A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 470 – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – June 13th, 2011

Going into this tonight I feared the worst. People had warned me that this movie was horrible, terribly, no good, messy, ridiculous and so on and so forth. I’d had the ending spoiled for me as well as the reveal of the identity of one of the main characters. But honestly, even if neither of those had been spoiled for me I think I would have figured them out. Subtlety is not a strong suit of the Indiana Jones franchise and it never has been. Still, I was worried. Not because of the things that had been spoiled for me – those didn’t worry me in the least – but because even people who didn’t mind those things had a pretty dim view of the movie in general.

Now, I would go ahead and say that maybe I enjoyed the movie because I had oral surgery today and I’ve been a little out of it. But the sedative they gave me before the surgery had long since worn off by the time we put the movie in I haven’t even taken my first Vicodin yet, so it’s no use blaming it on chemical enhancement. I just flat out enjoyed the movie. Oh, I won’t go so far as to say it’s great. But I will say, without any shame, that I believe it is a far better movie than Temple of Doom. No, I’m not lying. And no, I still haven’t taken that Vicodin.

Let’s look at what this movie has going for it before we get into its faults (and it does have faults, to be certain – I just don’t think they’re overwhelming). For one, it’s got some very clear self-awareness. Harrison Ford isn’t immortal, sad to say, and he’s gotten older. So too has the character of Indiana Jones and the movie is quite clear about that. And I get why this would be sad and unpleasant for some people, but personally I think it’s great. And the little nods to it keep up with the whole thing I love about Indy as a character: He is not perfect. He is fallible. He is going to get beat up and it is going to hurt and he is going to press on because he is a dedicated and stubborn guy. So I’m all for seeing him getting older, dealing with new challenges like McCarthyism and not being as quick on his feet as he once was. Also in the movie’s favor is the return of Marion, who is hands down my favorite of the female leads from the previous movies. And she gets to be pretty awesome here too, having gone on with her life after Indiana Jones walked out of it. I love that Marion gets to have had a husband and a family and still went off on adventures. We’ll get to the family in a moment, but before we do I’ll note the last thing I think is really in this movie’s favor: The choice of villain and artifact.

I know this is likely controversial, but I actually like the choice of the crystal skull and the villains being Communist Russians. After all, while I’m sure Indy had plenty of excitement during World War II (which is alluded to when the FBI questions him), this movie was made with a necessarily older Indy. Unless they were going to do that uncanny valley thing they did in Tron: Legacy, and I don’t think it would have really worked here. So they had an older Indy. That meant taking things forward and taking them forward to deal with paranoia from within the US government and a new enemy to deal with? I am very much on board with that. I think it was a smart move. And as for the crystal skull, well, once we moved away from the Nazis it made sense to move away from the Christian relics. And while I greatly prefer the Ark and Grail in terms of their well-known and widespread lore, at least the crystal skull isn’t something still currently used by a real religion. By using something that’s got questionable origins anyhow, the movie neatly sidesteps a lot of the issues the second movie failed at so badly. Sure, it’s silly and outlandish, but it also avoids dealing with a modern-day ethnic and religious identity. And Indy never really questions what’s going on here. He has no reason to. He’s seen enough to just run with what’s presented to him.

So really, I like Indy, I like Marion, I like the villains (and I think Cate Blanchett did a very nice job here) and I like the basic premise. But there are flaws. One of my problems with the movie is that it seems to wink a little too much to the time period. The McCarthyism and Area 51 stuff work well together, but what was the purpose of the atomic blast? It’s just plain egregious. The greaser vs. varsity fight in the soda shop? Again, relatively unnecessary. It’s all a bit much. And then there’s Mutt. I am of very mixed feelings when it comes to Mutt. I was spoiled about him and really, it’s pretty obvious and I like the idea of him. I don’t even really mind Shia LaBeouf’s performance. But again, he feels like a little bit of overkill every time he pulls out his comb.

My other major complaint is Indy’s double crossing friend. Oh, he’s performed just fine, but the role itself is an issue for me. He feels like a nothing. We don’t know him prior to the movie, he betrays Indy, then betrays his new employers, then betrays Indy again. He’s out for himself and himself only, but he never gets enough time on screen or character background for that to be anything other than the most superficial of character traits. As a side-kick he just falls flat for me and if I had to choose between him and Mutt I’d go with Mutt every time.

This movie did somewhat abandon the formula of the others, with the initial adventure involving not only the major sidekick for the rest of the movie but also the major villain and a pointer towards the rest of the plot. No, it’s not completely connected, but it’s a more cohesive part of the movie than prior introductions have been. And you know, I kind of like it. The pacing of the movie is off in places and I’ve made my feelings on Mac clear, but the incorporation of the major players and concept into the introduction is not a problem for me. Again, it’s a real step up from the second movie.

I could have done without the tribe of natives at the end of the movie and I will admit that this movie certainly goes more in a science fiction direction than a supernatural direction, but the missteps here aren’t nearly as unpleasant as the second movie. It’s got a lot of fun moments and a lot of great interaction between the characters. It’s full of nods to the older movies and it manages to bring the franchise forward while allowing Indy to continue being awesome while also being older. I won’t try to tell people who didn’t like it that they’re wrong, but personally I found it fun and enjoyable and now that I’m certain that I actually liked it on my own I’m going to take my painkillers and go to bed.

June 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

June 13, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It is with a little trepidation that we set out to watch this movie tonight. It does not have a good reputation. Indeed there’s an infamous episode of South Park inspired by this movie where George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg take turns raping Indiana Jones. Based on this and the generally negative word of mouth on the internet I had braced myself before watching this for a Star Wars Episode I level of disappointment. I was prepared for something on a par with Highlander II or Star Trek V. In short I thought that this was going to be a painful experience that sullied my memory of the Indiana Jones movies.

I’m quite relieved to say that I need not have feared. This is my favorite Jones movie since the first one.

Part of the criticism of this movie stems from the fact that Indiana is beginning to show his age. Harrison Ford turns seventy years old next year, and that’s pushing the credible age limit of an action hero. This movie takes place in the 1950s, which means that the character of Indie must be in his fifties or sixties. Then again, Indiana Jones was never really about being a young man. It’s about overcoming ridiculous odds and refusing to stay beaten. In that regard this older, wiser Indie is perhaps even more exciting to watch. The movie makes it clear that he’s a tired old man at the beginning, mourning the loss of his father and his friend Brodie.

The opening scene, which re-introduces us to Indiana Jones twenty years after we last saw him, does a couple of things. It freely admits that he is showing his age. He’s still an adventurer, albeit a reluctant one, but now he’s clashing with kids one third his age. At first, when we see him facing off against his captors I thought that it would be hard to believe that this older man can hope to hold his own against a flight of stairs, mush less a squad of Russian storm troopers. It’s a little startling to see him at first looking so tired, but what’s cool is that this movie does such a good job of aging the character to match the actor. There are all these hints about the adventures Jones has been having in the twenty years we’ve missed. He’s been a spy. He’s worked under cover. He’s been on many missions against the Russians (who, in the nineteen fifties, are the boogeymen of the cold war.) It makes me wish for a new television series – the Middle-Aged Indiana Jones Chronicles.

When he fails to stop the Russians capturing a mysterious artifact from a US government warehouse and it is revealed that his old partner from MI5 is now working with the Russians Indiana comes under suspicion of being a double agent himself. He’s blackballed and forced out of his tenured position as a professor and finds himself alone and at loose ends. Until a young boy who calls himself Mutt shows up and tells Indie that an old friend of his, Ox (short for Oxley,) has been abducted. Ox has always been obsessed with mysterious crystal skulls found throughout history. (In much the way Ravenwood was obsessed with the Ark and Jones Sr. was obsessed with the Grail.) Mutt has a letter given to his mother by Ox which she managed to smuggle away from the Russians ans which he believes only Indiana Jones can translate. (Apparently Mutt’s mother has some history with Jones and believes that he will help her and Ox.)

So off to South America go young Mutt and the aging professor Jones, where Mutt is astonished to find out that Indiana is somewhat of an unorthodox professor. The two of them soon find the legendary crystal skull that Ox had discovered, and they are promptly captured by the Russians again. That’s about the halfway point for the movie. The Russians, led by a sinister woman named Irina Spalko, have Ox, Indie’s traitorous partner Mac, and Mutt’s mother in custody already. I’m a little puzzled as to why Indie is so startled to discover that Mutt’s mother is Marion Ravenwood – especially in light of the fact that when Mutt and Indie first meet Mutt tells him that his mother was named Marion. Then of course comes the heavily telegraphed reveal that Mutt is Indiana’s son.

I think that this must have been part of what people found so distasteful about the movie. Not just that Indie is older, but he has a son now who is already in his twenties. The movie gets a lot of great mileage out of this though. There’s all the baggage Indie has from his relationship with his own father, and it’s subtly layered into the constant banter between the two of them. Then there’s Marion, whom Indiana apparently left shortly before their planned wedding. It all works well for me in the context of how alone Indiana is at the start of the movie. It’s a film about discovering that maybe having a family isn’t such a bad thing after all for an adventurer – particularly a family made up of people perfectly capable of adventuring themselves.

The remainder of the movie is pretty much one long chase scene as the Jones family fight off the Russians, escape from killer ants, brave Amazonian rapids, escape from angry natives, and ultimately do the kind of tomb raiding that Indiana Jones is so well known for.

Another major sticking point that some people have with this movie is that it is all about alien artifacts. Yes, aliens. Which some people seem to think is blasphemy in an Indiana Jones movie. I have no idea why. To date the films have involved an ark full of mystical sand, a trio of magic glowing rocks, and a cup that heals anybody who drinks from it. How is a glowing psychic alien skull such a stretch in this universe? It fits just fine as far as I’m concerned. It’s just the magical MacGuffin that drives the plot and allows for a spectacular light show at the end – perfectly in line with every other Indiana Jones movie.

For me it was just a treat to see Indie doing what he does best. Harrison Ford made me believe that this character could still fight toe to toe with a Russian super-man. It was a delight to see Karen Allen back as Marion – the best love interest Jones ever had and the most capable woman he seems to have ever found. Cate Blanchett makes a great sinister foe for Jones to vie with. I am even able to stomach Shia LaBeouf as Jones Jr. Even better – the movie is packed with great actors in smaller supporting roles. Indie’s steadfast protector in the college is played by Jim Broadbent. The insane professor Ox is played wonderfully by John Hurt. It must have been fun just to be on the set with all these accomplished masters of their craft.

You know what? I had fun tonight. It’s cool to catch up with these characters and see what’s happened to them in the last twenty years. It’s a fun adventure with some great chase scenes. It is like an Indiana Jones greatest hits having him back together kicking ass with Marion. And ultimately – even if he doesn’t get to keep the treasure he’s seeking (which he never does) he gets a greater treasure. It gives me hope that even if we never see him again the character of Indiana Jones has a chance at happiness at last, and I really like that.

June 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment