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.


Loren said...

Todd, maybe you were looking for too much from this film. I enjoyed it and I certainly agree with your points, but there comes a time during summer movie season where you have to check your brain at the door and just enjoy the experience. This is one of those movies.

I'd easily put this above Temple of Doom, but obviously below Raiders and Last Crusade. If you want to know about Shia's acting talents rent Holes or Disturbia (a nice updated remake of Rear Window).

I'll just blow off your Transformers rip, once again that was a "check your brain at the door" movie and given I don't know how old you are I can only say from the perspective of someone that grew up with Transformers that movie was amazing and far better than I could have imagined Michael Bay would create.

There are many moments in Indy that don't utilize special effects as you might think they do. The jeep scene in the jungle was done on location with just the trees being added in afterwards for example. Granted, there is nothing like the scene you talk about from Last Crusade, but even back then Spielberg and Lucas had the ability to do SFX if they wanted to, just not to the level they can today obviously.

Also remember the same company that did Iron Man's special effects did them here as well (ILM).

todd brakke said...

I'm really not complaining about the quality of the effects. I'm talking about what they're used for. An army of buddy monkeys is not great use of effects in an Indiana Jones movie. There is absolutely no reason to put Indy at the center of a nuclear detonation. None. They did it because they could. To me, these things are not good use of SFX regardless of their quality.

Anyway, I'm all for the check your brain at the door movies. I consider Last Crusade one of those. Iron Man too. And I love those movies, even with their shortcomings. And I too grew up with the Transformers. But, personally, I think there's still a line. A line between just good fun and lazy plotting. It's gonna be different for different people, but both of those movies cross it for me in a big way. (And I think the effects are great in Transformers, for what it's worth.)

Loren said...

I went into Transformers last year figuring it would be like every other 80s property remake and suck big time. Michael Bay hadn't had the greatest track record lately and I figured he'd totally ruin the property.

I was shocked by how really good it was. Yes, it had some hokey dialog (what summer action movie doesn't? heh) but I also think a lot of these production companies are trying to cater to the younger crowd that weren't around when this stuff was hot (like Indy 19 years ago).

I agree with you on the monkeys thing, but I also think this is Spielberg catering to his children. Kids love cute monkeys and I'm sure he did the tandem swinging to make it even more "cute".

I will also agree that the magnet thing was extremely stupid. I leaned into my wife and said, "those guns, their belt buckles and anything metal would be sucked in for the amount of magnetic power it supposedly has". Gunpowder is nothing in metallic weight versus a gun, change and belt buckles back in those days...heh. Oh well, only nitpickers like us would point this stuff out anyway.

I do think a better story could have been done, but then again alien presence was a pretty hot topic back in that decade.

todd brakke said...

Ya know, I don't even think the premise of the Crystal Skull is bad. I think there's a lot of potential there, same as there was potential in the notion that Indy is getting old, that he's got a kid, that his government doesn't trust him, all of it. I just think it got wasted is all, and wasted potential is definitely one of my triggers when I watch a movie like this one. :)

As to Transformers... I'm gonna have to watch that one again, remind myself of all the things I hated and do a blog write-up for it too! ;)

bill abner said...

Transformers was awful.


Brain checking or no, that was a shitty movie.

Loren said...

Transformers is probably my most cherished property from my childhood. I was about 10 years old when Optimus Prime was killed in the original Transformers movie (and subsequently the reaction from that changed the ending of the GI Joe movie with Duke not dying after Serpentor's staff went through his heart...someone says something like, "Duke'll be fine" after that...heh).

Anyway, maybe I liked it so much because I went in with such low expectations and was surprised by how cool it was. Yet another ILM special effect movie. ILM is still at the top of the SFX game with Weta very near, but they don't have quite the output ILM has.

Anyway, you guys can hate the Transformers movie all you want, I won't hate you for it.

Mike in the D said...

I thought you might be critical of this movie. And I agree there were some things I thought could've been done better. But overall, like loren said, I found it enjoyable.

I'm surprised that the same things you don't like about this movie, you found Ok in Iron Man. I guess I don't feel that Indiana and Iron Man aren't fundamentally different characters so that most likely led to me having different expectations, or lack thereof. Both of them are hero characters living in an alternative pseudo reality. I never went into the movies expecting them to be portrayed as real life. So I have no problems accepting supernatural alien beings in Krystal Skulls, than I do Iron Man walking around with an overgrown seiko in his chest. Don't get me wrong, I think IM was a much better made film, just for different reasons than you have listed here.

H-DoGG said...

Good assessment of the film. I agree with everything you point out and I appreciate that you specifically point out that certain things don't even fit with "film reality". Surviving a nuke? Riiiight....

A wholeheartedly agree that departing from the more appropriate historical/religious artifacts didn't work at all. It didn't fit with Indiana Jones.

Despite all that, the published reviews are generally favorable and I suspect that, much like The Phantom Menace, people have stars in their eyes and are caught up in the moment. (Indy is back after 20 years away!) As time passes I think it will become very clear to general audiences that this film doesn't hold up at all, begging the question, "why was it made?" It is an unnecessary installment that feels more like a reunion tour than anything else.

I cringed two years ago when the announced the film's production and hoped it wouldn't happen. Now everyone can see why.

Good review and nice blog! If you are interested, you can check out mine at: http://thefilmlounge.blogspot.com/

todd brakke said...

Mike, you're dumb. :) I agree with you that both movies like Indy and Iron Man have a sort of alternate reality. Almost every movie does, even the ones with non-fantastical elements. But I also think each film establishes its own reality and once it's set, it needs to adhere to it.

Over the course of the first three films (even Temple) there is an "Indy Reality" that is established. Raiders had nothing in it that was full goose crazy until they open the Ark. Temple just had some rocks that glowed and evidently made plants grow. Crusade had a cup that healed a bullet wound. All those things are fantastical, but the action in those movies was always kept on a rather tight leash (or whip). Indy can take a pounding, yeah, but he's more like Bourne or Bond. He's not superhuman. I think Crystal Skull needlessly thew a lot of that out and that they did it mostly because they can do all these jaw dropping effects that they couldn't do before (at least not like this). But, hey, I seem to be minority of people in not liking the film so what do I know. ;)

And seriously, what the f#@ is up with the Tigers, man?

todd brakke said...

Oh yeah, and about Iron Man. Don't forget that my one big beef with that movie is that Stane is able to build and use his armor almost instantly. After watching how hard it was for Tony to not only build it, but learn to use it, I thought the waning moments of the film (even if they looked great) broke the movie's established reality.

Anyway, I'll tell you this. If they put Tony Stark at ground zero of a nuclear explosion (lead-lined suit or no) or if they give him monkey allies as he's swinging on vines, I'll tee off on Iron Man too! :)

todd brakke said...

Hi, H-dogg, thanks for reading and commenting. I do think that upon repeat viewings some people will end up not liking this movie as much as they do right now. Hell, I thought Twister and Attack of the Clones were decent films the first time through.

To be fair, though, I don't think that's true of everyone. If Loren or Mike (seriously, man, wtf with the Tigers?) or whomever like Crystal Skull, hey, more power to 'em. There's certainly stuff to like in the movie if you can accept the stuff that I couldn't get around. Different strokes and all that.

Anyway, I'll be sure to check out your blog!

Mike in the D said...

Haha:) Thanks for making me laugh! I enjoyed crystal skulls in the same way I enjoyed transformers or spidey 3. That is to say, I deliberately had zero expectations for the films and so I was not disappointed. That isn't to say there is much to be critical of. The biggest thing that stood out as a problem for me with crystal skulls is that it simply felt rushed. I don't mena during editing or things like that, just that the plot didn't seem to flow but rather felt like it was being pulled along and at times in strange directions for the sake of... I don't know what. As far as Indy reality, are 3000 year old knights(Crusade) more real than an alien being, is pulling out someones still beating heart more real than swinging on vines, is a medallion burning its enscription perfectly into someones hand more real than an sword fight on a back of jeep. All of that is to say I always considered Indian Jones to be a truly fantastical character and the problems I see with this film are not in the plot but in the execution. I don't see aliens taking anything more away from the characters of the series than God, Nazis or Russians.

The film felt like they couldn't decide if they wanted to be a snarkish comedy or witty action movie and so some of the one liners just fell flat. The characters were all two dimensional(even the ones we already know) and none of them had enough time to interact with each other in any meaningful way. I too was greatly disappointed in Marion's performance and her role (if you can call it a role) in the film. It's like she didn't even need to be there, so why put her in at all. I never pictured her as Indies one true love (I assumed it was his work) and I didn't think the film needed their relationship to be extra special for the sake of moving along the story, actually for me it hurt it somewhat.

I liked that they didn't play up the Mutt thing, it left something for fans to think about for themselves. And I initially like the gunpowder thing when I thought it was going to lead to Indy tricking them out of all their ammo, but like much int he movie, that went nowhere too, and why the hell wasn't it magnetic all the effin' time?

The lead lined refrigerator didn't bother so much. I mean prople did survive hiroshima and nagasaki too, so its not that far out, but again was it really needed, what did the a-bomb have to do with indiana jones. So I gues I lied, there is some of the plot that I didn't like, but I think if it had just been a better made film those problems would have worked themselves out, or been less glaring.

As for the Tigers. How the hell does a team score 16 runs in one game, and then a grand total of 1 for the next 18 innings of baseball. Its beyond description. It looked like they were on the right track at then of April but its tough to watch them now. When they hit they can't pitch and when they pitch they cant hit. Thank God for the Wings!

todd brakke said...

Now, see, you just made half my points for me. :) For what it's worth,I can live with the vine swinging and the straddling two moving vehicles. But I can't let go of the Ewoks... er, monkeys. :)

Actually you also touched on something that I wanted to get into but couldn't find the words to articulate, which is the film's pacing. Too often it just didn't seem to move well from scene to scene, which I think was also a problem in Temple.

Mike in the D said...


As I was thinking and writing some of it I was like "Dammit, that's what todd was saying" and I hate having to say you're right:) But I still enjoyed it, though that may have been due to the fact that I went with a big group of my family and when we walked in theater they had the Indy theme playing in the lobby. Made me feel young:) Still its better than Temple.