September 20, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008 film)

Directed by Stephen Spielberg. Written by George Lucas, Jeff Nathanson, David Koepp, and Lawrence Kasdan. Created by George Lucas.

After a wait of nearly 20 years, everybody's favorite fedora-donned archaeologist leaps back to the big screen in a new adventure... which flops around like a mortally wounded baby seal begging for the club to drop a second time and put it out of its misery.

There's one thing wrong with this movie, one massive flaw that drags the entire production down with it: the script. Addled plotting, poor dramatic structure, underdeveloped characters, and tired, lifeless dialogue. All of which speaks to the rushed quality of a screenplay hurried into production because Georgie Porgie had a grudge against Frank Darabont and everyone else grew tired of waiting.

What's the plot? For those who don't know by now, Indy is battling Russians for control of an alien crystal skull which looks like something a kid would drag around on Halloween. Are they interested because of its ties to Mayan culture or because it unlocks a tremendous chain of forgotten human history? No, one person wants to use it as a ridiculous weapon and someone else is interested in the huge pile of treasure lying at its destination.

Now, alien crystal skulls tying into Mayan culture can make for a fantastic plot. This is not it. Instead of building mystery about the skull's origins, it's shown to be alien from the very beginning. Instead of building a back and forth of clashing motives as to what the heroes and villains want from the skull, Indy just goes through multiple kidnaps and escapes until he has no choice but to push ahead. Instead of really digging into how massive the discovery of alien influence is on human history, there's just a shrug, the trigger of a booby trap, and more explosions.

It's a mess.

And yet, Spielberg directs the hell out of it. Even with a bad script, his visually distinctive characters, beautifully composed shots, and little touches of humor make it a film that's still quite watchable despite being (yes, I'm prepared to go there) the worst film of his career. From little moments like an opening bit with teens racing down a desert road, to a fight between letterman-jackets and greasers, to a huge chase through a rain forest which, while far too long, still has the pop and energy we've come to love from the modern master, Spielberg wrings every last drop of personality and whimsy he can to the surface.

Despite having to mumble through painful one-liners such as "I like Ike!", Harrison Ford is back in top form. While the years have left him a bit more battered than last time, Indy still has the smirk, the deer-in-headlights gape of surprise, and the twinkle of discovery as he hunches over a once-lost treasure.

His foil this time is Cate Blanchett, who cuts through a muddled backstory involving commie psychics with her glaring eyes and features as sharp as the sword at her waist. She certainly makes her presence felt, it's just a shame the material isn't there to back her up.

I'm a fan of Shia LaBeouf, have been since his Even Stevens days, so I'm not going to jump all over him for his performance as Mutt Williams, a greaser who crosses paths with the good Professor. LaBeouf tries desperately to bring Mutt to life, through his slicked-back hair, flipping switchblade, and temperamental desire to prove his manliness, but he just can't pull himself free from the muck of the writing.

Faring worst of all is Karen Allen as the returning Marion Ravenwood. She was a fabulous character in the past and I loudly applauded the decision to bring her back but, I'm pissed to say, they don't use her! Other than some light banter with Indy and Mutt, she hangs in the background and bears absolutely no relevance to the plot. It's pathetic, and she deserves better.

There's so much more to say about what went wrong - such as the ill-used Ray Winstone or the swinging monkeys or that damned fridge - but I'm tired and want to move on from this disappointing bit of shattered nostalgia as soon as I can.


Anonymous said...

I personally thought that the fridge scene was well done.

I mean, Indy macguyvers his way out of a nuclear blast. That HAS to get some props.

NoelCT said...

I thought it was a nice idea, the execution just didn't entirely sell me. I know this is a fantastical, pulp-adventure version of the world, but Indy surviving the hurling of the fridge was as ridiculous as Lois Lane getting violently thrown around the cabin of the plane in SUPERMAN RETURNS without a single scratch or bruise.

I prefer the early script (Jeb Stuart's INDIANA JONES AND THE SAUCERMEN OF MARS) where he just opens the fridge and pulls it down over himself for shelter.