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Zeroing a Hero:
Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review



Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

The best sequence of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — which arrives 19 years after its supposedly conclusive predecessor — is, like the best of producer-director dream team George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s past efforts: bizarrely macabre. After escaping from government-vault-raiding Soviets led by a beautiful paranormal expert (Cate Blanchett, shape-shifting again into a leather glove-snapping, live action version of G.I. Joe’s Baroness), Harrison Ford’s older but not-so-weathered Indy looks for help in an Everysuburb of white picket fences and pastel-colored houses. He quickly realizes the town’s inhabitants are literal dummies, mannequins about to receive the brunt of a nuclear bomb. At the last second Indy shelters himself in a lead-lined refrigerator and survives the blast. Viscerally and metaphorically it’s the stuff of a surreal Cold War nightmare, a single aware person seeking refuge amidst the false comforts of a soon to be obliterated bourgeois America, accidentally caught in a “test” the insanity of which is the product of his mutual destruction times. It’s also, as far as I can recall, an environmental departure from anything else in the series’ previous films, whose strangest, most hellish moments occurred at a luxurious distance in exotic fantasy locales. Though improbable, Indy’s mushroom cloud ride isn’t a supernatural, grotesque, or fanciful adventure — in his comic book world it’s something uniquely disquieting occurring on home soil.

The frantic, panicked tone of this scene jars considerably with the rest of Crystal Skull’s first act Fifties pastiche, packed as it is with clean-cut, sweatered extras, lazily nostalgic soundtrack choices (“Hound Dog,” “Wake Up Little Susie”) and insignificant bullet points of Red Scare paranoia. The Eisenhower-era highlight reel (war veteran Indy’s true blue patriotic valor gets shown off when our hero offers “I Like Ike” as his potential last words) is at its lamest when Shia LaBeouf’s greaser motorcyclist, Mutt, is introduced dressed and posed like Marlon Brando from The Wild One, a desperate and disproportional equating of two attractive young actors that cries out for a Lloyd Bentsen-inspired putdown. It’ll likely be argued that such quaint and thinly sketched period detail is par for the Indy course, not much different than the clichéd backdrop of pure evil Nazi Germany was used for in The Last Crusade, but something feels off here. The invoked atmosphere is too glossy, too safe, too much the look of a good-old-days advertisement to do anything substantially different or interesting with Fifties iconography. The opening scene, an ironic East vs. West road race between jovial, blissfully unsuspecting American teenagers and stern Soviet baddies disguised as American military, plays like Mulholland Drive’s own fevered beginning diffused by the presence of cute CGI gophers; Indy’s firing from his teaching position due to fictional Communist sympathies only permits him into the second-act jungles of Peru.

This is where Indiana naturally belongs. But, more disappointingly, something feels off here, too. Once Indy and Mutt escape from the clutches of KGB and FBI agents in America they head to the Amazon to search for the legendary Crystal Skull of Akator. They find it but are taken captive and thrown in with Karen Allen, who's back in the role of Marion Ravenwood from Raiders — she’s not only Indy’s former lover but also Mutt’s mom. For the moment I’ll leave the reader to wildly guess where that coincidence might lead, but for now some plot: Marion is being held prisoner along with Harold Oxley (John Hurt as a Skull-obsessed Jones colleague, looking as if he’d gone on an endless peyote bender) by the Soviets, who, like everyone else, need the treasure to unlock the mysterious power of El Dorado. The Skull repeatedly switches hands, most notably in an escape and then chase scene through the jungle that seems to take up too much of Crystal Skull’s runtime — when at last Indy and co. arrive at the City of Gold’s majestic temple, it feels like a good bulk of the film has gone up in smoke.

This failure can be attributed, in part, to Spielberg’s usual strong suit — or Achilles’ heel, depending on your point of view. Yes, Crystal Skull is another absent-daddy story (from a David Koepp screenplay, adapted from a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson) brought to life by Hollywood’s most famous grown child: Mutt turns out to be Indy’s son (surprise!). But where The Last Crusade patiently traced the relationship between Jones Junior and his oft-missing father and in the process found humorous, moving, and mystical developments in their bond, here Marion, Indiana and Mutt merely trade quips during the chaos of the chase concerning the kid’s future (before learning Indiana learns Mutt’s his offspring, he approves the kid’s desire to spend his life in motorcycle repair; afterward he demands he hit the books). While the nonstop stuntman work that drowns out the brief and mainly expositional chatter is supposed to make good on the price paid for a ticket to Crystal Skull, the typical Spielbergian ratio of hugs to heroics — the ratio that supposedly gives his films the genuine heart other blockbusters skimp out on — is far enough out of whack to leave us wondering how much emotion should be invested in the pat and empty outcome of the film’s thin family dynamics. Ford and LaBeouf, by the way, have zero chemistry as compared with Ford and Connery; no wonder the film pulls back from passing LaBeouf the trademark hat at film’s end.

What separated Indiana Jones, professor of archaeology by day and safari-outfitted whip lasher by night, from the majority of Eighties action heroes was certainly not mature emotion, but old-fashioned pluck, wit, and devil-may-care swagger — the robotic and sour Schwarzeneggers and Stallones may have blown more things up, but they weren’t really fun. Indiana was. And to Lucas and Spielberg’s credit, Jones’ inimitable élan — so inseparable from the racist and imperialist attitudes that placed him ideologically not all that far from his big-screen competitors — had as much to do with being the pivot point of a popcorn entertainment universe born from the minds of two men who had spent a lifetime at and in the movies. All the previous Indiana Jones films, even weak link Temple of Doom, expertly wed cheesy exotic set designs and state-of-the-art special effects, Eighties action-movie bombast and Buster Keaton-worthy slapstick, the wide-eyed naiveté of Boys’ Life adventure stories and the gruesome visuals of B-movie horror fare. And yet, aside for a cave or two of fake cobwebs and prop collection mummies, little of the retro adventure spirit of the old Indy serial homages is in evidence in Crystal Skull. The surrounding jungle where most of the action unfolds is mere CGI wallpaper; the race through the jungle, even with a storm of gigantic killer ants and the sight of Mutt swinging vine to vine with an army of monkeys, is uninspired and by the numbers; three crashes down enormous waterfalls are shown only as digital blurs in dull extreme long shots; and Cate Blanchett’s alien-induced face melt is so seamlessly achieved it can’t even come close to approaching the gross-out intimacy of the scenes from Raiders that traumatized an entire generation of children and adolescents.

Oh, you read right — alien-induced. Crystal Skull doubles as the fourth Indy movie and fourth Spielberg alien movie, yet it’s not too much narrative fancy that proves the series tired (this is Indiana Jones we’re talking about), it’s the lack of imagination. The invaluable treasure of the title, which looks like a cross between the Alien craniums of H.R. Giger and the bunny skull of Donnie Darko, has something too do with a collective of “inter-dimensional beings” who, as in 2001, brought agricultural and intellectual knowledge to ancient human civilizations. I’m sure Armond White will find some vague metaphysical daring in this premise (the aliens’ true treasure is, we’re told with perfect new-age vacuity, knowledge) but it really reeks of second-hand profundity, a major letdown from the earnest and poignant Christian mysticism of The Last Crusade and just as derivative as the several other borrowings from better executed material in the original films.

Each new Spielberg film inevitably occasions some serious think-piece writing about the latest addition to the oeuvre of the most loved and hated American director currently at work. Having recently caught up on some Spielberg films I’ve missed over the years I must admit to being more baffled by him than ever — how could such a savvy creator of pop culture that’s both unabashedly awe-inspiring (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and deeply disturbing (AI: Artificial Intelligence) raise suspicions that he’s just trotting out an old cash cow for one more milking? Spielberg once stated in an interview, “I don’t think you can be a serious filmmaker making audience popcorn movies unless you believe the stories you’re telling.” I in turn believe he’s sincere about that — it probably means something that Crystal Skull comes after a string of mostly dark films, thus marking a return to familiar, lighter-hearted environs. Yet the film’s joyless, going-through-the-motions mood cannot be ignored. In the past Spielberg has proved himself complex and facile, challenging and pandering, technically virtuosic and dramatically inept, a knowing representative of American self-contradiction and a satisfied champion of the system that made him his fortune. But — until a 90 percent anemic Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — never before empty and pointless.




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