A couple of years ago I watched the original Indiana Jones trilogy with my kids. Over the last month, we’ve been watching the re-released Young Indiana Jones series. We’re huge Indiana Jones fans.
Now, let me say a couple things up front.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is very close to my favorite movie of all time. However, as a rule, I loath Steven Spielberg. I do not consider him a good director. To be sure, he’s made a couple of decent movies; Duel (his creative high water mark), Jaws, and of course, Raiders. But given that he hires top-flight cinematographers and cast, every now and then he’s going to hit something good. Most of his work is dreck though, badly plotted, badly scored, badly paced, over-done in every way possible.
How did Raiders wind up so good? Simple; George Lucas.
Lucas developed the story, produced the film, and while there’s no question Spielberg directed it, it has an un-mistablabe Lucas feel to it. Most of what’s right about that film I credit to Lucas.
It’s easy to see what happens when Lucas steps back; look at Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Key details of who Indy is are forgotten, a pointless ‘cute kid’ is introduced, Spielberg’s wife is (ill) cast as indy’s love interest, comedy and horror elements are over-played. The only thing about the movie that works is the ending, and it works out of context with an Indiana Jones movie.
For the third, Lucas stepped back in; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is back to feeling like Indiana Jones. It’s better cast, with a love interest who works, and the plot is back to being centered on archeology. It’s not quite Raiders, but it’s terrific.
And then there’s Young Indy; not only a brilliant teevee series, but incredibly true to the the Indiana Jones character; masterfully done, and 100% Lucas.
When I heard a fourth movie was in production, finally, I hoped for Lucas, and feared Spielberg.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should be good. They had years to find a great script; they had a great cast (Cate Blanchett, John Hurt), a great surrogate Young Indy (Shia LaBeouf), and the return of Karen Allen, an actress I’ve had a wicked crush on since Animal House.
Alas – This is Spielberg Indy, not Lucas Indy.
There’s good stuff about this film, certainly. And I enjoyed it. But it wasn’t good. While it’s failings are very different than the failings of Temple of Doom, they’re perhaps bigger, because with the years they had to come up with a script, though should have come up with a good one. This has compromise written all over it. The story’s oddly meandering and all but incoherent, and it relies on super-natural and sci-fi elements that don’t fit into the Indy mythos. While the action scenes are terrific (well shot, well acted, funny and thrilling, and completely inventive), they seem to have lost the ’30s serial pacing that made them work in the past. The problem, though, is that when the action stops, you can almost see tumbleweeds roll across the screen. Everything comes to a complete halt.
I’ve never been bored in an Indiana Jones movie before. Yet whenever the characters start talking, my eyes would glaze over. Harrison Ford seemed to be sleep walking through half the scenes, and the elements that worked (he’s older and not quite as good as he used to be; people think he’s just an old teacher, til the fedora comes out) are used as throw-away gags. This could have been payed like Robin and Marian, with the re-union of the aging hero and his older-but-still-beautiful life’s love. It’s wasted though, with Karen Allen not getting enough screen time.
Blanchett as the russian villain is wasted as well; she’s a cartoon, but an under-drawn one. Her absurd accent is wonderful, even if it’s un-even, but they waste the camp element after presenting it when she walks on.
What works is that they pay brilliant tribute to Indy myth; references to the first three movies, and better, to episodes of Young Indy. What doesn’t is that Spielberg can’t stop; introducing LaBeouf with a shot and costume from The Wild Ones blows one right out of the film, and the 50′s diner fight is so out of place that it made me want to slap everyone involved.
The ending is idiotic. We don’t need fucking space aliens in the Indiana Jones mythos. Visually, the end is great, but plot wise, it’s weak, stupid, and badly written.
It’s odd though; the movie annoyed me more later than it did at the time. While I was watching it, I was happy. Seeing Indy on screen again was thrilling, even if it’s a gray-haired-and-botoxed indy; and the action is fantastic. If this were a movie featuring some other character than Indiana Jones, I’ve have said “loved it”, because it’s the kind of sugar-frosted-crack film that one should watch with the un-jaundiced eye of a teenager. But when a movie has “Indiana Jones” in the title, I just expect a lot more in terms of movie making.