Sunday, June 01, 2008

Indenial Jones

[warning: spoilers]

The best scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (henceforth called Indy IV) is the one it opens with. Four teenagers are out on a joyride through the New Mexico desert and come across as military convoy on an otherwise deserted highway. Elvis blaring from their car radio, the teenagers challenge the lead car of the convoy to a race, and so infectious is their exuberance that the driver of the car, a young lad barely out of his teens himself, cannot resist. So the two cars - a drab military vehicle and a shiny hot-rod, go careening down the highway, locked neck and neck. It's an incredible moment, at once hilarious and touching (its thrill enhanced by the knowledge that this a race between the Americans and the Russians [1], fought almost literally in the shadow of the nuclear bomb); the kind of gloriously cinematic moment one would expect from the Spielberg of old - the one who made Empire of the Sun and Jaws.

It's also a useful reminder of just why we love Spielberg, because the moment the car carrying the teenagers disappears from the screen, the old Spielberg seems to leave with it [2]. What follows purports to be the fourth movie in the Indiana Jones franchise, but it could just as easily have been a sequel to the Mummy, with Harrison Ford filling in for Rachel Weisz, because, presumably, she has better things to do with her time. My memory of the original Indy films is a little dim (it's been nearly two decades since the last one, after all) but the thing that I remember about them - the thing that made them, for want of a better word, cool - was that they were funny. They epitomized the idea of an adventure as something light-hearted, an idea that found its purest manifestation in a hero who always managed, somehow, to hold himself at an ironic distance from the action, who was able to see even the deadliest of situations for the joke it really was.

Humor, however, is almost entirely absent from Indy IV (well, at least intentional humor) and what remains is a two-dimensional exercise in bare-knuckle bravado and slick special effects, which has all the excitement of a forty year college reunion. Which, of course, is what the movie really is - a chance for Indy to catch up with his old buddies Ox and Mac and Marion - everything else, I'm convinced, being merely an ice-breaker to get over the initial awkwardness. It would explain why the whole film looks as though it were put together by an event planner.

Oh, there's a plot, of course. It involves the Cold War - which, it turns out, was fought between truckloads of crack troops who can't, between them, shoot a man running rather slowly at a distance of, oh, ten yards; and a gaggle of bow-tie wearing archaeologists, accompanied by one James Dean impersonator. No wonder it took Reagan to bring it to an end. It also involves a crystal skull, a nuclear explosion, swarms of killer ants who look a bit like M&Ms with legs, and the comic-book delight of seeing Cate Blanchett playing a character who is half Bond villain and half Ninotchka, complete with a sword [3]. There are also a couple of striking revelations - most notably the fact that T.S. Eliot wrote his poems while under the psychic control of crystal skulled aliens. Oh, and Shia what's his name turns out to be Indy's son, but you can see that one coming a mile away.

It's almost as though, in writing the script, Koepp and company had felt the need to stay true to the Mayan theme of their movie by not including any plot devices that might have been invented after the coming of Columbus. Instead they give you the kind of predictable cliches that the original Indy films were already spoofing two decades ago. Ruined temple, abandoned for centuries and overgrown with cobwebs must be secretly guarded by savage tribe. Check. Dead end inside tomb / ruin must contain secret passageway for Hero to discover. Check. Boat containing hero floating placidly down river must go over waterfall. Check. David Denby, in his review in the New Yorker praises the chase sequence through the jungle, claiming that "Spielberg recreates the spirit of Buster Keaton's most elaborately synchronized gags". I agree with much of Denby's take on Indy IV, but this is nonsense. That sequence has none of the litheness and surprise of a Keaton chase -the genius of Keaton that he makes the most carefully choreographed sequences seem accidental, by comparison the jungle chase scene in Indy IV seems tedious and contrived, with the bit involving Mr. LaBeouf swinging from the trees being particularly nauseating. If anything, I'd say the chase through the University campus scenes are more compelling, though neither of them has either the energy, speed or inventiveness of some of the truly brilliant chase sequences we've seen in recent times (that incredible chase at the start of the Casino Royale, for instance, or the closing sequence of Death Proof).

In the end, one can only hope that this botched sequel spells the end to the Indiana Jones franchise. The fact that the closing scene shows Mr. LaBeouf preparing to try on Indy's hat for size, however, makes me think there may be more of this nonsense still to come. I suppose if Harrison Ford hangs around for another decade or so they'll make a fifth movie - this one featuring, no doubt, his twelve-year old granddaughter and called Indiana Jones and the Attack of the Arthiritic Pinky. Shudder.


[1] Technically, you don't find out that they're Russian till five minutes later, but frankly, you have only to take one look at their faces to know what's coming.

[2] Okay, so I'm exaggerating a little bit. Actually, the first twenty minutes or so aren't bad - it's only after Indy survives the nuclear blast that the movie turns somnambulant.

[3] One of my biggest gripes with the film is the fact that it doesn't do Blanchett's character justice. There's great potential here - a colorful character, a talented actress - but in the end Irina Spalko proves exceedingly tame. I mean, in her one big fight scene she can't even beat some high-school dropout out of Happy Days in a fencing match. Sheesh!


Anonymous said...

Forget Indiana Jones. Now Falstaff please review Sex and the City. Pretty please?

bluespriite said...

Seeing this movie.. made me wonder if the earlier films were as listless.. and I had to go see them again. Turns out .. the last crusades isn't half bad.. fun even.. if not for the ending.

Falstaff said...

anon: Oh, I've already written the review for that one. Now I just need to see the film.

bluespriite: Good to know. I've been wondering the same thing.