Well, it was quite an Indiana Jones weekend for me! The new film, years in the anticipating, finally opened on Thursday, May 22. Alas, I managed to get the date wrong and book two tickets for Saturday, May 24. My friends Gil and Sarah followed my misguided lead before I realized my error. So what else could I do… but go see it twice! Once on opening night and once on the Saturday. It was just fine in the end – the movie was worth a second viewing, and some friends who couldn’t join me on one night were able to go on the other.
Thursday was the real “event”. I was delighted to see more than a few folks dressed as Indy, just as I was. But the best was a gentleman who was a ringer for Sean Connery as Indy’s Dad in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”!
View more photos here.
I went into the film knowing nothing of the plot – which is just the way I wanted it. But I did expect to see certain hallmarks of the series.
- Opening dissolve from the Paramount mountain into something with the same shape: check!
- Old-fashioned map with the animated red line plotting Indy’s path through exotic foreign locales: check!
- Outrageous quantities of some disagreeable creature (snakes, rats, bugs): check!
- Sly reference to events from the earlier films: check!
Now, though, we need to venture into spoiler territory (be warned!) for a bit more analysis. For there were things I felt came up short. We’ll go from least to greatest quibbles.
– New musical themes: No. Since “Raiders”, John Williams has woven catchy and evocative new musical motifs into each successive adventure. But this time, I didn’t hear anything memorable. You’d think that Russian bad guys would inspire some great Slavic melody, but nothing stood out for me.
– Witty banter. Yes, there were some good lines – “grow up and find something to fight with!” – “if you want to really learn something, you’ve got to get out of the library!” – but as many wasted opportunities (and too many lazy anachronisms like someone “having a cow”, or “same old, same old”). And while it was great to see Karen Allen return as Marion Ravenwood, they seemed to mostly just holler at each other. Of course, since they were usually in the middle of a deafening racket, this is understandable. But it leads me to my next unmet expectation:
– A moment of romantic repartee between Indy and his love interest, with a surface conflict barely masking an undercurrent of mutual attraction. Romance in particular is really missing in action here. And Indy and Marion’s final-reel wedding, though a nice touch, doesn’t fill the bill.
I think it’s a misconception of the earlier films that they are non-stop action. These films were all expertly paced, with a balance between edge-of-your-seat thrills and quieter, but always involving, character-defining scenes. Even “Temple of Doom”, wrongfully written off as an overblown misfire, has (among other things) some wonderful stuff between Indy and Willie Scott at the Pankot Palace. In “Crystal Skull,” after the early scenes that set the plot in motion, there’s never any letup at all. I wanted Indy and Marion to have a chance to really engage each other when they weren’t trying to escape from quicksand or dodge Russian machine-gun fire.
So, some key expectations were not really fulfilled.
The “Raiders” films at their best – and thus, we’re mainly speaking of the original – had elements that lifted them above a run-of-the-mill adventure film. “Raiders” had brilliantly staged and inventive action sequences that left you breathless. It had vivid characters that were a tribute to the stereotypical heroes and villains of the genre, yet transcended them. And, for me, there was the element of a timeless and profound mystery being revealed. The Ark of the Covenant resonated for me as more than just a “MacGuffin”, Hitchcock’s term for the thing everyone in the film is after but which serves merely to set the plot in motion and is not really important in itself. The Ark was a powerful goal that lent an air of the supernatural, and a feeing of dread and expectation, to the entire film. And the finale truly lived up to the buildup.
The third film’s quest for the Holy Grail came very close to recapturing this feeling of a fantastical goal made very real and believable.
“Crystal Skull”, conversely, suffers for me from an ill-conceived and too-rambling plot which is also, unlike the other films, entirely invented and not really based on something more or less “real”. On one level it’s clever to take Indy out of the realm of known artifacts of the major religions, which were the touchstones of the first films, and take us both to an ancient culture that predates all of them, and into interplanetary, “Chariots of the Gods” turf. But in the actual execution, it feels like they’re trying too hard. It’s overly complex. It actually took me the two viewings before I felt I really “got” the whole plot – and that shouldn’t be necessary.
In a reverse on the other films, here we only learn at the end just what it is Indy is seeking. So there can be only the vaguest anticipation of what is to come. The alien theme seemed more obvious to me on second viewing, but until late in the film all we nominally have to look forward to as a finale is… a city of gold. “Fortune and glory”, as Indy said in “Temple of Doom”. The crystal skull, until the finale, is just a strange curiosity with no larger resonance.
Then there’s “young Indy” – I never doubted that he was Indy’s son from the start – who is also, I have to say, a disappointment. Shia Laboeuf simply does not project the kind of charisma that should be evident in a product of the Jones family tree. Sure, he is an unsure-of-himself teenager full of false bravado. But I never felt I saw true bravado – only some fencing ability (which seemed a stretch from his switchblade-flipping skills). Oh, and he could swing on vines like a monkey. Hmm.
It also seemed that he was never in real peril. Especially at the end, it was basically just shaking and quaking that they all ran (or jumped) away from, then watched the lovely effects. Sure, he sword-fought the Russian, helped kick and slug his way out of a few jams, and nabbed the skull a couple of times. But he didn’t really get to either be in true danger, or to rescue himself from it and thus show himself to be truly worthy of his Jones lineage.
Memorable set pieces
The first film had the rolling ball, the flying wing fight/explosion, the well of souls, the bar fight and blaze, the truck chase, the basket mixup… the second one had Indy turned into a voodoo zombie, a mine-car chase, and a hilarious multiplication of the lone swordsman of the first film… the third had young Indy in a circus car, the Nazi tank, a Venice speedboat fight, even a face-to-face brush with Hitler himself.
Other than the nuclear test-site sequence, a favourite of mine, we get… another really long truck chase with a swordfight… another few big fights (with way too much slugging and punching for my taste)… another crumbling temple (this time it’s a spaceship underneath, though). Oh, and monkeys. Lots of monkeys. Nothing past the first 30 minutes of the film stands out for me as a great set piece.
For all the seamless effects, I didn’t get a visceral sense of catharsis. We didn’t encounter a holy relic, an ancient ark, or a hundreds-of-years-old Arthurian knight patiently waiting for his final swordfight. We saw E.T. with a “you’re gonna get it” scowl on his face and a villain we didn’t really hate that much get evaporated.
Oh yes, the Villain
Another weak link. Cate Blanchett’s character had possibilities, but frankly I didn’t find her evil enough! She was basically just really determined, and skillful, in trying to get what she wanted.
Maybe the problem is that no matter how driven to control minds or conquer the West she was, it simply wasn’t a level of villainy on a par with the Nazis of two decades previous.
So her demise via burning eyes seemed almost an anticlimax – expected but not particularly novel, and certainly not the sort of “just desserts” moment one wants to find at the end of an Indy-sized conflict.
The effects have always been human-scale even at their most fanciful – a group of Nazis being shot through with power-of-god lightning… an immoral tycoon aging to dust for his sins. So, to see an entire land mass being transformed into rubble and flooded before our eyes, and a spaceship emerging, was lovely to watch, but felt more like a showcase for what 21st-century effects can do and not really anything more than that. Pure spectacle but without any emotion attached.
The Good Stuff
Despite the above, there was a lot to enjoy in this film. Funny but for me, I think I most enjoyed the “Indy in suburbia” / nuclear test sequence. Indy climbing through laundry into a 50’s suburban backyard, and then being placed right in the middle of the iconic nuclear tests we’ve all seen footage of, was pretty fantastic (even if his escape stretched credulity to the breaking point).
Ultimately, I found this film to be a mixed bag, not as sharply written as the earlier ones, and despite the father-son dynamic with Indy and Mutt, lacking in truly resonant themes like those that lifted the previous films above the ordinary.
Luckily I kept my expectations in check, so I did enjoy myself and was happy to see it twice. But two times is enough, I’d say. Now, excuse me while I go enjoy my “Raiders” box set again…