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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

You Call This Archaeology? Indy IV is whipped.

Continuity.  It is what bridges the gap from old to new in a film franchise's universe.  What you had a character say or do twenty years ago has to be able to slide right into timeline of existing canon.  It is also an ever ready and easily accessible weapon for fans and critics of a film when an iconic hero gets dusted off years after the last incarnation to ride into the sunset one more time.  When you take time off from the original source material to produce other works that are considered canon, you find yourself bound and sometimes shackled by something you never thought you'd have to back up later.  Such is the case with the most recent Indiana Jones film, the fourth in the franchise, titled Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

For being 33, my whole childhood revolved around two film trilogies that involved Harrison Ford.  He's one of, if not, my favorite actor of all times.  Luckily, when George Lucas came around to making the prequel trilogy for the Star Wars Saga, he opted to leave Han Solo out, which was a smart move.  Here, you are kind of required to include Ford as he is the titular character in the Indiana Jones films.  I remember seeing each film in the theater during their original run.  In fact, I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in one of those old movie houses with the grand interior design and balcony seating,  as well as the completely furnished lounge amid the restrooms.  As a testament to old school films of the 30's, in which all three originals are set, mid way through the picture, the film broke.  It was a cliff hanger almost by design on the part of the projectionist as we were left on the edge of our seats as Indy was in a dire situation that seemed hopeless.  With Crystal Skull, the only thing that seems hopeless is the ability to connect it to the original films.

First off, right away, let me say that for all intents and purposes of genre, the film works.  The plot is appropriately aged to the 1950's as Ford has gained 19 years in age since Last Crusade.  Instead of Nazi stooges, we are in the midst of the Cold War, mid to post McCarthy Era Red Scare America where black lists are real and are a relevant topic considering the post 9/11 Patriot Act debate.  Instead of religious artifacts with supernatural abilities sought out by those who wish to use them for their own selfish and evil purposes, we get the feeling of the 1950's sci-fi B-movies where spaceships and aliens are commonplace and shadowy government figures are interested in extra-terrestrial powers of the mind while America moves into the Atomic Age.  Unfortunately, it just doesn't work for me with an archaeologist at the helm.

Right off the bat we get thrown into the nostalgia of the 1950's.  The Nevada desert outside of Roswell New Mexico sets up the action as an army detail approaches Hangar 51 and after bypassing security, the retrieve some baggage from the trunk and we are reintroduced in silhouetted and musical fashion to our whip wielding hero, Indiana Jones.....albeit a little older and not as spry.  It seems he and fellow adventurer, George "Mac" McHale have been politely asked by a cadre of Communist conspirators to locate a needle in a stack of needles deep within a secret government warehouse that contains, of all things, The Lost Ark of the Covenant, passing the torch from the original films to the new one.  One can only guess, that today, the remaining crates in the warehouse contain the only original copy of The Star Wars Holiday Special and those thousands of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial game cartridges that were supposedly buried in the New Mexican dessert.

Escaping from his captors, Jones makes his way into the hands of the feds who see him as a person of interest in dealing with communism since he obviously aided and abetted them in their theft of one large and very magnetic crate.  Once debriefed and decontaminated from an atomic bomb test Jones finds himself paired up with Mutt Williams,played by Shia LeBouf as a greaser with a Marlon Brando and hair care complex, who enlists him to help track down a mutual friend on the advice of his mother.  Following clues and fleeing the bad guys, Indy and Mutt, find themselves poking around in a cemetery with some very weird looking skeletons and one rather weird paperweight, the films namesake Crystal Skull.  Once again captured, everyone has a rousing reunion as Indy learns a few secrets and agrees to help the Russian baddie, Irina Spalko, played dominatingly by Cate Blanchet.  Under penalty of death of his old friend, Harold Oxley (John Hurt) and old flame Marion Ravenwood Willams (Karen Allen), Indy pieces together more clues and communes with the skull to understand his whacked out schoolmate.   Chases ensue, insects attack, and ancient cities are discovered as Indy and company twist there way up the Amazon towards the climax which will just about make you want to say, "Did that just happen?"

Before we all start shouting fanboy Schadenfruede, let's take a look at how this mess was orchestrated.  After Last Crusade Lucas let time lapse on the series as he had run out of MacGuffins to chase around the world.   Yet, if he could come up with one that he, Spielberg, and Ford could agree upon, they would make another film.  As the years went by and Ford began to age, although not quite as fast as Walter Donovan in Last Crusade after choosing poorly, the plot and everything supporting it had to convincingly advance in years.  During that time, Lucas produced the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles which gave bookends to the films in terms of Indy's adventures, including his further brushes with historical figures.  He was Forrest Gump before Forrest Gump in terms of association with history.   The script itself had its own brushes with fame as everyone from Frank Darabont to M. Night Shyamalan and Tom Stoppard had their hands in the pot.  Unfortunately, an ultimatum was issued by Ford saying that if the film could not be produced by 2008 he would be against it since he felt he'd be too old to make it believable.  Going into scramble mode, Lucas fell back upon his love for the 50's B-movie genre and this Crystal Skull idea that he'd toyed with during Young Indy's run on television.  A writer, a script, and a movie came together and filming began on June 18, 2007.

As a promise from Spielberg and in direct contrast with everything that Lucas has now become, CGI was to be used sparingly in environment backgrounds and in some cases that it deemed necessary, otherwise it was old school effects and tricks of the trade that they so beautifully employed in the first three films.  Also, to keep the feel of the originals, Spielberg opted to film digitally, but traditionally, another concept now abandoned by Lucas.  Ford got in shape and was said to look in better shape than he did 20 years ago. 
I only wish they would have got off their duffs ten years ago or had just decided to follow Ford's statement and gave up.  As I said, I am a big Indy fan and a lover of all things Lucas and Spielberg.  However, here's why I just cannot get into the film the way I should be able to.  I feel lied to.  It's obvious CGI was used for more than just background enhancements as one huge scene towards the end defied all physical laws of nature.  Not to mention, it became painfully apparent that Ford did not do a majority of the stunts including a lot of the work in the warehouse scenes.  His face is never seen, shots are poorly lit or from a distance and there is noticeable edits and departure of character from visibility before Ford reenters from off screen.   Even when close up, his whip work was done gingerly and to an off-screen object.  19 years ago there were full shots of him slinging the ole bullwhip.  Just seeing this quote from AP gave me goose bumps because I felt that Spielberg had learned from Lucas' mistakes with the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy yet I was devastated as if I had found out that underneath Santa's beard there was my father putting toys under the tree.

"It's horrifying to work on a movie that has this many fans, but at the same time, it's an opportunity and a challenge," Pablo Helman told The Associated Press at the ILM offices less than a week before its release. "I think we were all very, very respectful of the other three movies but also to the fans. All the effects work that we're doing are completely reality-based."

With that in mind, three big action sequences took full use of CGI effects.  One involved an amphibious vehicle, another involved bugs, and the third involved the climax.  Now, don't get me wrong, I understand that an inflatable raft falling from a plane onto a mountainside and then over a cliff into the rapids is a stretch of the imagination in terms of physics but they made you believe it with old school trickery.

Let's take a look at the bad guys.  The Nazis were pretty a go to bad guy for the first and third film being that it was set in the mid to late 30's.  Here we have the Russians since it's the cold war.   Some foreign critics are offended that the movie is intended to bring about a cold war.  Well, if that's the case, we shouldn't be too worried about our enemy.  They were dumb, slow, and not very effective at being evil.  It's sad to know that Pat Roach couldn't be a part of the film as he died in 2004.  He didn't have a huge fight scene in Last Crusade but his presence was felt.  In Crystal Skull, who is the big burly mini boss that Jones has to fight?  Oh, that's right he's the guy that dukes it out with the stunt double.  It was a good knock down, drag out fight, but he hardly looked menacing enough to hurt Indiana Jones.  Even the main villain, Irina Spalko, wasn't all that menacing.  Yeah she looks like a dominatrix from Cabaret and is handy with a sword, but Walter Donovan shot Henry Jones Sr.  That takes balls. Here the only thing ballsy about the Russians is that come onto American soil during the 1950's. In another moment that requires you to really suspend disbelief were are supposed to go along with the notion that the Russians with accents would have a snowball's chance in the Temple of Doom of sneaking into the U.S., let alone area 51, during the Red Scare?

How could this movie have been better?  I don't know that I have the answer.  I'm not a Hollywood scribe or director so listening to me is like listening to the armchair quarterback after you lose the big game.  However, I offer up these suggestions.  Keep Marion, keep Mutt, keep Harold Oxley, and keep the Russians, but reduce MacHale's role. We'll have him show up in the beginning and then at the end. "Mac" was a waste of Ray Winstone's acting, making the role a one note redux of Kevin J. O'Connor's character from The Mummy.  Acknowledge the passing of time, Marcus Brody, and Daddy and even throw in all the age jokes. Now, redo the beginning to add in the original opening gamuts that were a staple of the Indy movies. Instead of opening directly in 1957, have it go back to the end of WWII and have Mac and Indy on the trail of some weird artifact that the Nazi's want. These details were kind of given to the audience during the debrief scene as we learn that Indy had joined the armed forces and helped fight during WWII. At the end of the opening bit, have Mac be supposedly killed off or lost as Indy races to escape from the Nazis. Flash forward to 1957 and resume the film. Lose the bit during the coffee shop and go right from Indy getting fired, Mutt saving him, and then off to South America.....oh and lose the bike. Have a scene about him parking it at Indy's for now. There was no point to it being in South America and it gets left behind anyway. Keep the graveyard scene and have them be taken to the Russian camp where everyone reunites sans MacHale. Instead of Mutt giving reason for escape, have Marion resort to her old tricks as a drinking game ensues with Russian Vodka. She leaves a passed out soldier and moves to free Mutt where she finds a tied up Indy and their reunion happens in a tent while the tension increases as they try to escape. Keep the recapture and lose the communing with the skull in order to understand Oxley. The threat of killing Marion and Indy's now revealed son will be enough of a threat to entice his assistance. Keep the back of the truck squabble and escape and even all the action with the hot potato skull tossing until we get to the bug sequence. Lose the death defying CGI water sports and go with a more traditional miniature or realistic looking sequence to drive us into the final act. Keep the rest until we get to the big reveal. Then, I'm at a loss because I think there was a big huge hole in the script that they tried to fill with anything that could work.

If that doesn't still woo you, try these alternative ideas directly from the brain of Mongo.

Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Atlantis

It's 1957 and America is thrust into the Cold War.  With Nazi Germany a thing of the past, a new terror rises in the East, communist countries like Russia and Cuba threaten our freedom with the development of new weapons of mass destruction.  But, while America possesses the Atomic Bomb, Russia's top experts discover clues that lead them to believe a weapon of even greater destruction is hiding in the Lost City of Atlantis.  Now a tenured professor, Indiana Jones lectures on lost civilizations while an onlooker in his class seems out of place.  He doesn't appear to be an enrolled student and after class, he approaches Jones about the topic.  He admits that he isn't a student but that a friend of the family, Harold Oxley has been kidnapped while searching for a lost artifact that could lead him to the Lost City.  Traveling with the professor, he and his mom were abducted but Mutt escapes with the notion that only one man could be trusted with their rescue, Indiana Jones.  Jones and Mutt travel to remote locations in order to piece together clues to the whereabouts of the city while the Russians watch their every move.  Once finding the city, Jones must keep the weapon out of the hands of the Russians and therefore ends up destroying what's left of the city in an effort to keep the world safe from this ancient technology that may or may not be extraterrestrial in design.

Indiana Jones and the Water of Life

Basically the same set up with Jones and the Russians competing to find the Fountain of Youth except set the clock back about 5 or 6 years to the beginning of the 50's.  Here you get the acknowledgement of both Indy and Marion's age and they can even take a sip from the fountain and be CGI restored, ala X-Men Last Stand to their younger selves for a brief moment before the fountain runs dry and the Russians lose their precious chance to take the waters back to Stalin so that he can become youthful and stay in power.

Indiana Jones and the Tree of Knowledge

Again, the basics stay the same.  Here we have Jones and the Russians going toe to toe in Mesopotamia to find the Garden of Eden and therefore the Tree of Knowledge that Adam and Eve ate from.  It's more religious than sci-fi but it again gives you a plot device that can be used to enhance the Soviet's power and also goes towards Spalko's thirst for knowledge.  It could ultimately play out that the almighty himself makes another appearance and the garden turns on the Russians making for a hasty escape before being swallowed up by the sand.  Granted, it smells of Mummy Returns but a lot of Crystal Skull smelled of other movies.

Regardless of my unimportant opinions, the movie will make lots of money as according to the five day take was somewhere in the neighborhood of $151 million with a wordwide gross of over $300 million. I just feel as we got a cheapened cobbled together attempt at fulfilling a promise and once again CGI became a crutch. I can only hope that we don't have to wait another 20 years to have a good Indy film and I hope that they don't decide to pass the whip to the younger generation. Also, in the future, stick to what has worked for over 20 years. Good story, good dialogue (there are hardly any quotable lines in this film. Where's the greats like, "It's not the years, it's the mileage." "No time for love, Dr. Jones." "No ticket." and "He choose poorly." We get a few quips from Jones but nothing that great. Hopefully, all the stars will align and we can get a better offering down the road a couple years. Otherwise, I feel like we're going to have to deal with Mutt Williams and the Whatever of the Whoosi-whatsit. That would be intolerable.

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