Monday, June 16, 2008

Indiana Jones and the New Indiana Jones Movie

There is a moment about halfway through Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that unwittingly characterizes the entire movie: Jones, strapped to a chair in a Peruvian jungle, is forced to stare into the deeply concave eye sockets of the titular skull, through which, apparently, ancient forces communicate. Jones, old and getting older, meets the vacant gaze of his--and our--future; the Communists who have ensnared him wait eagerly; the skull glows like a convection burner; a motionless wind begins to howl; it is the sound of the movie talking, and we feel nothing. For Steven Spielberg, sentiment and spectacle are inseparable: his movies, big and broad-stroked, are perfectly engineered to match the scope and to focus the ambition of his ideas, which tend to be deeply felt if dimly outlined. His best movies, like brass instruments, turn bluster into music. Crystal Skull lacks the artistry of precision—the miniature detailing—that governs Spielberg’s other efforts and makes them sing: the film's energy is tempestuous but its interior is so empty—and its landscape so arid—that nothing is stirred up. The movie, like the skull, is shiny but dumb. When Spielberg blows, all we hear is a breeze.

Spielberg was lucky to have an actor as dexterous and game as Harrison Ford in the first three Indiana Jones movies, because they were as complicated and inscrutably rigged as the temples who are their inevitable stars. Ford admirably handled the Jones-esque challenge of navigating the tenuous structure of these films: by making the right moves, and, primarily, by being limber enough to straddle the chasm between Spielberg’s irony and sincerity, he ensured that they did not crumble. But we sense in Crystal Skull that age has finally caught up to him, and that he has lost the ability, or the inspiration, to cling to both sides of a widening fissure. He looks rather resigned to falling. Indeed, for most of the movie, he appears retracted and dazed, as though awaiting a clearer directive from the gnomic skull, or, better still, from Spielberg himself. His face expresses the weariness of asking When will I be blown up? again and again, and then actually being blown up, or at least having the tar beaten out of him by a Russian heavy.

These moments, violent and lurid and incoherent, are supposed to be among the movie’s pleasures, and it skips from one to the next like a child fording a stream on raised rocks. Everything in between is perfunctory and nervously efficient. Crystal Skull begins with an atomic blast and ends with the apocalyptic destruction of an Amazonian temple by a whirling spacecraft. So much for lyricism. Jones escapes from the nuclear test but not from the scrutiny of the FBI, who have linked him to known Communist George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone). He is forced out of his position, Professor of Whatever—so much for tenure—at a prestigious “New Britain” university, but is stopped from leaving town by young “Mutt” Williams (Shia LaBoeuf), who claims to be the son of recently-vanished archeologist Harold “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt). For those inclined to keep track, that makes four improbable nicknames, three of them utterly gratuitous, which is not only a dubious distinction for a movie not exclusively about the military but also further evidence of George Lucas’s shortcomings as a writer. In Crystal Skull, the nickname is a dependable substitute for character, exposition, and the barest pretense of recognizable human interaction. But who needs human interaction when there are computer animations that can do nearly the same thing, and twice as loudly?

“Ox,” it turns out, has been kidnapped while searching the Amazon for a crystal skull that has something to do with El Dorado, the city of gold, and something to do with power. It has also made him insane. Already a little crazy is Col. Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a Soviet military archeologist whose specialty is psychological warfare: she scours the globe looking for artifacts possessed of the sorts of powers that will enable the Soviets to control the world. It is never clear just what the power of the crystal skull is; worse, the movie never posits a theory, so the film’s architecture feels just as ersatz as its effects. What gave the previous Indiana Jones movies their parlous fun was Jones’s moral ambiguity; his adventures were more than a little self-interested and had a sinister edge. Here, he doesn’t seem so much corruptible as vacuous. We never sense that the reason he wants to beat the Commies to the crystal skull is that he wants it for himself: he just wants to do the right thing.

In fact, doing the right thing is the movie’s real guiding principle; if it hadn’t already been taken, it would have made an apt title. Crystal Skull is about atonement, commitment, maturation, family, education (but not too much knowledge—that’s a bad thing), following one’s real calling, and carnivorous red ants devouring an unconscious Soviet thug in their underground tunnels. (I’m not sure if this counts as irony, but it sure was nifty.) The movie is as dull and tendentious as it sounds, and all the swordfights, explosions, and trips down waterfalls in the computer-generated Amazon can’t change it. In the end, our impulse to care about what happens next is thwarted; nothing is at stake in a world of digital effects and the gauzy edges of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s soft focus. The movie has exchanged Spielberg’s sense of wonder and humor for Lucas’s sense of grandeur. Their next movie, I suspect, will be one long chase, unpunctuated until the final exclamation point. So much for story.


James said...

Your list of four nicknames must include "Indiana."

John Rogers said...


Oy, what an arduous movie.

Neal said...

The opening sequence was the best and only good part.