Sunday, May 25, 2008
"Where Did You Dig Up That Old Fossil?"
My most prominent memory from the Indiana Jones franchise is that the first movie made my ex-wife cry. We had gone to see Raiders of the Lost Ark on one of our early dates--early enough that we hadn't seen too many movies, but late enough that we were already beginning to think of our selves as "an item." And the tears? Was it because of some poignancy of the story line? Some profound truth about the human condition exposed therein? Was it because the movie frightened her? Well, actually, it was kind of that last one. Not a fear from the scary special effects or from a pummeling awe at Jehezephine's mighty power that jets forth from Ye Olde Boxxe of Magick Sande. No, she was terrified that in my refusal to stomp indignantly out of the theater by mid-film she had seen both the limits of my lumbering intellect and my very marginal literary tastes; she had seen a vision of the future--our future--and she did not like it! (In retrospect, if only her vision extended just a bit further into the future she might have saved us both 13 years of toil.) I kind of chuckled my way through the film, wondrously clueless of what a mountain of shit I'd need very shortly to shovel if I intended to find myself back in the her good graces.
I didn't love the film, mind you. But I was of a mindset that one plunked oneself down and let the story carry you along. I was not accustomed to bringing critical faculties with me to the theater. This was an entertainment. But hey, I was 22. As the years passed and I had occasion to re-watch that first film and to see the sequels I began to think she might have been on to something after all. In trying to reach back to the madcap dashing of '30s adventure movies, Lucas and Spielberg were dipping into not nearly so fertile an inkwell as the hero mythology that Lucas used as the key nutrient in his Star Wars franchise. And I can only surmise that it's this which has kept the Indy movies from aging very well for me. I've lost a bit of my appetite for Star Wars over the years as well, but something in the basic story--either the hero mythology or the glories of space travel made mundane or whatever--has kept at least the original movie on my personal list of significant cinema. The second Indiana Jones movie seemed quite contrived and silly, and by the third in the series I had decided I was simply 20 years too old for them.
Well, you can see where this is leading. At nearly 46, I'm left not only scratching my head about the whole business, but even I almost burst into tears after seeing this latest, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. OK, that's a lie: I didn't get in the least misty. But I did think it a relentlessly stupid movie and kind of kicked myself for parting with $12 to see it. (Apparently there's a life's lesson there--the one called "learning something"--that I seem to have missed.)
There's no getting around time's ravages since Harrison Ford last played this role (though he looks damn good for being almost 70), and so the movie dutifully jumps ahead 20 years to 1957 and, the Nazis having been consigned to history's trash heap, picks as Indy's foil the Evil Empire of the Day. Yep, Soviets. And Indiana Jones has to work his way around their wily clutches in very much the same way as he thwarted Hitler's minions in the Good Ol' Days. There's nothing else coherent enough about the story to bother summarizing it here. I'm not even sure I could if I wanted. Something about magic skulls which have something to do with aliens and a race against time with bad guys and indecipherable hieroglyphs and a captured mad scientist. Oh yeah, and Indiana Jones's long-forgotten (by us) sweetheart and his illegitimate son thrown in. In all, not hugely stupider bones than any of the previous films (oops, there's that word again).
But you know? None of it works. Nothing. The interaction between people is flat and forced, the sets seem Hollywood-fake, the action is brain-crumblingly contrived, and none of the characters is even remotely compelling. Not even Indiana Jones himself. Newcomer Shia LaBeouf (which rhymes with Sktrachtickle Mghurrhican)--who is obviously being groomed to continue the cash cow--er, franchise--gives it a college try, and John Hurt does the best he can with his ludicrous-but-no-doubt-lucrative part. But that's about it. If the movie even comes close to working, it's because of all the associative shit we bring with us to the theater from the last three movies. Take that stuff away and we're left with an elaborate "Look what we can do!" brochure for Industrial Light & Magic. It just seems like some studio muckety-muck had the Big Corner-Office Brainchild that they could bring in some big numbers by reviving an old, successful franchise before all the key players have died off, and this is the result: slickly produced with big budgets and state-of-the-art effects, but without meaningful story. This is ass-backward. Why not wait until someone has written a really compelling story, one which just BEGS for a swashbuckling archeologist? Well, I can answer that: because there seems to have been only one such story and they told it 25 years ago. Note to Studio Executives: "nothing to see here; move along."
Even with their franchise-driven modus operandi, nobody seems to have given much of a damn about this one. The details are just so glaringly wrong everywhere you look. Cate Blanchett's accent is ludicrous (never mind, she's hot); Karen Allen is like somebody's non-acting mom put up on the Big Screen; Shia LaBeouf's Harley is 50 years too new (though the fact that one has to look at the hydraulic brake cylinder to confirm the fact tells you much of what you need to know about Harley Davidson); the explosions are cheesy; everything defies basic physics. I just don't need to see another scene where whole armies of machine-gun-wielding soldiers cannot hit three running people 20 feet away... over and over and again. And the movie that needs this plot device (oh yeah, and there's one of those timer scenes... god) just has me reactively groping for the flush lever. And what's with the fetish about old, complicated machinery made out of huge, stone parts? Wheels and cogs and ramps and retracting steps and trap doors and weird levery-things that do some inexplicable thing (called "looking cool"). How is it that the cars used in the film seem to explode violently whenever they touch another object, yet this billion-year-old stone machinery, crusted with rocks and dirt and trees, never jams or malfunctions? How does Indy instinctively know on one movie that stepping on the floor will activate one of these machines, causing a volley of poison darts to be shot at you, while in the next movie he barges into newly-discovered tombs like a bull in a china shop, cavalierly breaking priceless antiquities and slashing up old mummies in search of he knows not what? Is that really how a professional would approach a tomb of the ancients?
Of course not. I know I said of James Bond that we mustn't insist on too much realism lest the whole franchise slip through our fingers altogether; but in this case I say let it go and good riddance. If this is the best a big studio can do for action entertainment, then give us another Incredibles movie instead. At least it makes no bones about being fake in every particular and it was brilliantly written to boot.
This one was a waste of time.