Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Let's start by saying this: IJ4 is not a terribly good movie, though it is not a terribly bad one either. I left the theater feeling an odd mix of disappointment that it was not on par with "Raiders," and possibly not even on par with its two sequels, but also a sense of satisfaction because, on the whole, I certainly had fun and got my money's worth. And it's the kind of movie where upon a second viewing you might actually enjoy it more because you can willfully tune out the bad stuff.
The problem with the film, to me, is that the filmmakers have too much money. Whereas "Raiders" had a joyful sense of guerilla filmmaking, with real stuntment and no CGI, this new Indy is overrun with soundstages, CGI, and moments that not only stretch believability but drive it off the cliff. The Indy films are action movies. We know that what happens in them most likely doesn't happen to anyone in real life (except maybe Hillary Clinton). But the first three films worked because the characters never did anything superhuman. They all existed within our world. Indy punched, he kicked, he used his whip. When he took a beating, he got hurt. When he got shot, he bled.
I find it especially interesting having read several interviews with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg about Lucas's desire to make Indy an all digtial affair (like the recent Star Wars movies), and Spielberg's desire to keep Indy grounded in real world stunts. In the end we get an awkward mishmash of stuntwork, wire work, and CGI that totally takes the film out of the realm of plausibility and ruins any sense of danger or suspense. Is does not, however, take away the excitement. At least for the most part.
If you haven't seen it yet, STOP READING NOW!!!
Things that worked:
--Harrison Ford looks better than any 65-year old (or 55-year old) has any right to look.
--Shia LaBeouf gets off to a rickety start as Mutt Williams, but in the end his character perhaps is the most fully-realized of all of them. His scene with Indy in the soda shop is laughable in its attempts to paint Mutt as a James Dean-esque tough guy, but there are little quirks here and there (combing his hair when he's nervous, his sudden emotion when he realizes Ox has gone insane) that add depth to a character that probably didn't have it on paper. Even though Mutt and Ox have little screen time together, Mutt's scene in the sanitarium shows you how close these men were.
--Karen Allen is still a sparkplug. The film picks up tremendously when Marion Ravenwood (sorry, Williams) appears. And even though the ending feels a little too saccharine, part of you feels like they were meant to end up together.
--The supporting roles, notably Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone and John Hurt, are well-cast and do their best in thankless roles. I'm still on the fence about Cate Blanchett. The accent doesn't quite work, but she does exactly what Paul Freeman did well as Belloq in "Raiders," specifically that you feel her desire for the artifact is as much a personal obsession as professional one. It does make me wonder had Sean Connery come back (Spielberg says they'd written him a part) whether Henry Jones, Sr. would have played the Ox part. The possibility of seeing the elder Jones wandering around babbling like an idiot makes me glad Connery stayed out.
--The truck chase through the jungle is for the most part terrific.
--Mac yelling, "You don't know him!"over and over during the opening scene was a wonderful bit because Mac knows, like we do, that every time you think you have Indy cornered he pulls something spectacular out of his hat.
--The ending scene with the rocks crumbling and the saucer flying away is truly breathtaking, and perhaps the best (and only necessary) use of CGI in the film.
--The ant scene is pretty cool, and the final shot of the Russian being carried away into the anthill is icky in a good way.
--The fistfight between Indy and the Russian henchman is a throwback to the old Indy movies, especially the first one where he fights the massive bald German around the plane. As much as I liked "Batman Begins," I can't stand fight scenes that are so tightly shot and so quickly cut that you can't tell what the hell is going on. This fight was a refreshing reminder that good old-fashioned fisticuffs can work in 2008. Give me two guys standing toe-to-toe duking it out over a blurry melee any day of the week (and twice on Sunday).
--The quicksand scene, though unnecessary, was a ton of fun. ("Grab the snake!" "Stop calling it that!" "What the hell else should I call it, it's a snake!")
What doesn't work:
--Too many Bugs Bunny-esque stunts that had me rolling my eyes. Specifically the scenes where Indy becomes a Frigidaire repairman, Mutt channels his inner Tarzan, Marion drives the car off a cliff onto a tree limb that conveniently lowers them into the river then springs back to thwack the Russians off the ledge, Mutt getting nailed in the crotch by various vegetation while straddled across two jeeps, the game of Hot Potato with the skull during the jeep chase, and the triple waterfall where all the characters somehow manage to stay in the car. I have no idea if George Lucas was behind these scenes, but they were laughable in all the bad ways and totally shattered the image of Indy as a tough but human adventurer.
--The script is pretty lackluster. The human interactions seem to serve merely as timeouts between action scenes, and there's no real human drama. Marion's return and Mutt's revelation as Indy's son seem more like ploys to keep the plot moving than to offer any real introspection. Some of the best scenes in "Last Crusade" were Indy and his father talking, bantering. Ditto goes for "Raiders" with Indy and Marion. There's no real witty repartee, and Karen Allen is sorely underutilized.
--The plot is pretty convoluted and makes little sense, even when all is "explained." If I can use one of my favorite Roger Ebert lines, the story surrounding the skull was told "with greater detail than clarity."
--Indy does not seem as fiery or feisty as in previous movies. He seems more weary, more grumpy, without the real sense of wonder or enjoyment as in the previous films. One of my favorite moments in "Raiders" is Indy's smirk right before he steers the truck into the trees. He's having as good a time as we are, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Indy rarely smiles, and his comebacks are relegated to yawners like "Drop Dead." What happened to, "Prepare to meet Khali...in hell!"
--Indy is way too passive. My favorite moment in "Last Crusade" is when Indy's satchel is stuck on the tank turret, and the German is about to drive him right into the wall. Right when we think Indy's about to get crushed, the tank changes directions and Indy is freed. He gives this awesome look that says, "Oh man, Indy is pissed. Prepare to meet your makers, Nazi scum!" Then the music swells, Jones beats the holy hell out of the goosestepping morons, and you're screaming "GET 'EM INDY!" like a lunatic. In ID4, Indy doesn't do a whole lot of fighting. In the jeep chase, he's driving the majority of the time while Mutt plays hero. I liked Indy smiling with pride at Mutt's success, but I would have preferred Jones himself to be kicking butt.
--This bothered me as much as anything...but nobody in the film actually calls him "Indy." Mac calls him Jonesy. Mutt calls him Professor. Ox calls him Henry. Irina calls him Dr. Jones. I don't want to think of Indy as a Professor or an old man or even a guy named Henry. He's INDIANA FREAKING JONES. Where's Sallah and Marcus and Short Round when you need them?
--Too much sound stage use. You can see the set decoration in nearly every scene, and the film seems shot almost like a sitcom instead of an action movie. There are no thrilling long shots like in "Last Crusade" of Indy chasing a tank on horseback, an actual desert surrounding them. The backgrounds are almost always patently fake, and the cutaways from Harrison Ford to the stuntmen are often jarring and obvious.
--He only uses the whip once after the opening escape.
--I wanted to smack Indy upside the head for all the times he got trapped by the Russians. It seemed like every five minutes we'd have a thrilling action scene which ended with Indy and friends facing a squadron of rifles while Irina and Mac smiled triumphantly. And did Indy really buy Mac's "double agent" explanation? Was he really surprised when Mac turned on him for the 89th time at the end? (and what was with Mac's "noble" death? He was a greedy turncoat who sells his country and his soul for money, and then he basically lies on the floor like a slug before being sucked into the vortex. He could have easily made it out alive, but instead lies there like an idiot for 30 seconds before saying, "I'll be fine" like he'll be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. This might have just been bad timing on Spielberg's part, but seeing Mac lying there like a log with Indy pleading for him to get up was just silly and went against the character)
In the end, I would give Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a 'B'. Though I can't decide whether I'm pleasantly surprised by the B, or terribly disappointed.