Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Defense of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

    George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford have all been involved with some of the most exciting and fun movies of the last 30 plus years.  Unfortunately, all three have gotten older, changed, and lost a good deal of that certain je ne sais quoi.  Lucas, always a good money man, seems to have become consumed with self importance, unable to see that much of what made his early films classics came from his skill at surrounding himself with more talented people.  Spielberg simply seems to have lost his passion and youthful energy, turning out drab, lifeless film after schlocky, maudlin film.  And Ford, never exactly a font of riveting personality, has aged into a cantankerous old man without the dashing charm of a Clint Eastwood or Liam Neeson.

    Star Wars was a sort of holy work for many of my generation.  Something we grew up immersed in, developing out own personal relationship with, and devouring even hints of what would become known as the ‘Expanded Universe.’  And yes, I loved the original films.  I used to watch a tape of the trilogy recorded off HBO, over and over again.  As much as anyone, I hungered for Lucas to get the gang back together and make some more movies.  Hearing rumors that he wanted to do a set of three films set before the originals, then come back and do a follow up trilogy to the original films, with the actors all properly aged sent thrills down my spine.  But for a long time it remained nothing but rumor, and when it finally became something more, what we got was basically crap.

    I say this, because while Star Wars was THE trilogy for many, the Indiana Jones trilogy was mine.  Raiders of the Lost Ark, from the time I saw it in the theater, held captive by the images, the music, and the rousing tale, would become a key film in my developing interests and character.  For years after, I wanted nothing more than to be an archeologist.  My love of pulp fiction, history, geography, music, movie serials, and so, so much more stems from seeing this film.  Even my love of fiery, independent, dark haired women may have started with Karen Allen in Raiders.  And I went on to see the next two movies in the theater, being blown away by each, recapturing my fascination with the characters, the places, and the magic of adventure.

    Over the years since The Last Crusade played in theaters, I came to understand more about the history and the adventure fiction that inspired the films, developing a profound love of the pulps I couldn’t have achieved as a youngster.  My own writing being heavily influenced by writers like Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well as movies like King Kong, Lost Horizon, She, and The Lost World.  In this exploration of literature and film, my love of the Indiana Jones trilogy deepened.  I kept hearing rumor that the parties involved were kicking around the idea of doing a fourth film, but after the horrors of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and the late career of the three principles, I didn’t hold out much hope that it would be any good.  And, considering how often I’d hear “Lucas rejected the script by…” I figured it would never actually happen.  I mean, Ford isn’t a young man.  And Spielberg seems to have developed a fear of all things actiony (or good).

    But then, Bam! it was a go.  They assembled a cast and started filming.  It was happening.  And who was in it?  Harrison Ford and Karen Allen for starters.  The awesome couple from the first film.  Great.  And joining them would be Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, and Jim Broadbent.  Wow.  That’s a cast.  Oh, wait, who else?  Ugh.  Crappy kid actor turned crappy adult actor Shia LaBeouf?  Oh, man.  And as Indiana Jones’ son.  You’ve got to be kidding.  This isn’t gonna be one of those 'handing over the reigns' movies is it?  My heart sank, and I was pretty well resigned to having yet another awesome childhood memory dredged up and trampled into the dirt.

    So, I didn’t have a lot of hope or enthusiasm when I went to the theater.  And, honestly, things didn’t get much better over the first five minutes or so of the film, where some of the weaker and totally unnecessary CG I’ve seen put me in a bad place.  However, once that scene ended, the movie pulled me back in.  Oddly, the introduction of the LaBeouf in his Marlon Brando get up helped.  And it helped set the film firmly in the 1950s.  Where before, Indy was battling Nazis and such, and dealing with very pulpy, movie serial type problems, we now see, 20 years later, Indy dealing with McCarthyism, atomic bombs, Commies, and yes, flying saucers.  And, for a series that started as an homage to the serials, I think it’s perfectly reasonable and right for it to continue as an homage to the Atomic Age films of the 50s. 

    Now, the film isn’t perfect.  While I don’t have the problem with the whole fridge stunt, I do have a problem with the haphazard, unneeded, and not very good looking use of CG in many scenes.  It’s used perfectly well throughout much of the film, but the times when it doesn’t work are glaring and could have been left out completely without hurting anything (gofers, monkeys, and the warehouse).  And, though he wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected, using Shia LaBeouf was a bad call.  An unknown, or an actor less disliked seems like a better choice.  I mean, when you’ve got an established fan base, you probably shouldn’t pick an actor to join the cast who is almost universally hated by that fan base.  You’re just asking for trouble.

    That said, there is a lot to love, and I do love it.  Indy is older, more mellow, and reluctant to get back in the game.  The alien conspiracy, Aria 51, crystal skulls, psi-researching, sexy Russian, and the return of Marion Ravenwood.  I love that you’ve got this action movie staring an older cast.  I like that there’s nothing about Nazis, and nothing about Biblical artifacts.  And that it’s not a remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, like The Last Crusade was.

    Leaving the theater, I had that sense of wonder again.  It had caught me up in the crazy universe of Indiana Jones once again.  I felt that love of the originals all over again.

    Brad and I may be the only two people who feel this way, but I really want to see two more films.  And yes, we already have some ideas.  I’d love to see the next film set primarily in China, dealing with Red Chinese, and of course, some kind of historic artifact from that land.  The story should feature Indy and Marian, and bring back in Short Round.

    A third new film, if I had my way, would feature an outing in Australia, then move the action to Antarctica.  It would feature the return of Spalko, now a powerful psychic being (and not necessarily evil), partially rebuilt by the things from Crystal Skull.  This story might feature a more mature LaBeouf, no longer playing the rebellious son, but perhaps a competent adventurer.  And, as it would no doubt be a final film, NO handing over of the hat to his son.  Another ride into the sunset, perhaps?

    I think that many of us, especially people of my generation and generally of the ‘internet generation,’ have become somewhat cynical about movies, and have invested in some rather powerful rose colored glasses.  We judge most modern movies not by the movies from our youth, but by the memory of our love of those films.  And nothing can live up to that.  I saw it with the new Star Trek, with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, with Casino Royale, and so many others.  But you have to be careful when you become too cynical.  That doesn’t mean forgive anything and everything.  I mean, beyond what it screws up with the history and the characters, I’d argue that Attack of the Clones is a genuinely terrible film on not only an artistic but a technical level.  I don’t think that comes from cynicism.

    I hear a lot of complaints about remakes and sequels.  That’s bupkiss in my opinion.  Sequels and remakes have never been in short supply, and some of the best movies ever made are remakes and/or sequels.  The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars, The Thing is one of the best horror movies of all time, and famous and beloved Bogart film The Maltese Falcon was the third screen version.  There is nothing wrong with remakes or with sequels, and they’re not really any more common today than they were in the past.  It’s just that with the internet and the fast pace of communication these days,  people get to gripe about them more.  And a lot of people have become almost obsessed with In My Day Syndrome.  Things change.  I don’t think any statement could be more true.  Things change.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s been happening since before humans took their first upright steps and it will continue long after we’ve passed the technological singularity.  Get on the train, or get run over.  Refusing to adapt and enjoy new films is just as bad as refusing to investigate older ones.



  1. I waited for the longest time to see the Crystal Skull because of all the terrible reviews. When I finally saw it on DVD, I really enjoyed it and regretted skipping it in the theaters. I honestly don't get all the hatred. Like you, I saw what George Lucas was trying to do with recreating the vibe of a 50's serial, and I totally appreciated it. Thanks for this post. I'm glad I'm not alone on this island!

  2. I think I have to love Crystal Skull just for that image of Indy rising over the hill with the Mushroom Cloud billowing in the distance. Not crazy about that fridge business, but that image is stunning. Shoulda been the poster.

    And Shia wasn't all that bad either. Definitely one of his more tolerable film roles.

  3. Glad to see Brad and I aren't the only fans.