27 May, 2008


So here’s the thing.

I wasn’t really planning on writing about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I’ve decided to put a few words down quickly.

Firstly, I had a lot of fun with the film. It’s definitely the least of the series, but it has some really solid, exciting sequences, and stands on par with the Indy sequels – Raiders obviously stands separate as a work of pure brilliance and a true classic. The sequels are a lot of fun, very enjoyable, very good, but not as great as Raiders.

Brief sidenote here – I know that Temple of Doom seems to be generally viewed by most as the worst Indy, and I can understand that opinion. Certainly the supporting characters – Short Round and Willie Scott – are the worst in the series, and the story is very dark. But I enjoy the dark feel of the film – there is a palpable sense of real danger in the film that isn’t as present in the other films. (I would hate to live in the UK, where the film had over a minute edited out – including (I believe) the entire heart removal/live sacrifice scene. That is such a great scene, and such an essential part of the film, that it just isn’t Temple of Doom without it.) But the main thing is that the film feels very different to Raiders – and that’s a good thing. It's not just a beat-by-beat rehash of Raiders, but a genuinely new and different adventure. The film doesn’t start with Indy on some expedition somewhere; he’s wearing a tuxedo in a Hong Kong nightclub. While he is technically on the hunt for a religious artefact (the Shankara Stones), that is really incidental to the main focus of rescuing the children. And indeed, the fact that it revolves around a non-Judeo-Christian culture feels particularly exotic for those of us from a Western culture. Add to that the level of danger in the film, some of the best setpieces in the series (the last third of the film, particularly the mine-car chase, is just incredible), a John Williams score that is (in my personal view) the best Indy score he composed (by the way, the fact that it is not possible to buy the classic Indiana Jones scores is criminal) and I feel that it is overall a very enjoyable film. Not Raiders great, but definitely very good.

On the other hand, I tend to feel that Last Crusade, while very enjoyable (especially thanks to the father-son relationship with Sean Connery), just feels too much like a rehash of Raiders. While the opening of the film presents a young Indy, it still feels very similar to the Raiders opening. Once again he’s fighting the Nazis, once again hunting for a Judeo-Christian artefact (albeit now one that has no real Biblical basis, and one that they had to contrive a special power for – long life and healing powers – that to my knowledge had no basis in Grail mythology). We get Sallah and Brody returning, but played solely as comic relief rather than as the real characters they were in Raiders. And the whole thing feels like it is being played for laughs too much – almost like they’ve overreacted to Temple’s darkness but trying too much to lighten it up. (Although, I admit, “No ticket” is very funny.) But the whole thing feels like they’re trying to make Raiders again, only changing the detail of the setpieces, and the whole thing comes across as an inferior copy. And that’s why I prefer Temple of Doom to Last Crusade – because Temple wasn’t just a retread of the first film, and instead looked for a new and unique direction for the film to go in.

Sorry about getting sidetracked. Anyway...

Like I said, one of the problems of Last Crusade is that it seeks to replicate Raiders too closely, while Temple of Doom is advantaged because it tried to be its own distinctive film. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does a bit of both - it's built around an apparent religious artifact of great power and an ancient civilisation that worshipped that artifact, which makes it feel very much like Raiders or Last Crusade. At the same time, there is a strong science fiction element apparent from pretty much the start of the film - which is appropriate, since it is set in the 1950s, an era when science fiction was strong in the public consciousness - and that science fiction element is sufficiently distinctive from the other films to feel like it's different.

Anyway, the reason for this post was that I actually wanted to write about what the problems with the film are - because that to me is more interesting. And I think there is one major problem, above all others, with the film:

Over-development. They've been trying to get the film together for a good 15 years now, with script after script after script developed - most famously a script by Frank Darabont that Spielberg and Harrison Ford liked, but that Lucas vetoed a couple of years ago. Finally, they got David Koepp to put together a script, and one suspects that Koepp borrowed the big action setpieces from all the different scripts, and then constructed the narrative glue to connect this action scene to that action scene. (For example, have a look at this review, written eight years ago, about the mid-90s script "Indiana Jones and the Saucer-Men From Mars" - the climactic ending to the opening sequence of Crystal Skull seems to have been lifted straight from that script.) And what happens as a result is that the narrative thread isn't very strong. More so than the other films, the actual storyline doesn't flow. The action scenes are great, but as an audience member it takes a bit of thinking to remember how we got from that scene to this scene. The script is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster in that regard - it looks fine from a distance, but up close you can really see the joins.

The film also plays a particular "surprise" revelation about Shia LeBeouf's character badly. Now it could be just that I've been following the making of the film, and since the rumours about that revelation were circulating since very early on, it didn't surprise me. But I have difficulty imagining anyone watching the film and not working out the surprise almost from the first scene - so I wish they had actually laid that information out at the start rather than trying to play it as some big shock. Another character (who I won't identify) also suffers a little from seemingly shifting loyalties solely on the basis of which side the script required them to be on - again, possibly a consequence of over-development.

I was also disappointed by the level of CGI effects in the film. When the film was officially announced Spielberg talked about making the film with no CGI, only old-fashioned special effects - which feels right both as a callback to the 1950s (when those were the types of effects that would have been used) and consistent with the original films. And so I was sad to see, right from the first shot, that they were apparently using CGI. Especially since if they hadn't been using CGI, we might have been spared the worst moment in the film (the utterly unnecessary Tarzan-monkeys scene).

But despite these flaws, it is a fun film. I'm looking forward to revisiting it, and seeing how it stands up outside the excitement of seeing a new Indy film.

(And just a note – I came across an article about Drew Struzan, one of the great poster artists whose incredible artwork has been used for many films including the Indiana Jones sequels. In an age where most films just get a (usually really bad) photoshop effort for a poster (seriously, look at Mulder's face in this X-Files 2 poster), it's nice to see Struzan still working and giving us a bit of artistry in movie posters. The article is worth reading, and can be found here.)

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