Sunday, May 25, 2008
Warning: Spoilers immediately.
Near the end of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, after the aliens have taken off in their flying saucer (now there's a sentence I wasn't expecting to write), the movie hedges its bet and explains that they aren't exactly extraterrestrials, you see, but rather intraterrestrials -- beings from another dimension. "Where are they going," one character asks, "outer space?" Another replies, with helpful gravitas, "No. They are going to the space between spaces." Actually, based on the evidence of this film, the only space is between Lucas and Spielberg's ears.
Crystal Skull owes less to the tradition of afternoon serials and more to Brian DePalma's Mission to Mars: it's already got the apologists tying themselves into rhetorical knots trying to justify it. Stephanie Zacharek believes that "its computer-generated effects are used with relative judiciousness." (Ho ho ho!) Like DePalma's recent string of fiascos, Crystal Skull is governed by a streak of unruly madness that appeals to the Paulettes, the esoterics, and the French at Cannes. I think the movie is a monumental embarrassment, yet I have to admit I wasn't bored for a minute. It's fascinating to watch something simultaneously so eagerly awaited and so spectacularly wrong-headed; I stopped looking at the screen only long enough to scoop my jaw off the floor.
Let's start with the aliens. No, back up a second: let's start with the prairie dogs. Repeated close-ups of cute, cuddly, CGI prairie dogs fill the entire first act of Crystal Skull, set in the Nevada desert, which once again introduces Harrison Ford -- shockingly grizzled, yet sans stud-earring -- as Indy, kidnapped by Cold War Russians disguised as American GIs (the year is 1957) and brought to a secret warehouse that will look familiar to anyone who's seen the end of Raiders. Russkie henchwoman Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, strangely alluring in a gray jumpsuit) wants Dr. Jones to find a specific crate within the warehouse (not the Ark of the Covenant, alas, though it gets a tossed-off reference), and eventually a big shootout ensues. Indy escapes and arrives at a suburban oasis that's really a nuclear test site. He hides in a refrigerator seconds before detonation, and the blast lifts the fridge miles into the air and deposits him out of harm's way. This sequence, implausible yet enthrallingly satirical and audacious, features Spielberg firing on all cylinders; yet inexplicably, at its end, he cuts to a double-take of a prairie dog. Like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, they serve no purpose other than to take you out of the reality of the movie. What are they doing there?
A few other early scenes have a casual charm. It's always fun seeing Indy in the classroom, now looking more like a professor than an adventurer; and Ford's first couple of conversations with Shia LaBeouf bring out something in the older, recessive actor. But the problems continue to mount, starting with LaBeouf's character, a young leather-clad biker who naturally goes by the name Mutt, yet never seems to fit within the Indiana Jones universe. LaBeouf may be out of his depth, but Ray Winstone and John Hurt clearly aren't, and their characterizations (a turncoat and a babbling loon, respectively) are even thinner. In what should be a profound moment, Karen Allen shows up midway through the film as Marion Ravenwood, Indy's love interest from Raiders and mother of his illegitimate child Mutt. Allen has always been hailed as the best leading lady in the series, but I found her grating in the first film and practically unbearable in this one. There's a rusty, distracted air to her performance, and she's ill-served by Spielberg, who stages her entrance and subsequent scene in quicksand (or "drysand," whatever) in which a snake is used for a rope with all the verisimilitude of Corky St. Clair.
Whatever good will that is established in the first hour (or brought to the theater by the audience) melts faster than Ronald Lacey's face in the second, with Indy, Mutt, Marion and the others pursued by Irina's Russians, all the while lugging around the titular cranium that is one of the most idiotic MacGuffins in movie history, and as visually unappealing as the Ark, the Grail, and even the Sankara Stone were resonant. The WTF-moments start piling up, my favorites being Mutt swinging like Tarzan through the trees with an army of allied monkeys (monkeys hate communists!) and a legion of killer ants who appear to be close cousins of the scarabs in The Mummy movies.
And then there are the aliens. I know aliens are near and dear to the filmmakers' hearts. But do they belong in an Indiana Jones movie? Aren't they just a wee bit out of place?
Unswayed by such distractions, the apologists have trotted out their best friend, Mr. False Equivalency: What about the supernatural elements in the earlier movies? they ask; what about their implausibilities? Ah, but those films took pains to establish the ground rules of their worlds (even Temple of Doom has a whirling-dervish logic) and forged a mostly internal consistency with each other even as they expanded with new characters and adventures. All three accomplished this in varying degrees of quality, but all did it far better than this one.
David Koepp's script for Crystal Skull is an atrocity, yet like others who have noted this before me, I detect the distinct stench of George Lucas in the air. Revisionists at heart, and affluent enough to have the artistic freedom to do pretty much whatever they please, Lucas and Spielberg have never had qualms going back and tinkering with their films (Han Solo shooting after Greedo, E.T. running with an extra spring in his step). This would appeal more to the editor in me were their alterations ever consistent, justified or of evident quality; too often they coast on the emotional collateral of their fans. One can invest considerable energy in semantic gamesmanship -- calling extraterrestrials intraterrestrials, quicksand drysand, a snake a rope, or a terrible movie a good one -- but it won't make The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones. Only in another dimension are its creators victims worth defending.