Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cold Serial

The last time the world saw Indiana Jones, he was riding off into a glorious sunset flanked by Dr. Marcus Brody, Sallah, and his dear old dad in the final shot of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In the 19 years that have passed since that closing credit backdrop, film fans have been clamoring for the next adventure. After an extended wait and much speculation as to where Indy's latest quest will take him, our hero has returned.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fourth installment in the series, arrives with great anticipation to droves of eager moviegoers. Unfortunately, what Steven Spielberg and company have delivered fails to meet expectations driven skyward by a barracuda marketing campaign. All of the Saturday matinee serial ingredients, including an imminent threat to American democracy, a dashing hero sent to thwart the bad guys, and plenty of rip-roaring action to propel the story forward, are present. The problem here is that the formula has gone cold and stale.

Crystal Skull finds Dr. Jones battling to stop Russian spies from acquiring a certain artifact. The McGuffin in question is (you guessed it) a crystal skull whose powers can, if so harnessed, be used to dominate the world. Set in 1957, the story takes Jones on a whirlwind trip that begins in the desert of New Mexico. After a clever dissolve from the familiar paramount logo to the opening shot, we soon see Indy make a daring narrow escape from the Commie villains led by the ferocious Colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett).

Soon we find Indy resuming his teaching duties at Marshall University when the amiable Dean Charles Stanforth (a criminally underused Jim Broadbent) delivers the bad news that government agents have brought false charges of Communist affiliation against him. Stanforth resigns and offers Jones a leave of absence to protect him from the frivolous witch hunt. Grudgingly, Jones accepts. Before he leaves town, we learn that both Dr. Marcus Brody and his father have died within the last two years in a brief scene that teeters on the brink of excessive sentiment.

Enter Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a brash young greaser with crucial information about Harold Oxley (John Hurt), a former colleague of Dr. Jones. According to the leather and denim-clad tough, "Ox" went missing while searching for a crystal skull in Peru. Answering the call of duty, Indy boards the next plane to Peru and the audience is treated to the red line tracing his route on a map, which includes a stop in Havana. (too bad he couldn't wipe out Che Guevara while passing the time on layover)

The remainder of the film sees Indiana on a race against the Soviet stooges to an ancient cache (one of the more eye-popping movie sets in recent memory) where a spectacular finale unfolds. Along the way, he reconnects with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, just as plucky as she was in Raiders of the Lost Ark) and discovers a previously unknown family member. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I must refrain from relinquishing more.

In spite of its technical wizardry, the film falls short on a number of fronts. The pace, for one, drags in far too many places. In the three previous movies, especially Raiders, Spielberg drove the action at a breakneck rate of speed in the best William Witney tradition. In Crystal Skull, dialogue scenes that should have been wrapped up in three minutes go on for five or seven. That may not sound like much, but when one commits to directing an action movie, one must know when to shift gears for fear of the engine bogging down.

The film also suffers from shortcuts taken with visual effects. Once too often, the effects shots reek of CGI. This would be perfectly acceptable in a series like Star Wars, but the audience is not used to seeing computer-generated effects in Indiana Jones movies. Mindful of this, Spielberg has mentioned that 30 percent of the film's special effects were captured via CGI while the remainder were achieved the old-fashioned way. This was done so as to maintain consistency with the three previous films. The effort is noble, but the decision was a mistake. While it would have been too costly, time-consuming, and dangerous to film some of the jungle stunts "live", it is apparent that Spielberg took the easy way out with several other effects. Not only is he getting lazy in his old age, but the temptation to adopt a copy-and-paste work ethic when making movies in the Internet Age is strong. In the first three ventures, Spielberg relied on the old school method of building a breakaway set, miniatures, moving the camera, and using an optical primer to create eye-popping visual effects. Hence the rolling boulder in Raiders, the mine car chase in Temple of Doom, and the rescue of Indy's father from the Nazi tank in The Last Crusade. I will say, however, that Spielberg did use a digital effect to film the death of a Nazi villain in Crusade. All of that aside, it would have been a treat to see him rely less on computers for the action sequences.

The main villain also detracts from Crystal Skull's inertia. True, Colonel Spalko is whip smart and displays deadly skills with any weapon she handles, but she lacks a vital quality necessary for a formidable villain in any adventure movie: the potential to wreak havoc on a catastrophic scale. In fact, the threat the villain poses must be so formidable as to temporarily cause doubt that the hero can victor. Cate Blanchett gives a decent performance in the role, but she never quite makes you believe that she can ruin Indy's world.

In Raiders, Rene Belloq served, as Michelle Malkin noted in one of her most insightful blogs last week, as the perfect foil for Indy. He was just as smart, a physical equal, and had the evil Nazis on his side. Mola Ram, the towering Satan-like menace from Temple of Doom, was a sensational bad guy. Amrish Puri's characterization was over the top, but those intense burning eyes of his were enough to frighten the living daylights out of anyone who looked into them. Walter Donovan made a sensational debonair despot in The Last Crusade. Eventually, Indy broke his flank, but Donovan's challenge was staggering. Had Irina Spalko been a vicious assistant to an even more ruthless villain, that would have been a vast improvement, and it would have allowed for a suspenseful buildup to a smashing final face-off.

This is not to say that the film is an irredeemable bore. On the contrary, it is quite enjoyable to watch. Fans of the series will be delighted to see the usual Spielberg touches of Old Hollywood backlighting, the absentee father plot line, and plenty of classic film references to boot. Astute viewers will catch homages to The Wild One, Citizen Kane, The Ten Commandments, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Only the elite among film aficionados will catch a tribute to Steve McQueen in a motorcycle chase that cuts through a college library, but I digress. When the picture does fire the thrusters, it soars. The action reaches a fever pitch in an exciting jungle swordfight (staged in the middle of a high-speed car chase, no less) that is worth the price of admission by itself.

A minor quibble must here be mentioned. What in the world happened to Sallah? Why is he absent from this venture? Not only do we not see hide or hair of his portly figure, but not once does a single character mention what became of him. Granted, Sallah is not a major character in the Indiana Jones universe, but his presence in the three previous films was cheerful and refreshing. Just as Tom Hagen's absence from The Godfather Part III was like pesto without pine nuts, Crystal Skull is missing an appetizing spice without Sallah.

The actors are all well cast, but with a script that lacks uniformity in the way of good dialogue, that is not saying much. Give a world class musician an out-of-tune instrument and you'll get a three-note performance at best. Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, and John Hurt all do their best, but each is capable of far better work. 21-year-old Shia LaBeouf inches closer to acting maturity with his performance here. Residual nervous energy from adolescence still shows in his work, as Tom Cruise's work did before his career-defining turn in Born on the Fourth of July. Within the next ten years, this talented young man will stun the world with a breakout role for which nothing we have seen from him so far will prepare us. Until then, the man has quite a bit of space behind his ears that needs drying.

This brings me to Harrison Ford. As I've imparted to a number of acquaintances in recent years, Ford seems tired lately. His performances in Hollywood Homicide and Firewall had the look and feel of a man struggling to finish a marathon. Having just turned 65 this year, the man cannot possibly have the prizefighter stamina to rally for another turn as Indiana Jones....or can he? Be assured when this reviewer states two simple words for the record: he's back. It is a testament to Ford's loyalty to Spielberg that he undertook a rigorous diet and exercise regimen to prepare for the role, which clearly shows in his impressive physique and Stendhalian command of the role. While it is reassuring to know that he can still rally for a leading role, one gets the impression that Spielberg is the only director for whom Ford would have such consideration. If I may sneak one more editorial comment into this paragraph, I really do hope that Ford gets off the canvas and finds a career transitional role like the one Paul Newman found in The Verdict. The shift will open him up to a new generation of fans, reveal an untapped dimension of his talent, and it just might steer him toward his long overdue Oscar.
Also in fighting form is the man in the director's chair. Crystal Skull may be a popcorn movie, but his footing is just as sure as it is when he tackles a serious drama. As my brilliant undergraduate mentor said in the very first film history lecture I ever heard him give, Steven Spielberg reminds us of why we go to the movies. Crystal Skull is no exception to that rule. In an era when too much of our cinematic output resembles extended episodes of Lost and Desperate Housewives, only with swearing and nudity, Spielberg keeps the medium special by using every square inch of the screen to wholly entertain his audience. He makes his movies so that they can be experienced in a theater and not on a cell phone, an iPod, a laptop, or on a commercial airplane. Not since Jurassic Park has he left us with the uncheckered reassurance that not only was he preparing for a serious project, but that his next film will bat a thousand. That being said, we can only expect greatness from Lincoln.

How does this installment rank to this critic? It isn't the best of the series, but it certainly isn't the worst. If this were the Olympics, Crystal Skull would claim the bronze medal. The film is better than Temple of Doom but not as good as The Last Crusade. So long as human hands can keep our greatest films from succumbing to the ravages of time, Raiders will always reign supreme. If this really is the last of the Indiana Jones series, Indy has made the most graceful exit into that mild summer night of retirement. When such a hero consistently emerges victorious from four seasons of thrilling adventures, the purchase he makes on immortality ranks nothing short of grand. In that respect, a quiet exit can be just as dignified as riding into the sunset. And as the final scene makes doubtlessly clear, the man may be retired, but nobody else can wear Indiana's hat.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why is it so hard to understand that Spalko was a different kind of villian?

Why is it assumed that all villians must have blood dripping from their fangs and tossing threats repeatedly?

Spalko wanted to control the world with her mind, she wasn't interested in killing everyone in sight.