Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Cystal Skull is Cracked (Todd's Extra Tasty Spoilery Review)

You get one warning: This review makes no effort to hide spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

My dad and I took in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Friday night. This is one of the few times since I had kids that my dad and I have gotten to just go hang out and do something together, which was really nice. And I'd love to tell you that Crystal Skull was a great way to spend that time. I didn't go into it looking for it to be bad. But it was. It was simply awful.

I don't know how I feel about the switch in plot focus from religious historical artifacts to otherworldly ones. I'd like to think that if we got a good alien artifact plot that I'd be entirely satisfied. No such luck here. The crystal skull is an intriguing artifact and there's some interesting dialog in the movie as the characters debate its authenticity, but it's also wildly inconsistent. In some scenes it has a massive amount of magnetism (the gunpowder bit in the beginning is pretty damn stupid), in others it appears to be just another hunk of glass. I think when you're going to deal with the paranormal you can get away with something that's far-fetched, but you still have to be consistent about it and Spielberg/Lucas & Co. are incredibly not in this film.

I also think the ability of Spielberg and Lucas to do just about anything in a film through the use of special effects allows them to play far too fast and loose with reality. One of the great stunt moves I've ever seen actually comes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Indy leaps from a moving horse onto a moving tank. I never really noticed it until I watched the movie again last week and I was just like, "Damn. That was frigg'n cool." There wasn't any effects work for the shot. It was just a straight up stunt. Simple and awesome at the same time. And it was exactly the kind of action they had to use in the original trilogy. Now they can do pretty much do whatever they want and the results are horrible. (This isn't to say modern effects can't be used to great effect. They can. Just look at Iron Man. They just weren't used to great effect in this film.)

Whether it's Henry "Mutt" Jones III swinging on vines like Tarzan with a bunch of monkey allies at his heels (I wish I was making that up) or Indiana surviving, unscathed, at ground zero of a nuclear test detonation by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator (also, sadly, true) or twelve living alien crystal skeletons merging into one, suddenly fleshy, whole (huh?), there's stuff in this film that is so far beyond the realm of even film reality that you can only just sigh and be glad when the movie reaches its merciful conclusion. Evidently Spielberg has yet to learn that just because you can do something on film doesn't mean you should.

Now, this is not to say there aren't good moments in the film. There are. Indy suddenly finding himself mistrusted by his own government was a highly intriguing plot angle that was never really played up. Indy reflecting on having lost his dad and old friend Marcus Brody in the last year was moving. (Especially the line about, life giving you a lot until you reach a certain age and it then just taking everything away.) Indy's action scenes at the Area 51 storage facility (the one where the Ark is stored). You might notice a trend here. When the film is focused on Indy being Indy, it is mostly a very enjoyable film. Harrison Ford really does a job in letting us see an aging, far past his prime, but still full of piss and vinegar Indiana Jones that was fun to watch.

I also think Shia Lebeouf as Indy's son, if they ever bother to give his character a 3rd dimension, could be a decent successor. Personally, I think the kid can act. It's tough to say for sure, since he has yet to appear in a good vehicle for his talents (we all know Transformers was absolutely awful), but if he's ever given good material to work with, I think he could do a job on it. But I think those that are saying the last scene, in which Indy's trademark hat ends up in his hands, is a passing of the torch may be misreading the scene. I don't know what Lucas and Spielberg themselves have to say about it, but in the movie, the hat rolls into his hands. He picks it up and then Indy walks by and snatches it back. To me that says, "I'm not done with this just yet, kid." Though, that could just be wishful thinking on my part.

Karen Allen? Man, I'm conflicted. I loved her as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And there's some scenes in Crystal Skull where some of that old fire shines through. But it's mired in chunks of the film where she all but disappears -even when on screen- and there's more sickening sweet goofy-eyed gazing at Indy than a normal human should have to tolerate in a lifetime. Ultimately, the much-desired return of her character feels like a wasted opportunity and that's really what the whole film feels like to me. (I'm not even going to get into just how much they wasted Cate Blanchett's talent on a worthless villain.)

There was an opportunity here to put together a film that, while not as good as Raiders, could have been every bit as enjoyable, nostalgic and fun as The Last Crusade. They didn't do it. Truth be told, I'm not sure right now if it's even any better than Temple of Doom. For that I'll have to reserve judgment until I've seen it one or two more times. If you're on the fence, go see the movie. I mean it's Indiana Jones for Christ's sake. Just don't expect to fall in love with this movie.