Lots of ambitious work by young artists ends up in a dumpster after its warehouse debut. So an unknown artist’s big glass vitrine holding a rotting cow’s head covered by maggots and swarms of buzzing flies may be pretty unsellable. Until the artist becomes a star. Then he can sell anything he touches.
–Charles Saatchi – art collector and owner of the Saatchi Gallery
Would I seem too much the hypocrite if I followed that quote by saying that I didn’t hate INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL? Well, I didn’t. In fact, through much of it I kept thinking, “Why do so many people dislike this film? I’m having a great time.” I was thrilled to be back with Indy and (some) of the gang. Hell, I missed the guy. But as the film went on, I found it harder and harder to push aside all those nagging little moments that, on their own are forgivable, but in accumulation began to swarm over me like the killer ants that threatened to consume our long-lost heroes.
Sure, this is just a movie and an over-the-top serial adventure at that, but there are still some lines that should not be crossed. One of the things that I always loved about Indy was that, well, he could get hurt. You feel pretty certain he’s not gonna die, but he’s also not a superhero either. He is, after all, a school teacher/archaelogist. So when the guy climbs into a fridge and survives a ground-zero nuclear explosion… well, you just sorta start to feel like he’s more The Hulk than the old Indy you remembered. Not to mention that now I have to mourn the fact that the guy’s gonna die a horrible death from radiation poisoning and doesn’t even have a clue (yeah, I know the fridge was lined with lead, but if you think that’s gonna save him, then you best start practicing your duck-and-cover maneuvers). I guess I just want to believe when Indy’s running away from a giant rolling boulder, if he doesn’t move, it’s gonna kill him.
Now maybe it seems somewhat ludicrous to start drawing reality lines around this fictional character, but there should be rules to any story. And if there hadn’t been any Indy’s before this one, I’d say okay. But the rules were already set by the first film (and broken a few times since with dreadful results). The joy of Indy (for me) is that he’s a smart guy with a gun and a whip. Not a member of The Fantastic Four.
But let’s concentrate on something more positive: Harrison Ford. Well, if anyone had any doubts about Ford’s ability to still play Indy, they can now put them to rest. He’s as charismatic to watch and as appealing as ever. I always wished he’d continued the serious acting career he started with WITNESS and THE MOSQUITO COAST, but he didn’t. He chose to be a high-paid movie-star over a versatile actor (not that the two can’t co-exist) and thank God it’s something he’s good at. In fact, better than most. Sadly, some of the folks around him have changed in rather dramatic ways. Which brings us to Mr. Lucas.
If there was anyone left on the planet who didn’t figure out after the last three STAR WARS films that the George Lucas we once knew had been replaced by something else altogether, then what I assume are his contributions to this Indy film should be all the convincing they need that it’s about time a proper wake was held.
“Whatever has happened in my quest for innovation has been part of my quest for immaculate reality”.
Innovation… Immaculate reality… Hmmm.. I’d like to balance that quote with one from Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo:
“Technically U.S. directors keep improving. But this technical expertise hides an emptiness that keeps getting bigger. They’re very good at saying nothing.”
It seems to me that Mr. Lucas’ fascination with digital technology has completely consumed his ability to recognize (or possibly care about) the absence of those rather crucial film elements known as story and character (and when he’s directing, one can also add “performance” to that list). Whether Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Ford can see it or not I don’t know, but all of these things fall to the wayside in the effects extravaganza that is the climax of this film. In what has to be one of the most unimpressive, ridiculous and vacuous endings ever put to film, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is ultimately the filmic equivalent of crawling into bed with a long-lost love, only to find yourself dry-humping a mannequin.
This film abandons its characters, its story and, ultimately, its audience. And yet the answer as to how to make a good INDY film is so simple and, ironically, sitting right in the palms of the filmmakers’ hands: There’s a scene early on in the film where Indy and his son, Mutt (oops, did I give that away?) are on a motorcycle and they’re being chased by Russians in cars. One of the Russians reaches out of a car window and yanks Indy off the back of the motorcycle and in through the car window. Mutt races on the motorcycle around to the other side of the car while Indy clobbers the villains and proceeds to crawl out the opposite side window of the car and back onto the motorcycle. It’s one of the greatest moments in the film and pure Indiana Jones. That’s it. As simple as that. Old fashioned stunts done with old fashioned real people (at least I hope they were real) allowing us to feel the vibrancy and excitement of something that is actually happening. Sure it’s not all done in one take and it takes some real movie magic to pull it off, but the keyword here is “real”. Whether it’s a stuntman or Harrison Ford doesn’t matter. We’re watching Indy do what Indy does best. At the climax of KINGDOM, I’m not even sure where Indy is standing no less how he feels about what’s happening.
And it’s not that I’m against digital effects. Quite the contrary. They have a place and are a part of our new cinematic language. But use it wisely, my fellow filmmakers. And never EVER let it overshadow story and character. Especially when all we want is heart. And Indy has so much heart. I wish the filmmakers here had been able to remember that as they were coming up with bigger “better” action scenes or creating digital environments that simply couldn’t hold a candle to the practical ones.
The truth is, most of us were just looking forward to a whip, a gun, and a dusty old hat.