Indiana Jones And The Effective Marketing Vehicle
I figure its better not to explain why I haven't reviewed a movie in nine months (law school ensure you will do less of everything than you think, except study), and just to start again. Without further introduction...
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (Steven Spielberg, USA, 2008, B+)
How do you know when you're in the hands of a competent? The title credits roll over a scenic desert landscape, Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" blaring in the background, with two greasers and their accompanying bobby sockers driving a muscular Ford V8 convertible on a lonely two-lane road, whistling at a caravan of Army trucks in their vapor trail. So far, nothing out of the cinematic ordinary... until the caravan turns out to be a cadre of KGB agents who break their way into Area 51 by mowing down the security guards (this, it seems, is the Russians solution to most every problem in the film). Oh, and they have Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) stuffed in the back of a sedan. Spielberg understands that the distinguishing feature of an action flick, and especially an Indiana Jones flick, is, well, action, and he's savvy enough not to bog us down in a boring and useless backstory before whisking us into the heart of it. It's as sumptuous as the first ten minutes of an action film gets.
That comes as close to a litmus test for determining whether or not you'll like the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones saga as anything else I could provide. After Indy escapes from the Commies and survives a nuclear test by hiding himself in a refrigerator (!%#@#$), the MacGuffin (crystal skull of unknown origin has to be returned to remote Amazonian enclave) is laid out, Indy meets a new sidekick (Shia LeBouf, with a coat (and a hairdo) he borrowed from James Dean), and he's off to Peru to follow the trail of his friend Ox (John Hurt, looking a lot like he did in THE PROPOSITION). The principle villain, a "psychic warfare" officer played by Cate Blanchett, possesses the requisite series ingredients of being a little too smart for their level of craziness. After that, most of the twist and turns are eminently foreseeable but never anything less than eye-popping (cavern searches, kidnapping scenes, and, of course, the fantastic car chases, which were always the highlight of the first movie for me, an updated version of the train chases in Keaton's THE GENERAL with Ford's dry wisecracks standing in for Keaton's stonefaced stoicism). The encounter with Marion (Karen Allen) also comes as no shock. She and Indy re-ignite their tempestuous love-hate relationship, and I'll forgive Spielberg for the predictable revelation that comes out in their early conversations.
But... is it a great film? It is certainly a good film. The action sequences speak for themselves--you cannot be talked into liking the film if you have problems suspending disbelief or if you're turned off by CGI, but if you're into high speed thrills and general goofiness, you won't be disappointed. The dialogue doesn't crackle like the first Indy film, or like Han Solo's dialogue in the first two STAR WARS movies (Ford's "gold standard" as far as I'm concerned), but it isn't unbearable, and the few Marion / Indy scenes are probably the best in the film (for all of those re-upping their membership to the "George Lucas Can't Write Dialogue" Facebook group, relax, Lucas only provided the "story"--Spielberg would never have made a script like the new STAR WARS films).
Given that INDIANA JONES is meant to be escapism, it's also surprisingly erudite, at least as action films go. Some critics have complained about the time spent belaboring the archaeological puzzle the film centers around, which is a bit like going to Taco Bell and complaining that the menu is dominated by tacos; the whole ethos of Indy is that knowledge, more than strength, speed, and an incredible ability to jump between cars (which has not diminished in a quarter century, apparently) is the real power in the world. This theme ties the piece together, and it doesn't really become corny until the end (when Indy intones that the "real treasure" of the civilization they found was knowledge--he could have been doing an ad for a library). It is also a warning about the possibilities of abusing knowledge--that the movie begins with a nuclear explosion and a "Red scare" episode, and ends, in typical INDIANA JONES fashion, with destruction because a character sought to know more than they deserved to (from a society that sought to know all and see all) is no accident. Certainly, Spielberg didn't try to make A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME--and I think that when people look back on Spielberg's career they will take him to task for continuing to make so much mindless entertainment when he is clearly talented enough to make things like SCHINDLER'S LIST, SAVING CAPTAIN RYAN, and MUNICH--but he cannot be accused of making something totally vacuous.
If it has a major, overriding quality that I don't like, it is sterility; INDIANA JONES is a good time, but it is too prepackaged and preordained to be anything more than a good time. Like an attempt to recreate a great party or trip, there's enough in common with past experience to make you feel as though you haven't wasted your time, but ultimately, it never quite feels the same. Certainly, it is the work of an adept, but for a movie about a man who takes unnecessary and dangerous risks, it seems paradoxically safe and cautious. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was a great movie because it was fresh, inventive, and unlike anything else that had ever come before it; a digitally enhanced sequel can recapture thrills, but only so much.
More distressing is the movie's final scene, which hints that LeBouf is being primed to take the reigns from Ford when he's no longer plausible as an action star. Which leads to my biggest question, going forward, about action movies in general--can RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK be made again? Not in the sense of literally making that movie again, but will there ever be a new, wholly original universe like STAR WARS or INDIANA JONES that captures the imagination of audiences? The modern Hollywood economy doesn't seem to dictate it. The risk involved in backing a new, original story is too high, given the costs of a bomb. Backing the continuation of a classic series, or basing a new series on something that already has significant cultural cache (NARNIA, THE LORD OF THE RINGS) are the safest options from a business sense--in addition to making significant returns at the box office even if they are putrid based on prior goodwill, they provide substantial opportunities for marketing and licensing that ensure the studio will turn a profit. Of course, those risks didn't stop George Lucas in the seventies and eighties; perhaps success has taken the Indy out of him.