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Monday, June 16, 2014

A Fridge Nuked Nearly a Decade Ago: Reevaluating Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Every now and then a South Park episode sums up the feelings of a generation.  Airing after the summer of 2008, "The China Problem" clearly lays out almost every 70's and 80's kid's opinion of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. For most, the film was the figurative raping of a legend.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull received a nearly 80% fresh rating on the critical review aggregate website, Rotten Tomatoes, yet it is reviled by fans to an extent of hatred greater than even that held for the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. Why? What happened?

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I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull at its midnight premier, with much of the same mix of family and friends with which I had always attended midnight premiers. After the film, much of my party was not shy to show its disdain. "That was terrible," seemed to be the consensus. I kept my opinion close to the vest, as I was not entirely sure what my opinion was. I did not think the film was terrible, but it came nowhere near my expectations. I did not feel any of the same action and adventure thrills that I felt (and still feel) when watching the three previous Indiana Jones films. While the filmmakers assured fans the film would be made like the previous films, I felt like the film was awash in CGI. I thought Harrison Ford and Karen Allen were still great in their roles, but I could find few other positives to take away from the film--and I tried really hard to do so. I love the Indiana Jones films. I didn't make it back to the theater to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull again that summer. A couple of months later, it, and pretty much every other film released that year, was completely overshadowed by Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.

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Despite being underwhelmed by the film, I still picked up Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on DVD for Christmas (ironically, someone else gave me a Blu-Ray player just a few days later). One day, while visiting my parents, I decided to unpack the DVD and watch the film with my father, who had not yet seen it, and who has not stepped foot in a movie theater since 1996's Keven Costner-vehicle, Tin Cup. Despite his sparse theater attendance, I consider my father a closet-cinephile. He has always made a point to have movie-channel packages attached to his cable, and he often retires early to bed to watch whatever is on. He has seen a lot of movies. I believe in the early 80's, we watched every single film John Wayne starred in from the 1930's on to the actor's death. Wikipedia says John Wayne starred in 142 films, so that previous sentence probably isn't true, but I sure remember John Wayne gunning down a lot of outlaws. We did the same with Clint Eastwood's films. All that to say, my father is no stranger to the art of cinema, and he also bears more than a passing resemblance to one, Harrison Ford, to the extent that my siblings and I were a little frightened of our father after viewing Ford's villainous turn in What Lies Beneath. As a kid, I pretty much imagined Indiana Jones and my father to be one in the same, and a viewing of an Indiana Jones film with him as a time to watch a family video. Before viewing Crystal Skull, my father and I had not watched a movie together in quite some time. I wasn't even sure if he would make it through the movie. I did not think the weirder sci-fi elements would throw him off, as we had watched tons of b-movies together (Invaders from Mars being a particular favorite), but I was still worried he would find the film to be hokey, if he could even stay awake for its two-hour duration.

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To my great surprise, my father enjoyed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and I found that I enjoyed it far more watching it with him. He laughed at the parts that were supposed to be funny and he leaned closer to the screen during the scenes where he was supposed to be on the edge of his seat. He has always been one to converse with the TV screen, and he said no negative words during the film. Let's just say that isn't always the case. I watched the series premier of Mystery Science Theater 3000 with my father, along with many episodes thereafter, and he is no less shy than those guys in vocalizing his displeasure of the night's entertainment. He legitimately enjoyed his viewing of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It seemed that he found Indy's age and its effects relatable, along with Jones' caring more about protecting his family and living on with them than recovering the film's titular artifact, to "know everything."  This revealed one of the film's key strengths to me: Indy clearly learned the lesson his father taught him at the end of the previous film in the series--to "let it go." "It," of course, is chasing after fortune, glory, fame, and power, to instead age gracefully, and to be illuminated in one's place in the galaxy. At the end of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Indy is not tempted by the power of the Crystal Skull in the least. While the film's description of the Skull's power is nebulous--the one who wields it has access to all the knowledge in the universe and control over everyone's mind or something--the film does do a good job of placing it into context with the character of Indiana Jones. Getting home safety with his future wife and teenage son is exponentially more important than any power the skull can impart to him. This is contrasted by the film's villain, who cares for nothing but the Skull's power, and is literally consumed by it (in a scene far less impressive than the villain's deaths in the previous films, Crystal Skull's villian simply bursts into flames and swiftly disintegrates in a CGI whirl.). With this in mind, a thought crept into my head: perhaps my friends and I did not enjoy this film in the theater because it was made for someone other than us. At the time, I was in my late mid-20's, newly married, and feeling a bit invincible. My hobbies all involved activities that punished my body and put it in peril. I craved adventure in any way I could get it. Of course I wouldn't identify with a man who would rather just settle down. Watching the film with a man who had put the film in perspective...kind of. I never felt the gumption to watch the film again on my own.
Raiders of the Lost Ark viewings: About 100.
Temple of Doom viewings: About 100.
Last Crusade viewings: About 100
Crystal Skull viewings: 2

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Going through and reviewing the majority of John Williams' catalog rekindled a fire in me. I even enjoyed his work on the Star Wars Prequels to a very high degree. I began to think of soundtracks by Mr. Williams that I did not own, and Indiana Jones and Crystal Skull immediately came to mind. On my two viewings of the film, nothing from the soundtrack really stood out. Perhaps I should watch the film again? I could not shake the thought. I began to ruminate on my two disparate viewings of the film. Now closer to my mid-30's than mid-20's, how would I react to the film? I made up my mind. I would not only watch the film again, I would attempt to critique it in depth in an entry to this very blog. This is that blog.

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I come into this new viewing optimistically, wanting to like the film. I immediately see how my friends and I could be so quickly turned off. The opening moments of Crystal Skull feel like a direct disrespect to the fans and the franchise. The classic Paramount logo that in previous films dissolves into a mountain, an immense ringing gong, a majestic rock formation is now...a molehill. It literally went from a mountain to a molehill. This does not bode well--this reverses the classic idiom into something major being over-reduced into something very minor. Also, this is generally the moment where John Williams' music sets the tone for the film. Here, strings swell as the mountain logo is shown but immediately disappear as the molehill is revealed. We are then treated to, not John Williams, but Elvis--period music in a series of films that was, until this moment in this film, timeless. When Williams' music does make its first appearance it is nondescript and without honor. Also, where is Indy? It is minutes before he is even revealed, and when he is, the entrance is, to quote Spielberg himself, "ignoble." Indy is recovered and tossed from a car trunk. While, admittedly, the shot of Indy putting his hat on in shadow is very cool, the tone has already been set. And then there's the CGI everywhere. Indy's first scenes look like they were all shot on a green-screen set, with the exterior and interior of a military warehouse looking unnaturally lit in the custom CGI style of today...except they aren't CGI. This leads to the film's greatest co-flaw (the other being the story, which I will get to momentarily): the cinematography. This is not something I noticed, until I broke the film down on this third viewing. The original trilogy's cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe, began to go blind many years ago, and was consequently unavailable for this picture. Spielberg instead went with his cinematographer of the last 20 years, Janusz Kamiński. Now don't get me wrong, Kamiński is an incredible cinematographer. In fact, he is one of the best in the business. However, Indiana Jones does not seem to be a good fit for Kamiński. The original trilogy had a classic cinematic look, with earthy tones befitting a series following a man who digs in the dirt for a living. While Kamiński watched the original trilogy for inspiration, he either missed something somewhere, or was told by the producers to go for a different look. As a result, scenes are overlit, and often feature a bright, unnatural light in the background. This is a usual trick employed when the only thing in the background is a green screen, but if one watches any behind the scenes footage from the film, one knows this is not the case. The warehouse exterior scenes were filmed on location, in the beautiful desert. The interior scenes were filmed on an intricately built set, full of real boxes. With the way Kamiński lights the film, the boxes and most of the warehouse look like they came straight from a computer processor. Unfortunately, this negative illusion continues throughout the film. The most egregious offense is Crystal Skull's showcase jungle chase, which was filmed in a real-jungle, at full speed, with few CGI additions. Due to Kamiński's haze and harshness, the scene looks fake, the actors tottering on stationary vehicles in front of a green screen (I wish there was a more creative way to call a green screen a green screen). This is a shame and an injustice to the director, actors, stuntmen and women, stunt drivers, location finders, and viewers. An insane amount of work went into this scene just for it to seem rote. The worst part of all of this is that the film does indeed contain some ridiculous CGI in the form of gophers, monkeys, and jungle vines. However, without Kamiński's lighting, these would only seem like unnecessary intrusions instead of par for the course. I think fans would hold the film in higher regard if they realized how little of the film was actually computer-generated, and how insane Harrison Ford truly is. The 64-year old did most of his own stunts, and when one watches any Crystal Skull behind the scenes footage, one sees how much peril in which Ford truly placed himself. That the lighting and cinematography obscure this fact in the actual film is Crystal Skull's greatest crime...
Or is Crystal Skull's greatest crime the script and story? We all know that when George Lucas has a bad idea, nothing will stop him from putting it in a film. Ewoks. Howard the Duck. JarJar Binks. Badly-formed politics. No matter how awful of a fit, or how unwieldy they are to be attached to anything that could be considered "good," Lucas will push to have these bad ideas projected on the big screen. In this case, George Lucas wanted Indiana Jones to forsake his Saturday Serial origins for a Sci-Fi B-Movie adventure, chasing after aliens. This again ruins the tone of the franchise. There isn't anything inherently wrong with this idea for a film, but an Indiana Jones film is supposed to feature Jones hunting after a terrestrially supernatural artifact in the style of an old Saturday morning serial. That's what Indiana Jones does. He's an archeologist, not a pseudo-scientist, or an astronomer. Also, while the endgame of Crystal Skull's actual artifact has meaning, in that Jones refuses to care about it, it is far too abstract and obtuse to hold any meaning to the viewer throughout the film. It is the Macguffin that isn't (Sadly, as quoted in that wikipedia link, Lucas is the one who originally said the audience should care about the Macguffin). But main plot isn't even the script's most egregious error. The biggest problem is unnecessary characters and events.
Let's start with the character, "Mac." Mac, whose name is already too close to Mutt (Jones' revealed son in the film), serves no true purpose in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Though he is in nearly half of Crystal Skull's scenes, the film's events would unfold exactly the same without his presence. Indy would still be captured at the beginning of the film, he would still have to fight off the Russians, still lose the Skull to start with, and he will still get captured again later in the film. Mac just occupies screen time and space in a film that already feels too long. He isn't likeable, or funny. His death in the film is a complete afterthought. No one cares when he dies, nor does he, nor do the filmmakers. His presence is lousy. If his traitorous existence is only to cast doubt on Indiana Jones' character to the government, he isn't necessary for that, either. Jones' survival of the film's opening events is enough. Add to that, the scenes and sideplot of the government doubting Indiana Jones' loyalty are also completely useless. They are there to serve the screenwriter's political agenda, to take potshots at the long dead, long decried into the ground policy of McCarthyism in order to cast shadows on the still-existent party he belonged to.  Politics has no place in an Indiana Jones film (or a Star Wars film, for that matter), and its presence here is simultaneously jolting and boring. I noticed several audience members check their watch during these early interrogation scenes, and they are only twenty-minutes into the film.  Worst of all, these scenes completely waste the acting talents of Neil Flynn. Some may say these events are necessary, so that Jones may be placed on leave for his job, and thus free to go on his adventure. Jones has been on countless adventures before this one, though, and he has never before needed an excuse. Lame. With these scenes and the character of Mac gone, the story could have worked harder on integrating the character of Professor Oxley, who the audience could care more about if he was given a little more development, and a better introduction.
Now that I've pointed out what I see to be the film's two greatest flaws, I can say this:
While Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull rarely works on any level as an Indiana Jones film, it does work pretty well as a family action-adventure film. Crystal Skull actually does a pretty good job with the Indiana Jones and Mutt father/son dynamic, as Jones advice to the young man changes vastly once he realizes their true relationship. Jones' relationship with love interest, Marion (from the first Indy film), and its flowering in Crystal Skull is fun to see. Thus, the family dynamic between the trio is enjoyable, and the most well done aspect of the film. If this were instead, simply a film about another aging adventurer, going on these wacky escapades with his long lost love, and their son, Crystal Skull would have received little criticism. Even with all of its flaws, I will still go so far as to say that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a good family film, made by family men. As an Indiana Jones film, though, it is severely lacking, eight years ago and today.

1 comment:

Neal said...

Wow... this is like a paper for a film class. Just saw it now or I would have commented sooner, sorry.

The bits on the film not being mostly CGI astound me, to be honest. I think that was one part of it that made it not feel right (and actually, why I don't like a lot of newer films... there's too much of an unreal feel to how they are shot). Now that I know it wasn't actually CGI, I have to wonder why--part of what made the Indy movies great is how gritty and real they are. He does this amazing stuff, but then he's aching and has cuts all over.

I think you hit on the other two things that bugged us the most after viewing it. Mac was pointless (heck, I even remember Indy joking about how he was quadruple crossing them or something), and Macguffin didn't have enough point. There's a clear point to each artifact(s) in the previous movies, and there isn't enough of one in Crystal Skull. I don't mind the slightly sci fi nature of it (since there's always been that element to the crystal skull idea, and the new Soviet era seemed to work for sci fi stuff, at least for me). It's that what it meant and how Indy reacted to it wasn't as clear as in the first three movies.

I didn't hate the movie, it's reasonably fun, as you said. It's just sad that it couldn't be as good as the other three. Even if Temple of Doom is a little weird compared to the others, it still works better than Crystal Skull.