Indiana Jones: Grizzled but still Grand

We are huge fans of Indiana Jones here in Beemsville. I have very vivid memories of watching the first two movies as an impressionable young lad, and the idea of globe-trotting archaeologist contributed mightily to my eventual decision to study history. I am known to wear the fedora about town. The wife has dressed up as female Indy (complete with whip–yowza…) for Halloween. I’ve played the video games, read the comics and some of the tie-in novels, & never missed and episode of Young Indiana Jones on TV. The kids know the theme music well. (Yes, that’s me in the semi-authentic archaeologist garb from our night out.)

So as long as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull wasn’t a complete disaster, we were always going to like it. And we did. Harrison Ford can still pull it off. Spielberg still has the deft action touch. Lucas has some good ideas left. This new Indy movie is action-packed popcorn cinema at its finest, with a tip of the hat to those original old serial flicks, and the kind of cool historic and mythological subtext we’ve come to expect. This is what it is and what is was meant to be.

I loved the initial 50’s jumppoint and Indy backstory. Loved the whole setting, quest element, and uber-story-line. I really liked Shia LaBeouf as Mutt (and thought they could’ve done a little more with him). The action set-pieces were excellent as well, if a little overdone. I had some concerns about Indy’s creaking joints and ability to take a punch, but 30 minutes into it and this was no longer an issue. So if you like the Indy movies but were worried about the proverbial one more trip to the well, relax. You shouldn’t miss Crystal Skull. It’s an Indiana Jones movie and well worth your entertainment dollar.

Specific critiques and more in-depth discussion after the bump. SPOILER ALERT

SPOLER — SPOILER — SPOILER

So the interweb community has been buzzing about the movie: reactions to various aspects of the story, the filmmaking, the FX, etc. You have your usual snark and complaining; the hipper-than-thou snideness. You also have folks who are upset that this movie, 27 years after the release of Raiders, didn’t evince that same magical effect on them. People, did Star Wars Ep. 1-3 teach you nothing? With movies, as with much in life, your perspective when you’re 13 is a bit different than when you’re 30. If you’re suffering from expectation let-down, maybe you had unreasonable expectations.

To me (and judging by the reviews, many others) just seeing Indy on the big screen and hearing the music was enough. The first hour was truly excellent–Spielberg still on top of his game. It was a lot like Superman Returns a few years ago–a great overall experience, though not without its flaws.

Close Encounters

One aspect of Crystal Skull you won’t find me deriding is the whole Ancient Astronauts angle. I thought it was perfect: the perfect choice for the mythology of the 1950s, with UFO sightings on the rise, with concerns and belief in life on other planets firmly in the mainstream. The Alien Visitor phenomenon has been called the defining spiritual movement of the past 50 years–the studies, the evidence, the effect on popular culture are all there for you. And you can bet it’s had a profound effect on Mssrs Spielberg and Lucas.

And having spoken with friends and family, who’ve in varying degrees said about the Alien angle, “Did they really have to go there?” I have your answer. Yes. Yes they did. What other profoundly important pseudo-mythical-religious element grounded in the 1950s were they going to base another Indy movie upon? The quest for the Lost Buddha? The Koran (imagine the outrage)? The Search for Spock? The only possibility (which still ends up with an Ancient Astronaut theme) would be the Search for Atlantis. This, however, was already done quite well with the computer game, Indy and the Infernal Machine back in the 90s. I have a working outline for Indy and the Call of Cthulhu, but it’s a little dark and terrifying and Lucas isn’t taking my calls.

For some, extraterrestrials and action archaeology don’t mix; if you find yourself in this camp, I refer you to the words of Morpheus: “Free your mind.” The visitors have been here before and they’ll be back.

Maybe this reaction would be less pronounced if the movie had not been so in your face about the aliens. One great aspect of the first three movies was you really weren’t sure about the mystical power of the artifacts in question until the final climax. This was especially true with the Ark in Raiders and the Grail in Last Crusade. But in Crystal Skull, we’re confronted with an overtly alien skull early in the 2nd Act, as well as its potent telepathic powers in that weird (and totally plot-induced) mindmeld scene. The cat’s out of the bag way too early and the casual viewer has lost some element of climatic anticipation. We all know Indy’s going to win in the end anyway, right? But it makes the CGI wizardry of the final explosion a little less cool.

The Second Act

The problem here is not with the aliens, it’s that 2nd Act. I kind of feel for David Koepp here, because every half-assed screenwriter around the world is now second-guessing his work, offering their own critiques–me included. I haven’t made it to rewriting the 2nd Act yet (which begins roughly when Indy and Mutt head for South America). This will have to wait until I can see the movie again. But I have formulated a quick list of complaints. The main one being, mishandling and premature revelation of the extraterrestrial nature of the skull. As stated above, this really messes with audience expectations. A better choice would’ve been some misdirection, some archaeological evidence of another theory on the skulls. Then you’d have to rework or seriously change Professor Ox’s character and role, and you might have to rethink the reintroduction of the Agent Spago and the Russkies, but these are not insurmountable problems.

The 2nd Act is too dependent on the breadcrumb trail of clues utilized in Last Crusade. And while grounded somewhat in the history of the skulls, it would’ve been better to send them on a Headpiece of the Staff of Ra type side quest prior to bringing them to Peru. This could’ve been, frankly, anywhere, from Iceland to Madagascar–with the objective being another similar temple that ends up as an alien crash site–but with subtle hints and clues to the nature of the Skulls. You plop in Ox or Marion there with another clue, your next showdown with Agent Spago, and then send them to the Andes. In this way you avoid the whole telepathic mind-meld scene.

They seemed rushed to get Indy and Marion together so she could reveal Mutt’s linage. And then they were hands-off on the father-son thing. Why not just plop Marion in earlier? Sure, she might not get the exact same cool entry scene. But what if Indy begins to suspect Mutt’s his son earlier to have it confirmed a little later? I know it’s cheese to have everything revealed at the end, and while there were some good lines between Indy and Marion and Indy and Mutt, you could’ve worked around this.

You could also tell the story was more focused on getting to the next set piece. And we want those set pieces in an Indy movie, we do, but three waterfalls? Really? Another car-to-car leap? Not that I wanted this to turn into some ABC Afterschool Special, but more between Indy and Mutt would’ve been a good choice. Again the slower build-up with more mystery and more locations could’ve addressed this. If you want to compare, the 2nd Act of Raiders does not move at a breakneck pace. Dave Koepp, Spielberg and company were just in too much of a hurry.

I wouldn’t change the climax, though. Love the visuals and the line about “the spaces between space”. But what if instead of the classic bad-guy explosion, Agent Spago was instead assimilated Borg-style into the aliens’ hive-mind? There’s nothing more communal than the complete surrender of self after all, and she was the ultimate commie champion…

Sentimentality and FX

The sentiment of Indy reflecting on Marcus Brody and his Father, the wedding sequence: I thought they were merited. Indiana Jones is a great character, and these little moments add to his overall story. If Jones being a suspect after his nuclear escape was meant as some kind of social commentary on our present situation (and having studied the Red Scare, HUAC, McCarthyism, etc., in some detail, I did not take it as such)
, it was half-assed. I did appreciate his new boss resigning in protest.

As far as the CGI and the FX–I was fortunate to view this in a digital theater and the visuals were truly stunning. Seamless integration with the actors and the FX. My disbelief was mostly suspended. Does it detract from your viewing experience if you know the visuals were mostly done on green-screen? It can, if poorly done; I suppose it’s a matter of taste. I didn’t feel that here. Maybe it’s finding the right balance between staged stunts and CGI, and I thought Crystal Skull provided this. Then again, I still like Jason and the Argonauts. So if you’re complaining about the visuals, the CGI, did you not see the ‘Lucasfilm’ logo on the trailer? Did you want them to shoot an actual car chase and exploding mountain in the jungles of South America? Just think what that would do to the environment…

Finally…

The title says Grizzled but still Grand, and I’ll stick with that. I may get more angry with Dave Koepp and Lucas the more I think about lost potential and the 2nd Act, but as we know, anger leads to the Dark Side. I will be interested to hear what my Jr. High and High School aged neighbors have to say about it as they will have fewer expectations or sense of personal hisitory.

But what do you think? Chime in below with your comments.

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4 thoughts on “Indiana Jones: Grizzled but still Grand

  1. Lots ‘o fun, but yes, slow down in that second act. No need to get all National Treasure. They definitely get to Peru too soon for me. I kind of wanted him to infiltrate Moscow, but that might be too much like the trip to Berlin in Crusade. Anyway, I thought it looked great.

  2. I agree, overall I was pleased. I had a hard time with the…..thing but as I thought about it it does fit into the legend and what was going on at that time. I still will probably be naming my first boy child (if I have one) Harrison 🙂

  3. Fantastic family fun. The 5 year old and I may have to go and check it out as the mini-Rube is also a very adept Indiana Jones Theme Song lyric writer!!!

  4. I liked it. I also love all the comic book movies too. I think any film that takes me back to 1980s and the things I loved is a great film. The hat scene in the end made me think they might try again only to have Indy scoop up the fedora and wink at Mutt saying “not on your life”…..

    Not only did I get to see it opening weekend but got to view it with some of my best buddies… what a great weekend…

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