Digital Polyphony

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 Not That Bad:


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

 

The Movie:

In the fourth Indiana Jones film, Indiana (Harrison Ford) is in a race to find and hide the crystal skull from those pesky Russians led by Irina Spalko (Kate Blanchett). There’s also a guy named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) who tags along and his the son of Jones’s longtime off/on again girlfriend Marion Ravenwoods (Karen Allen). Also John Hurt is here for exposition and Ray Winstone for comedy relief and a running gag.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released in May of 2008 to be number one at the Box Office and overall positive reviews from critics. However, it was also much maligned online by the necessity of people wanting to nit pick and be snarky and would go on to win a Razzie for Best Worst Sequel. Perhaps I should write something up on how a successful film seems to bring people out of the woodwork to tear it down (less to offer critique and more to just say “look at me I’m complaining”)  or how expectations are never going to be met, but maybe another time.

Either way, on paper the film did fine and was received fine, but in general conversation in the ether and online, it’s a much different story. Despite being, in tone, much like the previous Indiana Jones movies which is a pulpy sendup of old serial adventures meets James Bond, it was met with a vitriol the likes of which had never been seen (at least since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Is it really that bad?



The Common Complaints:

What are the common things people bring up when they sit around and talk about the movie? From my experience, these are:

 

Nuking the Fridge

Look, if it wasn’t Indiana Jones, then I could see someone having a problem with it. But we’ve seen this character do all sorts of utterly ridiculous stuff that would kill any normal person. More importantly, though, beyond the nine-lives that’s been established for Henry Jr. the movies are full of the absurd. The ridiculous. The completely “oh yeah right…” moments. Raiders had Indiana Jones riding a submarine like a horse and the power of God melting faces. There’s magical stones and surviving jumping out of a plane with only a liferaft to use as a parachute in Temple of Doom and in Last Crusade, some say the most “grounded” (I assume that’s relative) out of the three original films, you have an immortal man sitting around waiting for morons to choose a wrong cup.

If you can buy hearts getting ripped out and false grails, you should be able to buy lead-lined fridges. It’s absurd, but that’s always been the point of the movies. How are those things acceptable and a silly fridge gag not?

 

Honestly, this whole sequence I loved.  It's overkill, sure, but because it's this character I buy it.



Shia….Just Shia

The hot name in Hollywood at the time, but let’s face it, it’s not so much Shia LaBeouf that’s the issue as much as it is the character of Mutt and Shia not having anything to really do. All Mutt does is sit around, watch stuff, then have a ton of stuff explained to him. He’s probably meant to be the audience “avatar” in a way, a common practice in narrative storytelling, but I say this: we’ve had three movies of Indiana Jones. We know who he is. What it’s all about. We don’t need that.

So what’s the real issue? It’s not the actor, it's that the character is just flat-out poorly written and, ultimately, unnecessary. His chemistry with Allen and Ford doesn’t seem as natural either. He’s out of place, as though the film is saying “this next generation doesn’t know shit." The complaint shouldn't be about LaBeouf but that he really doesn't have a character to do anything with. The kid could (and still kinda can) act, but there's nothing to Mutt.  ”


Horrible computer effects

I…

Yeah I got nothing on that. It’s amazing that the movie looked as bad as it did in some critical, effects-heavy scenes. Obvious computer effects, an entire major chase and action sequence done horribly as a result of way too much going on for any group of artist to really handle not to mention they probably could have been done practically in the first place. Go and watch the chase sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark and put it up against the one in this movie. Raiders stands up. This one is already dated and looks bad and doesn’t feel “real” and therefore doesn’t feel as weighty.

 

It Feels Dated

Yeah, it does, but think about it - it's kind of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario. If they structure it old-school as they did and approach it like the old movies, people will complain, but if they tried to change it all, people would still complain. Welcome to the world of internet film criticism, I guess.  Crystal Skull still feels like an Indiana Jones movie, and maybe for some that's to a fault because a lot has happened in nearly 20 years in cinema and maybe throwing in something new would have done more. A common critique is it feels like it's just going through the motions, and I would buy that a little more than it feels "old fashioned." 

This one is an actual, legit critique, though. The thing is, you have to still put out there the "why" it being "old and dated" is a bad thing. Sometimes old and dated works for the right material, especially material founded on old tropes and ideas in the first place. I think it's less that it's "old and dated" and more that it's not "exactly like" the older movies. In other words, it's old, but still trying to shove in new things (computer effects and bigger scope) which makes it feel out of whack. Which it does, certainly. So it's not so much it feels "dated" or it's "going through the motions" as much as it lacks a clear, consistent tone and approach to the material. Either go all-in on the old-fashioned approach or just go ahead and make a Mummy sequel.



My Complaints:

It's one thing to just be snarky and hate on the movie, but let's dig a little deeper and take notice of some of the more egregious faults.

 

Why is John Hurt in this Movie?

John Hurt as Professor Oxley, a character we have never heard of or know anything about, kind of just shows up as a major plot element about half-way through (though he's mentioned earlier, he suddenly becomes a player). There’s really no purpose to him actually being around, though. I would argue that, at one point, this was likely meant to be for Sean Connery to come back to the series and they had to make do with this new character when Connery didn’t come on board...and he really has nothing to do as a result. His character has nothing to him other than play senile and is only there to push the plot forward…and that’s just lazy writing.

On a larger level...that’s totally a legit issue with one of the major flaws of the film. It’s kind of lazy. When it’s working strong, usually in its early Acts, it’s great. It has wonderful moments. Then it realizes it needs to do more beyond having a few nice action beats and a couple decent character scenes and actually have something "big" happen. The solution, apparently, was to throw in what’s pretty much a deus ex machine to get the ball rolling. No, not the Crystal Skull, but the entire purpose of a character we have no affection for and the movie doesn’t once attempt to get us to make a connection with. We have a great actor being a plot device and nothing more, and that's just sad.

 

A Sluggish Second Act and Anticlamatic Finale

The Finale in the Indiana Jones films are, usually, the most memorable parts. We’re talking face melting, minecart chases and puzzle trials here. Raiders is debatable, in a way, as it’s third act consists mostly of one major scene, but boy was it a major scene. This goes back to the James Bond ideas the series came from in the first place: a constant buildup to a big finish. Crystal Skull doesn’t quite land its finale. It has some nice special effects, but there’s no “big” finish here despite it desperately trying to tell us how "big" it is. It kind of just moves along and they run out of a crumbling temple and watch a spaceship takeoff. It’s a cool, flashy scenario, sure, but we’ve seen stuff like that hundreds of times in movies. Hell, Raiders did it in its opening, not its finale

This kind of leads me to discuss the seemingly awkward and directionless second Act of the movie. I can deal with an awkward and directionless second act (see Temple of Doom) as long as it has an awesome payoff. Crystal Skull doesn't, making that awkward “ok what do we do?” second act that is all over the place. Then when you can't make up for it with a finish, well that's like going on a date, having an awful dinner but still expecting great sex at the end of it, then just getting a clumsy handjob in the backseat.

 

There’s no Weight

What’s the risk here? The Russians are going to get a UFO or something, perhaps some crazy power no different than what the Nazis were after when it comes down to it, but nothing really feels as though it’s end-of-the-world stuff. You see, the Russians aren’t (weren’t) the Nazis. If the Nazis got an Ark or a Grail, some serious shit is probably going to go down. They were pure evil. They would use that stuff for evil. End of story and you don't need to expand beyond that.

The Russians, even in our most red-scare/communist paranoia state of the 1950s, never quite got to that point of the Nazis. Yes, they were dicks and the cold war a real threat, but it was only a cold war. There was nothing “cold war” about the Nazis. We saw what they were capable of. The Russians? A lot of political grandstanding for posturing for the most part. There’s not a “well if the Russians get this, the world is doomed” scenario. As far as we know, they’d take the artifact or whatever and put it in a crate just the US Government did with the Ark of the Covenant.

Perhaps, instead of trying to demonize the Ruskies, the movie should have just made up a new villain. Play the James Bond elements even further and have a weird organization (maybe made up of ex-Nazis) to be that villain. We're talking Hydra-esque type of stuff, and that would have a hell of a lot more weight and feel like a more serious threat. It would also be nice if the story explained what the Skull would offer as a result. We get the Ark and the Grail. We see what the Shakra Stones are capable of. There's something about the skull and the inner-dimensional aliens that never feels like a real threat as well.

So in other words, the bad guys don't feel like a threat and the endgame is never quite clear. Not a good way to structure any movie around much less an Indiana Jones flick.

 

F'n Monkeys

It’s strange. The idea that Indiana Jones can use his wits and get out of a nuclear blast is something I’m fine with because we’ve established that’s kinda Jones’ thing - but some rookie greaser punk somehow befriending monkeys in trees and they, somehow, helping him swing along to get back to an otherwise enjoyable chase sequence is probably the most contrived and pretty pointless scene in the entire thing. I mean, you already have a chase sequence going on, and it’s working pretty well. It has problems on its own, sure, but it’s getting the job done. But then you throw in CG Monkeys?

I don’t like to nit-pick, but this is one sequence that is so clunky and clumsy and weird and off-putting that it takes me completely out of the movie. A nuked fridge? I can buy that. That’s Indy doing Indy stuff and it’s awesome. Mutt playing Tarzan? Sorry…something doesn’t fit.

Plus it just looks bad...this whole long chase sequence looks bad, but Tarzan Shia-Indy is by the worst and feels like it was given to the B-Team.

 

Tries too Hard to be Clever/Witty/Humorous

The Indiana Jones movies are full of wit and humor balanced with a sense of a real threat and adventure. Much like Temple of Doom, Crystal Skull feels like it’s trying too hard to the point where it turns from witty and funny to just outright annoyance. While there’s nothing as painful as Kate Capshaw here, there are lines and winks that are all-too-obvious to ignore and take you right out of the movie.  Not in that “Indy looking at his father for approval and his father just checks his watch” kind of way, then Indy looks at the camera and just shakes his head. No. Here it’s “look how old we are and now we’re trying to do stuff and have a one-liner.” It feels forced. It feels trite. It feels pandering and it mostly comes from Mutt, our unnecessary audience avatar, just citing how old Jones is.

You know what Mutt? Shut up. You don't talk that way to Indy and you, as the audience avatar, shouldn't be such a dick to a beloved character. Talk about a turn off.



The Awesome Stuff

It's not all bad, you know...here's some things that people should consider or even re-consider.

 

Ray Winstone is Awesome

The ongoing story of “Mac” is a fun element of Crystal Skull and Winstone is wonderfully memorable as the constantly-backstabbing character. Winstone is a great character actor and his chemistry with Ford works incredibly well here, probably moreso than any other supporting character in the thing. Mac is one of the few humorous things in the movie that works. Plus, it's just great to see a fantastic actor like Winstone in a movie like this. 


Cate Blanchett is Awesome

Even though I mentioned that the Russians just aren’t as big a threat as Nazis, Irina Spalko is a pretty memorable villain. Blanchett hams it up and really gets into her role. She’s having fun and it shows. True, she doesn’t have the gravitas of a Belloq or even the serious threat of a Mola Ram, but she’s distinct and exactly what a pulp villain in a pulp-send-up should be. Plus, let's be honest, the fact that we have a female character in an Indiana Jones movie not be a sex object, femme fatale or someone for Indy to just play off of is kind of a big deal.

In fact, Crystal Skull doesn't have any of those old tropes (which were taken from the Bond movies to begin with in the previous three films). There's really no damsel in distress or someone to simply sleep with, and that's pretty cool. Karen Allen's character is more a mom trying to get rid of her past, who eventually embraces it, and Irina is just a pretty awesome villain. It's nice to see.

 

 She's good enough that even bad lighting and backgrounds can (possibly) go unnoticed. Seriously, the sun is in the background yet the key lighting comes from the left...

 

The Campus Chase Scene is What the Later Chase Scene Wishes it Could Be

It’s interesting that the shorter, less elaborate chase sequence is far better than the later, long chase sequence through the jungle of South America. Why? Easy. The chase sequence at the University is practical and real, the later one is full of computer effects. Bad computer effects at that. Now it’s not horrible, mind you, it’s at least entertaining and keeps things moving, but I love the dynamic shooting and overall playfulness of Indy and Shia-Indy on the run from strange men after them. It’s classic Spielberg, with a lot of great long-shots and pitch-perfect editing.

 

The Warehouse Sequence is incredibly well crafted (the entire opening, actually...bad CG Praire Dog aside)

It’s tense. It’s nostalgic. It has a whole lot happening in a small time frame. It’s also humorous and really a great way to start off the movie. This opening scene of Crystal Skull: the set up followed by the tension and threats then a chase sequence followed by a classic fist-fight…well it’s just really well done. I love the sequence overall and wish the movie had more going on like this…hell more like the first act actually. Wonderfully paced, great reveals, a sense of progression...it's what much of the rest of the film lacks.

This and the Campus chase sequence, both in the first Act of the movie, are when Crystal Skull really hits its mark. There's not a ton of CG, it's all tangible and mostly in-camera and, not to mention, really nostalgic (the University where Jones has worked for decades and the Warehouse from Raiders, it's great nods to the previous films in both cases). The sad thing is, these sequences are so good that it makes the bad things I mentioned earlier stand out even more. You end up asking "Wait, why isn't the rest of the movie like this? What happened?"

Well, despite all that, there is one crucial element that always pulls me through the movie even as it offers us diminishing returns the further along it gets...



Ford’s Still Got It

The one thing that was in question is whether or not Ford would slide back into the role of Indiana Jones. Let’s face it, he’s changed a lot in the decades since those movies - less energetic and more mulling around. He’s a great actor, but Indiana was a time and place for him. Turns out, he pulled it off, and he did it rather gracefully. It felt natural. It felt exactly what a 60-something Indiana Jones would be doing: trying his best and still getting out of jams. If there’s one singular thing that pulls you through this movie, it’s Ford’s commitment and the fact that, yes, this is Indiana as a character even if you’re not too big on the adventure he’s on.

 



So…Is It Really That Bad?

No, not really. No more than Temple of Doom, at least, and some people seem to forget that was an incredibly uneven film as well. Both have great moments but not a complete package and both kind of mirror images of each other, one starting strong and ending poorly, the other starting slow and ending perfectly.

It has some issues and it has three or four things that just rub people the wrong way including myself. It’s not so much the suspension of disbelief issue, the Indiana Jones movies are full of them, that many have as much as it is a structural issue. It’s a movie that starts incredibly strong and seems to slowly unravel as we progress and then it can't even give a proper finale to make it worth the wait. It has some consistent elements, I think Ford and Allen are solid and, as mentioned, Winstone and Blanchett very memorable, but its best material is early and it never quite gets back to that bar.

Simultaneously, I wonder if all the online snark towards this movie has less to do with the serious problems of it and more high expectations not being met (and forgetting that Temple of Doom wasn't that great as well yet, now, people seem to ignore and love...PS I love that movie). Ford is absolutely game here. He slides nicely right back into that fedora and even though he’s older, you get the sense that this is an older Indy for a new age and still doing Indy stuff and out of place in this new world (He belongs in a museum). The sense of adventure and desire to be fun is there, it just ends up getting misguided along the way around the time John Hurt shows up, which kind of marks the time the movie turns a little slow and dull and seems aimless.

 

 

It's a dumb pulp adventure doing dumb pulp adventure things. It's nowhere as well crafted as the previous movies, but it's not awful. Fine to dislike it, but we're talking relative here to other Indiana Jones movies...against some other awful Hollywood action flicks, I've seen far worse.

 

But I love the character. I love when the movie is working and doing what Indy does so well. It’s not a great movie, but not the horrible abomination that the internet loves to demonize it as. I think a more serious question is not so much whether the movie is bad but why it's suddenly an awful thing to like bad things. You can like bad things, you know (again...see my love of Temple of Doom). It has some strong moments kept mostly down from lazy writing, unnecessary characters and the occasional awful computer effect in one major action set piece. Faults and all, it’s still an Indiana Jones movie doing Indiana Jones things. It succeeds in that and that is the one thing I really needed it to do.


 

 

  

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