Friday, May 23, 2008

Too Close Encounters Make Me Want to Indy Phone Home

My long absence is herewith redeemed (I hope) by some long-winded geek talk. Usually, I try to avoid the most blogged-about topics. Why be just another straw in the cyber haystack? But I can't help myself. I gotta moan about Indy IV. Where to start? Ok, first of all... big spoiler alert. This is for people who saw it or don't mind having it ruined. Then again, one of my main beefs is that the movie has no surprises. A spoiler alert is almost a moot point, since the movie telegraphs from its first big scene -- hell, from its poster -- all of the inner-workings of its would-be mystery.

The film opens at a remote desert military base ("where the government keeps all its secrets"). One need not be a fanboy geektard to have heard of Area 51, and just in case you didn't get it, there's a giant "51" stenciled prominently on the wall. To the best of my recollection, even Independence Day doesn't name its desert alien research facility, but one gleans that it's Area 51 by implication. And when Independence Day has a movie beat on subtlety, that should give you a hint as to what's in store for you.

Some evil Ruskies steal a mysterious crate from the facility. Will we wait with baited breath until later in the film to discover its secret contents and guess at why the villains want it? No, they'll open it right away and most conspicuously reveal what is, quite obviously, the carcass of a little green man. Ok, we saw the poster on the way into the theater. We saw the elongated skull with giant eye sockets and a South American pyramid behind it. One of the first shots of the film is of a "this means something, this is important" mound of dirt à la Close Encounters. And now, five minutes into the film, we see an alien at Area 51. Ok, so I guess Indy's going to discover that aliens built the pyramids... but there must be a twist, right? It can't be that simple, can it? It's been forty years since Chariots of the Gods? was published. Again, one need not be a complete nerdling savant to have heard about the theory that the Mayan and Aztec gods were extra-terrestrials. This is stuff that has made its way into pop culture apocrypha. So Misters Lucas and Spielberg must have a twist for us somewhere, surely.

Alas, no. And this is my biggest problem. The film has nothing up its sleeve -- no mystery, no magic. It trudges along, Indy slowly coming to realizations about the forces at work behind the plexiglass -- pardon me... "crystal" -- skull. Near film's end, when our heroes find ancient murals depicting the "gods" ruling over the ancient El Dorado, they hold the skull aloft, all aghast at the "exact match" of its silhouette against the cranium of the figure on the wall. John Williams's music swells, as if to build this into a moment of tremendous revelation. But didn't we figure this out from the movie's poster? And didn't Cate Blanchett's swashbuckling Soviet confirm it all explicitly in some exposition she delivered earlier in a tent? That sense of revelation -- of discovery -- so important in the first three Indy films (and in Indy's chosen field of archaeology), is disappointingly absent here.

What is present are more references and homage à old Hollywood serials and genre pictures than one might have thought possible. Seems like they loved Elvis movies, swashbucklers, flying saucer films, and even Tarzan flicks (as is evident in one of the most arbitrary and odd action sequences I've ever seen). Lucas, Spielberg, and screenwriter David "Let Me Explain This All For You So That Performance, Camera, and Cutting Don't Have To" Koepp have jammed so much stuff into this Indy adventure that when the dust all settles, one realizes that very little has come of it all. It's a pastiche of disparate adventure serials with no connecting tissue... a colorful ramen soup with no noodles or broth (I'm hungry... you'll have to endure a food metaphor).

Our auteurs also seem happy to reference themselves as often as they do Errol Flynn and Johnny Weissmuller. I suppose a certain amount of that is unavoidable, and perhaps necessary, in a series as beloved as Indy, especially when he's been absent from theaters for 19 years. But at the end of the day, this stuff does nothing for me. In the first action scene, a crate gets busted open in Area 51, giving us a fleeting glimpse of the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The opening night crowd I saw it with errupted in cheers, as if to say collectively, "Yes! We saw that movie!" So what? How's this movie going? Photos, paintings, and even a bronze statue of characters-not-returning-for-this-movie populate the film, far more often, I'd venture, than is necessary. I love Karen Allen, and my experience is that her Marion Ravenwood is everyone's favorite Indy girl, but after the applause garnered by her entrance dies down, she's just here to drive the car around while father and son do all the work. Allen's presence in the film does little more than remind us that Indy movies used to rock.

Ray Winstone, another actor I like a lot, also seems to be here as a mere phantom of the John Rhys-Davies buddy role. But Mac turns out to be nowhere near as endearing as Sallah, nor even remotely as important to the narrative. Seriously, what does this character offer to the film? Given a strangely poignant farewell at the end, this cypher of a character is supposedly a dear old friend and partner of Indy (we've been told so), but he doesn't have a likable moment in the film. If he and Indy did have good times together, then this film, again, only serves as evidence that I'd rather be watching the movie about those times.

Even the props fill me with this sentiment. The film's namesake is the most kitschy, unwieldy, plasticine movie tchotchke I've seen since Nicole Kidman's lips in The Golden Compass. It sits awkwardly in Harrison Ford's arms, looking most clumsy and un-enigmatic as he talks about how special it is. The crystal skull is completely devoid of the Ark's majesty (Raiders), the holy grail's gravity (Last Crusade), or even the Sankara stones' elegant simplicity (Temple of Doom). It's hokey. And it seems decidedly unexceptional, even by the film's own standards: Blanchett casually shows us her alien cadaver in her riverside tent, complete with extraneous crystal skull inside. I guess, through some convoluted logic, the hero skull is more important, but I couldn't help but wonder, "What's the big deal," when these skulls seem to be dropping out of the skies.

And these skulls, so over-explained to us (and therefore so devoid of mystery), do Indy a disservice. I like my Indy films pitting him against Judeo-Christian mythology and magic, or at least some Hindu cult voodoo. Indy is a rational academic who faces the greatest, most fantastical, supernatural incarnations of good and evil. Now, suddenly, he's in an atomic-age sci-fi story. Indy investigating aliens is as de-mystifying as saying that The Exorcist is about a girl with a weird psychosis, and as counter intuitive as would be Sigourney Weaver's Ripley fighting the Mummy. It's oil and water... unsettling and unsatisfying for a fan.

There is the pretense of some very grandiose forces at work here. Blanchett's fate mirrors the villains' demises at the end of both Raiders and Last Crusade. The agents of evil, in their tireless thirst for power, open a Pandora's box and are destroyed by a power greater than their own. But Blanchett's Irina Spalko isn't nearly so evil as the villains of Indy films past. We never see her murder innocents, enslave children, or even burn a book. The most sinister plan she has to offer is to "make you all think like us without you even noticing it." But if Americans are as boneheaded, jingoistic, and bomb-happy as they are made out to be early in the film (the film's brief attempt at some political commentary about the American psyche), then would that really be a bad thing? And frankly, I'm not so sure that what happens to Spalko is punishment. She dissolves and is pulled into another dimension, overpowered by the wealth of knowledge she is shown by looking into E.T.'s eyes. Isn't that what she wanted? She is given an ambiguous fate: disintegrated by physical, human standards, but given the ultimate "gift" of her alien superiors.

So the sweeping, bombastic climax of the film is hard for me to care much about, not least for the unabashedly digital overload in its execution. And this, perhaps, finally, is my last major beef with the film (nitpicky qualms could populate another blog this length). There's so much computer-generated scenery and action that it's hard to spot Indiana Jones in there. We expect this from Star Wars. But Indy is most fun when -- like the old serials it emulates -- it is cobbled together out of chickenwire, paper-mache, glue, models, and cobwebs, not rendered from wireframes, bits, pixels, ones, and zeros. The lush, hand-made matte paintings of old Hollywood have been replaced by flat digital plates, and computer composites have taken the place of photo-chemical prints on emulsion. All the original effects, even the optical ones, were physical; they were done by hand and relatively crude machine, just as Indy uses whips, revolvers, and fists rather than the rayguns and warp-drives of Han Solo.

Amendment 5/27: I thought of a much simpler way to illustrate the problem here, and perhaps the bigger picture as a whole: Indy and company running down a digital gauntlet of giant, computer-generated gears will never be as exciting and interesting -- let alone as iconic -- as Harrison Ford running from a very real, physical giant boulder, as he did in Raiders. That encapsulates why this movie fails for me. If you have no problem with that contrast, then good on ya... you might actually enjoy this.

That movie magic, sadly, may be gone forever, and that's no more apparent than it is when watching Indy 19 years after we last saw him. A lot has changed in that time, and of course, times change and technology develops. But then, is it too much to ask for some ingenuity in storytelling? Alas, Crystal Skull's biggest tricks aren't tricks at all. Even the first utterly mediocre Alien vs. Predator managed to come up with a pretty creative twist on the Von Daniken theory of pyramids-by-aliens. The best Lucas and Company have to offer us here is "No, they weren't from outer space, they were from another dimension." Really, does anyone care by that point? Oh, well then maybe we can take a moral from this? How about it, Indy? Yes, Indy tells us (and I paraphrase from memory), "The Mayan word for 'gold' also translates to 'treasure.' It wasn't gold they were after, it was knowledge. Knowledge was their treasure." Koepp is the king of that insulting "1+1=2, therefore 2=1+1" dialogue. It's crap like that which incensed this blogger to write one of his longest entries yet. And for that, I apologize. Those of you who have made it this far, I salute you, just as I salute those of you still planning on venturing into the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Godspeed.