Indiana Jones And The Crushing Disappointment Of The CRYSTAL SKULL

The awkward moment when you realize you've been swindled by the best.

Growing up, the Indiana Jones movies were to me what the Star Wars franchise was to the rest of my friends. All the kids I knew wanted to have faux lightsaber battles and save the galaxy from Darth Vader; I just wanted to see priceless artifacts safely relocated to museums and punch Nazis in the face. I drew pictures of Indiana Jones. I had Indiana Jones posters on my wall. On a field trip to the zoo, I pretended to be a-scared of snakes even though I wasn't, because that's how Indy would've reacted.

This obsession baffled and amused my parents in equal measure. They were annoyed when they discovered me out in the garage, re-enacting the moment in Temple of Doom where Indy rolls under a slowly lowering stone door ("Why does the garage door keep going up and down?!"); they were forced to politely decline my request for a bullwhip on the occasion of my 10th birthday. They took it in stride, though, and they were happy to purchase each of the films for me on VHS. Over the years, I watched them until each copy was worn and useless, until I could recite entire scenes' worth of dialogue from memory.

All of which is to say: you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who was more excited about the idea of a fourth Indiana Jones than I was.

All of which is also to say: you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who was more disappointed by Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull than I was.

Many Star Wars fans will know the type of disappointment I'm talking about, because they experienced the same thing almost a decade prior with Episode I. Like that film, Indy 4 was a hard lesson learned, a brutal reminder that one's expectations should always be kept in check and that - as our own Phil Nobile Jr. recently pointed out - we're often our own worst enemies when it comes to demanding more from the franchises we love*. I watched Indy 4 on opening night and I wandered out into the parking lot utterly shellshocked by what'd just happened.

 

Looking back, the red flags were there early on. The film's first trailer, for instance, spent its first 36 seconds rehashing Indy's past glories. At the time, the trailer's inclusion of footage from Raiders, Temple of Doom and Last Crusade felt like a bit of a well-earned victory lap, a reminder that this franchise contains some of the best action, adventure and excitement ever caught on film. In retrospect, it's impossible not to see through all that for what it really was: a blatantly transparent attempt to play on our sense of nostalgia. Of course that's how they were going to sell this thing. Of course people like me were pre-programmed to respond to it. It's flat out embarrassing to rewatch this trailer now and to think about how hard I fell for it**.

The inclusion of that old footage is especially ironic, considering how poorly it jibes with the footage that follows. One of my biggest complaints (on a very long list of complaints) about Indy 4 is how little it looks like any other Indy film. Gone are the sweeping location shoots from previous installments. Gone are the beautifully realized practical sets and stunts. In their place we're given blue-screen backdrops and amateurish CGI explosions***, none of which are ever remotely believable. It's distracting. Depressing. Lazy. From the time of its release straight on through today, this casual rejiggering of the classic Indy aesthetic feels like nothing less than a betrayal.

It's not the only thing that feels "off". Watch that trailer for the moment where Indy misjudges a leap and ends up crashed into the cab of a speeding truck. The timing of the gag (the punchline of which is "Damn, I thought that was closer") is off by what feels like a full beat, and it's representative of the film as a whole. Whether it's a stilted line of dialogue, a phony backdrop, a typically precious George Lucas Flourish (TM) or a wooden performance (*coughKarenAllencough*), something jarring seems to be happening every few minutes in Indy 4. It's a film that feels comprised almost entirely of first takes and partially rendered effects.

The script feels partially rendered, as well, something likely owed to the cavalcade of rewrites that occurred prior to Indy 4 getting shoved in front of a camera. The thing absolutely comes across as a camel designed by committee, with odd tangents that never really add up to anything (the post-Area 51 scene where Indy's interrogated by a pair of Commie-fearing Feds) and set pieces that feel like tepid leftovers from previous drafts (everything that happens during the Nazca Lines sequence). Even Indy's reunion with Marion - and the eventual reveal that the two are Mutt's parents - feels like tacked-on fan service. Really: who was chomping at the bit to see Indiana Jones engaged in a series of shrill domestic squabbles in the jungle? Who wanted to see Indiana Jones get married? This is fanfic bullshit, pure and simple, and the entire film suffers for it.

Speaking of which: a lot of the hate surrounding the film has been leveled at Shia LaBeouf, but after revisiting the film over the weekend, I feel like this is one area where the anger's misplaced. LaBeouf is perfectly fine in the role of Mutt Williams; the character itself - and how he's been written - is the far bigger problem. Mutt's annoying and bitchy, prone to the same sort of mood swings that led some to (unfairly, if you ask me) condemn Kate Capshaw's performance in Temple Of Doom. He also ends up featured in some of the film's most cringe-inducing scenes, particularly the moment where he ends up catching up to a car chase by swinging through a jungle, Tarzan-style, on vines****. With monkeys. This moment was egregious even upon our first viewing of the film (read: when we were at our most receptive), and is eclipsed only by the film's infamous "Nuke The Fridge" sequence in terms of sheer buffoonery.

Prior to this weekend, I had not revisited Indy 4 in many years, and I was stunned to discover that it's even worse than I remembered it. Almost nothing about the film works, though it's worth noting that one of our biggest fears about the film pre-release - that Harrison Ford simply wouldn't be up to the physical task of portraying this character again - is an unfounded one. Right off the bat, Spielberg has Indy climb a giant stack of crates inside a warehouse (the same warehouse where, ho ho, it turns out the Ark of The Convenant's been stored), and Ford does it in a single take, right there onscreen. As calculated as the moment is, it works, and Ford more than acquits himself throughout the rest of the film. Sure, he looks a bit more grizzled (and a lot more exhausted), but given the timeline, that's appropriate.

And besides, Ford actually seems engaged by the material, more or less. This is notable because, as we all know, it's not something we can say for the vast majority of his performances over the past decade or two. To be sure, there are brief moments where it feels like he's running on autopilot (or, more frequently, moments where he's simply not pulling off what's being asked of him, like the scene where he's tasked with faking a mind-meld with an obviously plastic skull prop), but for the most part Ford seems like he's trying his hardest to make this shit work. More than anything, I just found myself sorta feeling bad for him on this latest rewatch. The character must mean something to him, right?

I certainly don't feel the same sympathy for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the other two-thirds of the Indy triumvirate. Lucas went up his own ass years ago, of course, and his penchant for winking, generally CGI-enabled cutesiness is all over this goddamn thing. But I'd made peace with that long before Indy 4 came around. Spielberg, on the other hand, knows better, perhaps more than anyone else involved. There's a half-assedness on display here that's entirely uncommon to The Beard, and enough of those moments accumulate over the course of the film that it kinda forces you to wonder: did he really want to make this movie? Did there come a point where he just said "Fuck it" and bowed to the whims of Lucas? Maybe I'm blinded by my own love for the guy, but...look, if Spielberg watched the final cut of this film and felt great about what he saw, I'll eat Indy's fedora.

While my opinion of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull has not changed over time, I'm glad I rewatched it. Recently, rumors have circulated that a reboot might be in the works, with Chris Pratt taking up the Indy mantle, perhaps with Spielberg at the helm. On the one hand, I think that-- if you're gonna do it-- a reboot's the only way to go (perhaps they'll take Devin's advice on how to pull off a soft reboot). On the other hand, rewatching Indy 4 has reminded me how Quixotic the idea of recapturing the Indiana Jones magic really is. Perhaps I'll revisit it every year or so going forward, just to remind myself how important it is to keep my expectations in check.

PS: Please remind me I said that when the Indy 5 trailer hits.

 

* = My ongoing excitement over Mad Max Fury Road will end up serving as either a counter-argument to the lesson learned by Indy 4 or as negative reinforcement of the same idea. Only time will tell (but come on dude I'm sure it's gonna be so badass).

** = Hilariously, I still kinda fall for it: rewatching that trailer for this post, I got excited all over again when John Williams' iconic "Raiders March" kicked in on the soundtrack. I had to slap myself full across the face to remind myself what was happening. What a sucker I am.

*** = Indy 4 must feature the worst CGI Spielberg's ever put onscreen. Nothing else comes close.

**** = I was Tweeting about Indy 4 as I rewatched it this weekend, and when the "Monkey" scene arrived, @ryanrochnroll pointed out that the monkeys were given CGI hairdos to mirror Mutt's. At first I thought he was joking, and then I saw it with my own eyes. Unbelievable.

 

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