Thoughts on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

A tangential introduction concerning credit size

I’ve been reviewing a lot of movies from the 80s that I liked then, to see if I still like them. One thing I’ve observed that I hadn’t realized before is that credits were enormous in screen size in 1980s. If the current style of title typography for acting and production credits is something like a 24 point font, in the 80s they were using a beefy 60 or 72 point font. The name of the movie maxes out in width, and the starring actors get similar status.

The style now, of course, is also to have no credits until the movie is over, something that used to be disallowed by Guild rules. George Lucas had to pay an enormous fine for the Star Wars credits to be at the end of the movie, and it led to his dropping out of the Directors Guild. This prevented Steven Spielberg from directing Return of the Jedi or any other Star Wars film, because as a DGA member he is barred from working on a non-union movie.

I actually wanted to bring up the subject of Lucas and Spielberg, whom I hate apologizing for, even though I end up doing so a lot of the time. These strange two cursed talents, found in the perplexing situation of making movies that millions upon millions go to see, but that apparently “everybody hates.”

I recently heard a friend of mine describe them both as “hacks,” which is a dreadfully ignorant caricature. Knowing their careers and lives in some detail, I suppose I regard their output firstly from a position of respect instead of with contempt.

These two guys have utter creative freedom like no one else in the movie business, and a century or more of filmmaking experience between them. Then they made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

This movie has got a number of inherent flaws.

Okay, first of all, this is an even-numbered Indy film. That means, primarily, it’s about paganism instead of Judeo-Christian mythos. Not going to be as resonant or captivating right off the bat. And now it’s set in the 1950s. Indiana Jones is a pulp hero, and some of those original pulp figures started having their published adventures in the 1930s, and continued through the 1950s, requiring the plotlines to adapt to current fantasies. Okay, so we can talk about the atomic bomb and, maybe, UFO relics. And yet, somehow, the ending of the movie which [spoiler] reveals aliens is a stupid letdown, as well as being corny and done-to-death.

It was instructive to watch the DVD documentaries about how this movie came to be. Lucas proposed Indy-meets-aliens way back in the 80s, and Spielberg said, “No! No more aliens! I’m sick of aliens! We’ve both done aliens!” This was rather sensible of him. However, the tale goes, Lucas simply refused to let go of this idea. He kept bringing it up every time. Finally, he said, “They’re not extraterrestrials, they’re extra-dimensionals.” And somehow, Spielberg (as well as everyone else, like Harrison Ford, who also objected for years), possibly tired of fighting the idea so that they could get a script and make the movie, relented and said, “Okay, that’s more interesting.” Except functionally this makes no difference, and the aliens are still aliens. The thought goes through the audience’s collective mind: “Indiana Jones is not supposed to have aliens. There are no aliens in Indiana Jones’s reality. They do not fit.” And the audience is right.

It makes me wonder what was driving Lucas’s obsession with the idea. He wanted to do it so much that he didn’t see that it didn’t fit.

There are myths about crystal skulls that involve great mystery and magic and seem like they would have been a promising place to take Indiana Jones. When I heard the title, that’s what I thought of. Unfortunately, they thought of the title long after they’d already put the movie into the works.

The other problem with the aliens is that revealing them adds nothing and explains nothing. It just kind of dumbs things up right when we want a smart resolution.

So, conceding the point that the movie starts with this flawed notion as the starting inspiration, there are ways I can appreciate what happens in the movie — and, as per the Ebert formula — how it goes about doing it.

The upstream struggle to like anything about it

One of the problems I have with this movie is that everything I like is a qualified like.

I like Indy being in the predicament of being caught in an atomic test. There can be mushroom clouds in Indiana Jones’s world. But I don’t like the solution to the predicament, mostly because he’s shown to be thrown in a lead-lined refrigerator (which would have enormous mass) a distance and velocity that would shatter every one of his bones on impact, killing him instantly. The protection from radiation doesn’t enter into it. The man is nimble and can survive scrapes, but he’s never supposed to be superhuman. The appeal of his adventures in Raiders of the Lost Ark was that he was all too inexpertly human at times. He can’t survive things that would kill a normal person. That’s why he scrambles so hard for his life when he’s clambering around on that Nazi-driven truck, because falling off would kill him. The refrigerator solution to the atomic bomb makes him into a cartoon character that can just go “Boing!” after an incredible fall.

It’s like you can see them planning out the previsualization on the visual effects for the fridge gag and setting that in motion instead of having the conversation where they say, “That’s not realistic enough for Indy.” You know what would have been more plausible? He finds an atomic bunker in the backyard just in time. Just as suspenseful as climbing into the refrigerator. Do the same bit where he has trouble shutting the door because crap is in the way. Somethin’.

I like them going into the big government warehouse where the ark is stored. I like recognizing that this is that warehouse because John Williams reuses his musical cue from that scene at the end of the first movie. I don’t like the fact that this is “Area 51.” I hate to break this to you guys, but Area 51’s been done to death. Every single show with the slightest toe in sci-fi waters going back 25 years has done an Area 51 episode. Another thing about Indiana Jones is that he has his own mythology and his own stories. Area 51 comes with its own mythology by now. You had an original idea for a big government warehouse of secret stuff, that was great. That was mythic. Oh, but now it’s just Area 51? Weak. I mean, it’s so they can have Roswell aliens in there, even though that doesn’t make sense with the aliens at the end, which have been in suspended animation for millennia.

I also don’t like that Indy’s plan for how to find the right crate defies physics; or, having established these different physical properties, they make no attempt to apply this consistently. If you’re going to say the skull is so magnetic that it can attract gunpowder from dozens of yards away and pull the hanging lamps in its direction, then nobody in the building would be able to hold onto their machine guns, especially not when they’re standing around it, or not without fighting against the attraction every moment. The magnetism returns and fades and wanes later in the story, only for some individual whim of an effect as suits the mood of the director. I guess all these guys studied was movies, so all they know is movie-physics, but I find it puts me in a bad mood. It also probably has the effect of making me inured to any sense of peril, because apparently no rules apply and we are watching a cartoon.

As someone who has an artistic inclination, it disturbs me how one can remain completely ignorant as to the whole point of what it was that people liked about something you created.

The movie is ending now, with a giant whirl of wind carrying away the ruins of a pyramid. I was just thinking this isn’t so bad, and then you see a flying saucer. They do a spectacular thing with giant rocks floating in a dust-hazed sky with light streaming through the debris, but one fails to completely enjoy it because of the flying saucer in between the two nice looking bits.

Yes, I kind of get the idea behind it. 1950s pulp instead of 1930s pulp. There was some other way to do this that they didn’t do, and that’s what lingers for people, I think. It’s a tough job, competing against the imaginations of everyone in a very large audience, but supposedly that’s what we’re paying for, right? Better ideas than people can think of themselves? One feels like there are a range of Indiana Jones stories to tell that would be better than this one. I’ve got one, that I thought of about five years ago when I was in L.A.: Indiana Jones and the Garden of Eden. He finds it! I thought that was a cool idea. The big flaming sword guardian would have been cool. I remember I had just read at the time that George Lucas “had a really neat idea” that he wanted to use as the basis for another Indiana Jones film. I liked my idea; even though it was only a title, it was a title that promised an interesting archaelogical adventure into Judeo-Christian mythology, which sounded like a good start. I liked my idea so much I allowed myself the vanity of thinking, gee, I wonder if George Lucas is thinking of the same neat idea when he says he has a neat idea.

And on that note, the movie is over (technically, I was liveblogging it just now), and I’m out of here.

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