Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Phantom Menace

It is with a heavy heart that I prepare to malign the summer movie I had most hoped to enjoy. I say "hoped" rather than "expected" because, as a "purist" fanboy, the manner in which George Lucas disappointed me with his revisiting of the Star Wars franchise is still fresh in my mind. I have been conditioned to expect that any contemporary film he has a hand in will likely sully one or more of the cinematic traditions that I hold dear. It is the genius of director Steven Spielberg that kindled my hope when I learned that the oft rumored fourth installment of Indiana Jones was to become a reality. In spite of Spielberg's recent hit-and-miss record, the craftsmanship of his first three Jones pictures is consistent and impeccable. I thought to myself, he can do this again.

So what happened? My sneaking suspicion is that he didn't really want to. In an insightful post regarding overblown pre-release speculation about the film's potential, critic Jim Emerson blogs about
Whiplash: Indiana Jones and the Lowered Expectations:
"Now, I think Spielberg is a movie genius (and "Close Encounters" and "E.T." are masterpieces about the language of film, written in light), but the idea of him making a fourth "Indiana Jones" movie does not excite me even a little bit. One of the masters of the medium has now devoted roughly one sixth of his feature-film output to Indiana Jones movies. Meanwhile he could have been exploring new territory, as he did with "A.I.," "Always," "Munich"..."

I find there to be a certain laziness permeating The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that makes me wonder if Spielberg himself wasn't thinking the same thing. The desire to venture forward may explain his decision to alter the look of the world of Indiana Jones so drastically from its precursors. I know from reading interviews that Mr. S. opted to "pay homage" to the 1950's B-Movie aesthetic rather than mimic the classical style that influenced the first three Indy films, but the tragic result of shooting primarily on sound-stages-- and what's with the awkward back-lighting? --is a film that feels as if it could have been shot in a small room with a green curtain. The epic scale that the other Jones pictures are known for is further diminished by an over abundance of close ups; most of the action takes place in such a limited geographical space and is so tightly framed that it is not easy to discern what's going on.

Wider shots reveal computer generated scenery that is no less confusing to the eye. Well, at least to the eye of an old-timer like me who wasn't raised on movies that take place in murky digital environments. The Phantom Menace/Lord of the Rings/Speed Racer generation will not recognize that the
texture that comes from shooting on location-- with practical scenery, real vehicles, and humans doing stunts-- is missing. These children are more capable of suspending disbelief when they see Shia LaBeouf's digital avatar straddling two animated jeeps than I will ever be. And I don't envy them.

As an admittedly stereotypical fanboy, I am likely to have more beefs with this movie than the average viewer. But I have to say that the youthful audience at the midnight screening I attended, many of whom were mere tots when The Last Crusade was released, seemed to be even less impressed than I. There are clever moments in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that should provoke laughter, maybe even a gasp or two; this demographic sat through the movie
silently from beginning to end. A number of people stayed until the credits finished rolling, hoping for an additional scene. There isn't one. When the lights went up, one fellow turned to his friend and, in an ambivalent tone, said "Huh. So it really did suck then." Yeah, it kinda did, and I don't think many folks over the age of twelve will be fooled otherwise.

I have some qualms with the silliness of the plot, but I would have forgiven them if the story had been better executed (after all, the Jones pictures are, to some extent, meant to be silly). Nods to the earlier films begin as one-liners and homages, but a fair amount of blatant copying is evident, too. The opening sequence is executed quite well-- let me digress for a moment to say that I would have preferred a cut of the film that does not include the prairie dogs-- but following this return to the secret warehouse that holds, amongst other treasures, the Ark of the Covenant and a magnetic alien corpse, the fluidity of the film is compromised because scenes and sequences are not tied together with enough human interaction. The exposition needed for this silly plot to make sense is glossed over. Some of it hides in dialogue that can scarcely be heard for all of the action taking place simultaneously. Often the film seems to assume that we will just "get it" because we have seen the same relationships and character trajectories in parts I, II, and III. The film's tagline could be: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

My final gripe, at least for now, is the shitty role proffered for Karen Allen. There are
no good roles for women in Hollywood, and this is one of them. I don't blame Allen for taking the paycheck, but Lucas and screenwriter David Koepp should be ashamed of their flippant reduction of the Marion Ravenwood character into a part that might just have well been played by a cardboard cutout. Marion doesn't need to be an icon for feminist representation in cinema, but it would be nice if she had some of the vim and vigour that personified her character in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Actually, it would have been nice if she had a scene or two that required Allen to act rather than simply be there.
Like the three Star Wars prequels that so alienated purist fans, Indiana Jones will find a new audience with the Crystal Skull, youngsters whose familiarity (or lack thereof) with the original product has not shaped their opinions of what a Star Wars or Indiana Jones movie should be. I can't help but feel that the core fanatics, those of us who waited a combined 49 years for new installments of these franchises, deserve a bit more than Lucas and Spielberg have delivered. At the very least, these directors could have remained true to the visual worlds they created for their characters. It may seem like a bold statement, but if they weren't going to make these films for
us then maybe they shouldn't have bothered making them at all.

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