable of heroes.  (And, hell, I'd watch a Mutt Williams movie, too.)  In fact, when it comes to latterday Lucas, you won't find anything better than this; a backhanded compliment, but I mean it in a nice way.  When it comes to latterday Spielberg, it's good to see that, for all Skull's flaws—indeed, for all it trades on our ancient affections—the increasingly-Serious director could still manage to make something that was fun at all.

Score:  7/10

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