This movie certainly does not belong in a museum…
by Adam Miller
After finally catching INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL I wasn’t quite ready to write one of my awful “10 Reasons to Hate” reviews. I just couldn’t hate this movie as much as I have others in recent memory. Deep down inside CRYSTAL is the action-hero I’ve come to know and love. The American version of James Bond, sure, and better in every way. Indiana Jones is dirtier, gruffer, and a lot more vulnerable than his British analogue. The point is simply that the archetype of Jones is, like a lost relic, buried under much of the gunk that CRYSTAL presents the viewer with. But is it worth digging to find it?
CRYSTAL is a mess, and there are three reasons why: David Koepp, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. I am more forgiving of these three stooges because their task (of their own choosing, mind you) was perhaps insurmountable: to resurrect an action hero as an old man. Sylvester Stallone has been going at the project ardently, with mixed results. But let’s be honest, in the great spectrum of Hollywood heroes, John Rambo and Rocky Balboa ain’t no Indiana Jones. Stallone’s characters were rooted in the realities of the Vietnam War and the lower-middle classes of Philadelphia. They wielded guns and boxing gloves. Jones tinkered with the toys of God. What happens when you turn a character almost as mythic as the artifacts he studies into an old man? A husband? A father?
Without further ado, the blame game…
I've almost never liked the work of David Koepp because I often find he writes the most un-quotable screenplays. And quotable is exactly what we want Inidiana Jones to be. The one, in my opinion, exception, is JURASSIC PARK which had plenty of great quotes which I'll give Koepp credit for. But even other movies penned by Koepp which I liked (MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, TOY SOLDIERS) I enjoy for higher-level plot issues—the line-by-line quotability for those films really isn't great.
By contrast, the RAIDERS screenplay was by one of the best, Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan helmed his own smash hit THE BIG CHILL and also the very popular BODY HEAT, but Lucas fans would most recognize his name in association with "best" STAR WARS screenplay, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. There's simply no comparing the bodies of work. Koepp lacks the lyricism required to leave one liners zinging in the audience’s heads as they leave the theater.
George Lucas, meanwhile, as we know, has slain many the mythic beast of his own creation. He brought cinematic ruination to the beloved STAR WARS franchise—consistently putting special effects before any semblance of character or plot. I haven't researched all the script-changes he ordered, but can only assume that his manic hands threw out a lot of earlier, better scripts than the one farted in the audience’s direction (UFOs? Inter-dimensional portals? Russkie chicks with swords?).
Spielberg, lastly, a director I still stick up for whenever I can has one flaw: he keeps working with nincompoops. Spielberg Executive Produced TRANSFORMERS and no doubt made his connection with young star Shia LaBeouf on that picture. What Spielberg sees is LaBeouf is beyond me (though to be fair, he gets a better performance out of him than Bay did—no surprise). But what genuinely disturbs me is the following: Back in my TRANSFORMERS review I cited the number one flaw with that movie as the "Woah factor." In that review, I concluded:
Transformers exists only to elicit that single reaction: "Woah!" For me, it fails even on that point. By the film's end I was completely disinterested and had I not been there with others I would have walked out long before the credits rolled. But even for those who did say "Woah" in the audience as much as the characters said it on screen, I still have to point out that that's a rather pathetic achievement. "Woah," after all, is a fleeting expression, not even worth the effort of saying "Oh my god that was incredible," instead simply, "Woah," and move on to the next brief thrill. This paradigm is perhaps the cause for Bay's rapid-fire pacing. He never sets his sights any higher than "Woah" and realizes that to make up for the lack of "Woah's" quality he needs constant, ceaseless, quantity. Perhaps he achieves it for himself and for others, but maybe after reading this review one will realize that "Woah" just doesn't cut it any more.
Obviously Spielberg did not read my review. As I watched CRYSTAL I wanted to like it. I was forgiving of the rocky media-in-res opening; willing to forgive Cate Blanchett’s horribly constructed villain; and was even happy to go along with the goofiness of Jones escaping a nuclear explosion via lead-lined refrigerator. After all, the latter underlined the fact that Jones is in a new age (literally and figuratively). But what I wanted to believe was just a bit of fun on the filmmakers' parts quickly became re-interpreted as the TRANSFORMERS “woah” aesthetic. To wit, I cite the jeep chase scene at the end of the film where the characters finally just start shouting "Woah" at each other and my heart went out. It all fell into place: this is why the movie isn't sitting right: it's Spielberg doing Bay doing himself, as usual.
For me, the best Spielberg films are the ones where you recognize that he's playing with his "childhood" imagination. We're talking RAIDERS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, even HOOK but tempers that childlike sensibility with his adult experience. Those films are both incredible fantasies, but also wistful in the sense that they know they're fantasies; they know they are imagination tempered by the apparatus of film-making. CRYSTAL is, like TRANSFORMERS, a teenager's imagination tempered by nothing, except maybe profit-motive.
There's a lingering shot of Jones' silhoutte standing in the foreground of a blossoming mushroom cloud which was dramatic, beautiful, and super-charged with evolution of the Jones mythology. After all, Jones is a man of the past. He's an archaeologist—we've seen him get out of sticky situations, sure, but he's really never seemed like one who's good at adapting; one who cares too much about the future. How does he face the new specter of nuclear holocaust and the Cold War? Rather than show us this conflict, the movie pushes it off-screen. We learn that Jones works for Secret Intelligence and fought in the War for heaven's sake! That he has some kind of pro-American ideological investment which has NEVER been established prior. In fact, in RAIDERS Jones is clearly weary of the government spooks who first approach him about the Ark and who ultimately steal it back from him (hiding it, apparently, at Area 51). There is brief flirtation with this theme in CRYSTAL early on, but the briefly introduced CIA (and KGB) characters completely disappear from the movie. In RAIDERS both the U.S. and the Nazi's wanted the Ark. For different reasons, perhaps, but at some level both governments sponsored treasure hunting; sponsored the hijacking of religious artifacts. Neither America or Germany was the hero: Jones was.
Here the character of Jones is struggling to keep up with the CGI pyrotechnics and mile-a-minute globetrotting. Ever since RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the name "Indiana Jones" has appeared in every Jones movie. There was a reason for that. CRYSTAL is not about Jones. It simultaneously is and is about the world moving on with Dr. Jones, even as it claims to be a JONES picture. Spielberg and Lucas seem lately more invested in the marvels of computer animation than storytelling or character development (or certainly screen writing). It's almost as if watching the recent works of these two, you sense a need in them to "keep up" with younger generation of Bays and Wachowskis. I'll leave you with a quote from one of Koepp's best screenplays and a far superior summer blockbuster from Spielberg:
Yeah, but your scientists (or film producers) were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.
I recommend these cinematic giants start heeding their own advice. Far better to be a masterful relic than a contemporary hack? INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL seems to say so.