Friday, May 30, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008)

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Anniversary of Doom

Almost twenty years after his last onscreen outing, Henry Jones Jr., better known as "Indiana" ("Indy" for short) Jones, has been pulled out of the mothballs, dusted off, and put through his paces one more time. Does lightning strike a fourth time? Well--

Perhaps the movie's finest moment comes at the very beginning. Right off we're treated to a drag race a la Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), ending with an assault on a top-secret military base. A car trunk is opened; a man is hauled out, thrown to the floor--but before we see the man's face, we see the hat. Director Steven Spielberg has always loved dramatic entrances, and no entrance in recent memory is as dramatic as that hat--it comes with its own built-in standing ovation (which, truth to tell, was louder than for Indiana (Harrison Ford, reprising one of his most famous roles) himself).

Later a mushroom cloud, emblem of American anxieties and of various science-fiction films of the era, looms over Indy*. It's the 1950s, and Spielberg and Lucas have made it clear that their sources of inspiration are the '50s B movies--science fiction (Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still, Howard Hawks' (by way of Christian Nyby) The Thing From Another World--both from 1951--and Gordon Douglas' Them! (1954)); rock-and-roll (Laszlo Benedek's The Wild One" (1953)), rebel youths (the aforementioned Rebel Without a Cause), jungle pictures (Byron Haskin's The Naked Jungle (1954)), even historical epics (Hawk's Land of the Pharoahs (1955)). Indy Jones in the age of rock-'n-roll, and father to a James Dean wannabe (Sheila Beef, or something)--can you imagine?

*(Never mind the question of whether or not lead-lined refrigerators exist (they do), or are capable of protecting one from a detonating nuclear device (the scene recalls the fiery climax to Tsui Hark's much underrated, far more enjoyable Double Team (1997), with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman surviving a huge fireball by hiding behind a Coke vending machine (presumably the ice-cold cans of Coke protected them, in the wittiest and most imaginative example of product placement I've seen to date)); the real question is this: what is a lead-lined refrigerator used in nuclear laboratories doing in an ordinary suburban house?)

The three previous movies were set in the '30s and inspired by '40s serial matinees, and we've come to expect the thrills that accompany each installment, which usually ended with a cliffhanger (notice how every other dirt road in an Indy movie abruptly drops off (usually on the right side) in a vertiginous precipice). With '50s entertainments the appeal is different, subtler even: there's a sense of general paranoia and personal turmoil, of vast government conspiracies and violent generational confrontations. The flavor is darker, less innocent somehow; you sense that America was poised to shed its childhood, question authority, examine closely the reputed benevolence and competence of its government (though matters would have to wait for the '60s for everything--gloves, hat, hair, shoes, clothes, inhibitions--to really drop). Plunking Jones in the middle of all this is a bit odd, like watching Rip Van Winkle wake up in the middle of Back to the Future's 'Enchantment Under the Sea' dance--you wonder what on earth he's doing there, dusty hat and bullwhip and all.

It might have worked better if they kept him in '50s America--that way we can have all the Geritol and adult diaper jokes we need. I'm not being sarcastic--we wouldn't have thought less of him if he had to deal with chronic exhaustion and incontinence; if anything, we would have loved him more for having the courage to admit to his weaknesses. I remember when Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa (2006) stated he was old, past his prime; it was a fine moment, maybe the finest Stallone has had in years (unfortunately the movie goes on to have the usual Rocky training montage, and yet another bittersweet defeat that's really a victory).

Still--Indy Jones in the Atomic Age! Indy as a noir hero! Think of the possibilities! All Spielberg and Lucas could come up with are crystal skulls (not exactly an iconic image of '50s) in the jungles of Peru. I'm thinking of a scenario more like Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956--not far from the year the movie supposedly takes place) combined maybe with Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Indy fighting conformity and repression in a world made strange and frightening not by hostile jungles, or commie villains or sophisticated deathtraps, but by time, age, radiation, the U.S. government, or any combination thereof (Spielberg and Lucas reportedly chose communists because that was what the country was fighting at the time; one wants to ask: did everyone involved forget about the McCarthy witch hunts and HUAC blacklists? They start in Area 51 (which we had a fleeting glimpse of way back in Raiders)--couldn't they just have stayed there?).

On the plus side, this is easily the most handsome-looking picture of the lot, with cinematography by Janusz Kaminski channeling the work of now-retired Douglas Slocombe (to be honest I'm not a fan of Slocombe's photography in these movies--particularly Temple of Doom (1984), where he managed to make India look ugly and desolate). Kaminski for the most part recreates Slocombe's clean action photography (pity there's so much CGI background to mar the visuals) adding shadows and intriguing silvery highlights (it's as if much of the movie takes place under a bright, baleful sun, piercing through an overcast sky). A majority of the stunts are reported CGI-free (computers were employed mostly to digitally erase safety wires), but the freewheeling feel and comic inventiveness of the early movies' stunts (some of which were improvised on the spot) is gone--this is a picture less concerned with having fun than with getting its business done as spectacularly and expensively as possible.

But aren't we all--less worried about fun than about getting work done, I mean? Isn't that what happens when one grows up, reflexes slow down, joints start to ache? Ford reportedly worked out for months, on a strict high-protein diet; certainly he looks good, but there's a grimness to his determination to look so good, a sense of--yes--business before pleasure. Ford might have been better off taking inspiration from William Shatner in Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

Yes--that's it. How the Star Trek franchise handled the subject of age and obsolescence (at least in the first few films) made for fine drama. Ford and Spielberg toy with the question awhile, then (like Stallone, eventually) drop it quietly along the way; Shatner, Meyer, Shatner and Nimoy make entropy their major theme, complete with quotes from Dickens and Melville, and give their film an overall lovingly thoughtful, poignantly mournful air. Shakespeare had Falstaff once say: "That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it." Falstaff was of course inviting sympathy for his advanced age, and seemed all the more pathetic for his pains; Indy Jones is perhaps a less intellectual character (despite the supposed fact that Henry Jones, Jr. is a college professor), but his latest (and last, hopefully) outing could have used a flash or two of paunch. Or, better yet, a glimpse of adult diapers, peeking out of the waistline.

(First published in Businessworld 5.30.08)


Anonymous said...

Rocky Balboa didn't win the title in "Rocky Balboa". It went the distance and Mason Dixon got the victory, although an alternate ending was on the DVD where Rocky DID get the decision.

That said, your remarks regarding the Indy film were lucid. I, however, was so annoyed with the ridiculousness of certain action sequences (Shia swinging from tree to tree followed by an army of monkeys?) that I could not find much to care about in the long run. A very disappointing experience.

rico said...

Noel, nice one. Just saw it-- wasn't bad, wasn't great either, I think. You're right-- what a great opening! Spielberg is a master of using shadows-- which shows his great respect, affection and knowledge of the old classics (remember the use of the shadows on the wall in RAIDERS as well?-- "We're not thirsty..."). GREAT opening montage and pretty surreal scenes in the bomb test site (a hint of the "more mature" Spielberg we see in MINORITY and WAR). It's just awesome to see an elder master still come up with stuff that the cocky, younger ones can't even come close to creating.

Raymond Red and I met up for coffee after to discuss the film. My main complaint with the picture was-- where did the romantic treatment go? It's funny you mention ROCKY, cause in the scenes where Indy finally meets Marion, there is a distinct drop in energy for everyone involved-- much like an older boxer just fighting in spurts. What happened to their chemistry?! And I found it strange that there was also a lack of close-ups on Harrison Ford especially on the "money" lines. Unlike in RAIDERS, wherein even throwaway lines like "Stay outta the light..." were acted and directed with such conviction and a real sense of fun that these scenes became really iconic and stuck to your head from the very first time you watched it and even till today. And kudos to you for the well-deserved praise on the underrated TEMPLE OF DOOM (people have had such a hard-on against the violence in that movie-- I mean, it's an action movie for cripes sake). Sorry for the long post.

Noel Vera said...

Nope, you're good, appreciate the thorough commentary. I'm thinking of appending the article with a footnote on what exactly's wrong with Crystal Skull, aside from the failure to completely exploit '50s cinema.

Noel Vera said...

Correction re: Rocky Balboa accepted; amending article accordingly.