Thursday, February 9, 2012
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is somewhat notorious as a belated and unfortunate entry in Steven Spielberg's long-running adventure series. It lives up, or down, to that reputation in many ways, but it's not entirely the dismal failure it's said to be; it's deeply flawed but also strangely fascinating. The opening of the film establishes this fourth Indiana Jones movie, which is set in the late 50s, as a representation of the destruction of American innocence in the crucible of World War II: the Holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, as well as the Cold War and the McCarthyite anti-Red fever that developed in the aftermath of WWII. The previous three films were all set before the end of the war, and even if the Nazis were often Indy's enemies, the films still seemed very distant from the grisliest realities of the war. In The Last Crusade, Hitler himself appeared as almost a comic figure, in an absurdly hilarious cameo. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, on the other hand, opens with Soviet spies, disguised as American soldiers, coolly gunning down the military guards at a desert installation.
From there, Indy, after escaping from the Communists, stumbles into a fake town in the middle of the desert, full of plastic people, with Howdy Doody on the TV, all of it ready to be blown away in a nuclear bomb test. Indy survives the bomb in a lead-lined refrigerator — one of many groan-inducing moments in this over-the-top opening sequence — then stumbles out into a wasteland with the distinctive mushroom-shaped cloud of the atomic bomb drifting up from the horizon, the sky turning red as Indy's distinctive silhouette is framed against this apocalyptic backdrop. It's a deliberate subversion of Indy's image, jamming the spirited adventure and pulpy thrills of the Indy serial against the real-world horrors of the atomic age that he's suddenly been thrust into. (This remains true even though the jaw-droppingly stupid refrigerator gag basically turns the whole thing into a cheap joke just moments before that harrowing mushroom cloud image.)
Perhaps that's why the tone of these opening scenes is so all-over-the-place. It's an attempt to integrate the pulp hero into Cold War nuclear age hysteria, but as such attempts go, it's no Kiss Me Deadly. Instead, Spielberg and producer/writer George Lucas vacillate back and forth from cutesy farce, to the near-slapstick kinetic action that the Indy serial is known for, to moments of seriousness like that beautifully apocalyptic image of Indy, with his whip and his fedora, dwarfed by the fiery mushroom cloud and its deadly rain of fallout. Indeed, in another sign of the times, Indy is soon expelled from his university teaching post, a victim of the Red Scare, before he's pulled into his next adventure by the sudden appearance of the young greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a Fonzie type who joins Indy on a quest to find the mythical crystal skull.
The Indiana Jones films have always revolved around some rather fantastical premises — it's part of the series' over-the-top pulp charm — but this one, with its interdimensional aliens and portals to other dimensions, risks the ridiculous even more than the magical Christian relics and ancient cults of previous films. The climax, in which the secret of a hidden Mayan temple is revealed as a roomful of aliens with crystal skeletons, is so far beyond the usual tone of the Indiana Jones series that it feels imported from another movie, perhaps Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the equally contentious finale of A.I.. More than that, though, the film's script and action are often simply ridiculous. In one scene, Mutt swings through the trees on vines, accompanied by an army of monkeys who wind up causing trouble for the sinister Soviet villainess Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). The goofy monkey CGI recalls the equally silly gophers that run around underfoot during the opening scenes, a cutesy bit of patently fake computer imagery that recalls the worst moments of Lucas' Star Wars prequels more than anything in the previous Indy movies.
Thematically and emotionally, this film is a logical next step for the Indy series, but the execution keeps getting in the way. It makes sense that the film should be about Indy discovering he's a father — Mutt turns out to be Indy's son with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), returning from Raiders — after the father/son dynamics of The Last Crusade. Indy's distance from Mutt repeats Indy's relationship with his father, who had been distant and unapproachable until the pair bonded on that last adventure. The problem is that LaBeouf's Mutt is not an especially compelling action hero, even when he's not playing Tarzan leading those cuddly CGI monkeys to the rescue, and his repartee with Indy is forced and awkward. At least Karen Allen's return as Marion is welcome; she's been somewhat tamed by the years since her last appearance, but she still has the devilish grin that made her such a natural match and foil for Indy in the first film, and made all the women in the subsequent films seem like such pale, unsatisfying substitutes. Even Indy admits as much, telling Marion that the women he's known in the intervening years have been lacking because, "they weren't you."
This all adds up, unfortunately, to a film that's interesting in theory more than it is in practice. Spielberg and Lucas are obviously having their usual fun riffing on the previous films in the series and the pulp tropes they've based the character on, but the film is goofy where previous Indy flicks were witty, bluntly action-packed where previous films had action sequences that were thrilling and frenzied without veering so far into self-parody. The film is tonally inconsistent in the extreme, and Spielberg and Lucas fail to grasp that while the Indy films were never exactly rooted in reality, by any means, neither were they as relentlessly plausibility-defying as this one is. Compared against some of the ludicrous action scenes that Spielberg piles on here — like the jeep-to-jeep swordfight between Irina and Mutt — the aliens at the end begin to seem positively grounded. Even these more-ridiculous-than-usual action set pieces might have been tolerable, though, if the film had recaptured the ephemeral "magic" of the earlier films, but it just doesn't. Despite some interesting subtexts and ideas, this latest Indiana Jones film fails to add much to the franchise's history.