Indiana Jones and the What Went Wrong


[Author’s Note: After the second paragraph, there be spoilers]

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull rubbed a great many of us the wrong way. By us, I mean Indy geeks. I count myself one of that number, but I don’t think that Indy 4 was nearly as brutal as I was led to believe it would be. I do, however, feel that the film shot just left of the mark. Not far enough off to result in an unmitigated disaster, but enough so that I was left feeling hungrier for classic Indy action than when I began the film. This was the Indy equivalent of eating nothing but celery all day. You’re taking in content, and you enjoy it while it’s happening, but there’s nothing substantial for you.

So… what did I like? For starters, there is some great flavor to the movie. Speilberg conjures up some very faithful Indy action and interactions. Old favorites make appearances. Villains get their gruesome comeuppance. The ridiculous sound effect that accompanies a punch to the jaw remains in all its original glory. Even Shia LaBeouf as Mutt (bonus points if you know why they would call him “Mutt”) wasn’t a hateful addition, though he was clearly the anchor point for the younger audience the film felt it needed to be speaking to.  The writing is decent, the film skips along despite its 2 hour run-time, the puzzles and riddles felt like Indy problems to solve. And Indy himself is, well, Indy himself. He’s a patriot and a scholar and driven enough for knowledge to help the bad guy get the info they want and to worry about how he’ll stop them after the fact. All of these things were present in the film, as they should have been.

So then what went wrong?

Sci-fi.

Indiana Jones is NOT science fiction, for starters. It is adventure. It is pulp fiction. It is supernatural. It is mythic. It is religious. It is scientific. It is NOT science fiction. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is science fiction, therefore it is not real Indiana Jones.

The core of the film deals with the discovery of an artifact that is revealed to not be a sculpture of an alien skull, but an actual alien skull. There are alien bodies shown in the film. The film ends with the uncovering of a flying saucer that vanishes into another dimension. And it all just makes things feel off somehow. Indiana Jones has always dealt with the fantastic – the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, whatever the hell was going on in Temple of Doom – but a flying saucer piloted by a crystal hive-mind alien skull that vanishes into another dimension after disintegrating an ancient South American temple? It’s just one step too far. The spectacle was too great and it became apparent as artifice.

I began to realize that my problem with the film was that it was injecting flash to distract me. I wasn’t supposed to notice that Indy was old, so it tried to distract me. Instead of weaving that into the action and making his age part of the adventure, and having him – as he should – rely on wits to get himself out of danger, the film stuck to flash and glam, and too much of that was constructed in a way that made it feel less like the classic action it should have, and more like something out of a Michael Bay film. And it’s not even the sequence of action that necessarily gave it this feel. Its the manner in which it was filmed and presented.

There was too much CGI. Too many scenes that would have otherwise felt crunchy and satisfying were made glossy and thin by computer graphics. I know you can film a car chase through dangerous territory and make it real and visceral, Spielberg. You did it 27 years ago in the original.

Hell, there are even scenes where things get on the lens. I find this to be a pretty ludicrous bit of breaking the fourth wall. If you want your film to be 3D, make it 3D. Don’t remind me that none of this is real by splashing crap digitally on a camera lens that shouldn’t be there. It’s a cheap parlor trick almost always intended as a grossout effect, and all it does is make it very apparent that there is a visual effect in play. It’s not natural, and for a film about the 1950s era, drawing attention to computer graphics being used to augment things is probably not the way to go.

Which leads me to my final point — rather than make an Indy film for the Indy fans and have Harrison Ford be the age he really is in the film, there’s a palpable feeling that the film is trying to be relevant. It doesn’t do anything quite as subtly as the previous films (parts of which are decidedly unsubtle). The era is pushed down your throat. Things are explained to you in utterly matter of fact terms even after loads of hints and clues and prodding that should have led you there on your own anyway. Hell, there are digital groundhogs doing double-takes at the start of the film. It’s just trying too hard.

The film feels as if its laboring as hard to make its points and to be itself as Harrison Ford must have been when trying to film some of the stunts. Instead of just telling a story about Indiana Jones and how age is impacting his ability to adventure and how he’s still The Man in spite of it, the movie feels as if it’s trying very hard to make everything shiny and hip and relevant. Indiana Jones isn’t about being hip. It’s about being classic. It’s the very definition of old school and the film gets so close to capturing that you can almost taste it. In the end, though, it ends up being that aging hipster that knows the fresh lingo and maybe knows a few of the dance steps, but very apparently is just out of his element.

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  1. #1 by Gretrascis on June 24, 2009 - 12:37 PM

    I’m going to preface this with the fact that I haven’t seen the movie. I have no clue about all of the gripes regarding CGI, etc.

    But regarding the move to sci-fi, I wonder if it weren’t possibly deliberate. The ’50s brought a lot of movies about aliens and science fiction. Where Indiana Jones was a pulp hero of the ’30s, moving him into the ’50s may have brought the idea of moving him out of the pulp stories and into sci-fi stories.

  2. #2 by mscarpel on June 24, 2009 - 12:51 PM

    @Gretrascis

    I agree that it was a calculated move, but I think I would class it as a calculated misstep. For me it was odd to see Indy, with his whip and fisticuffs, alongside space-age technology that he not only cannot comprehend, but that actually at one point controls his mind and renders him powerless against it.

    So, it was a new element for the series, but it left Indy out of his element. He’s an archeologist. He doesn’t understand UFOs or alien cultures. At least when it was the power of the Ark or Grail or Hindu religious cult practices, it was in an arena that he understood.

    In this film, however, Indy is powerless to affect how things play out at the end. The force is entirely beyond him.

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