Maybe I’m just cranky lately. Lord knows entering the downside of my 30’s hasn’t been the most joyous of experiences. I’m no more or less out of shape than I have been for the past five years or so, but I’m starting to feel it more. It just takes more effort to get my body up and running when I need it. And I can certainly point to a great deal of personal dissatisfaction with myself lately, in terms of my production (both at work and elsewhere) and attitude towards others. So in the end, it might be a simple case of just bad juju and in time it will pass. Which I hope is the reason. Because if not, then there must be something seriously wrong with me to explain why I have sat awake the last two nights going over in my head the many reasons why I hated the new Indiana Jones movie.
Lets get a few things straight before I dive into exactly WHY I disliked the film so much. (There will be spoilers. I’ll let you know when so you can bail out accordingly.) I’m a pretty average moviegoer. I’m not a film student. Regardless of how many behind-the-scenes making-of documentaries or DVD extras I see, I’m still completely absorbed into the world of most movies I see without stopping to think too much about the how and why it was made. Sure, I know special effects when I see them, but I usually tune that thought out when I’m watching. I’m also not a writer, so while I certainly know bad dialogue and lame plot contrivances when I see them, I’m not really in tune with the do’s-and-don’ts of screenplay writing. So all of what I’m about to say should be taken with the understanding that I didn’t go into the experience with a critical eye hoping to expose the flaws of the latest summer blockbuster.
Quite the contrary, in fact. I loved “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. I’ve probably seen it front-to-back about 50 times in my life. It was the first movie I remember watching repeatedly when we first got cable TV. Like most people I was disappointed in “Temple of Doom”, mainly because I didn’t much care for the supporting characters and found the film on a whole to be too dark and not as much pure fun. But I was back on board with “The Last Crusade” and generally consider the series to be some of the best pure escapism in the history of movies. That being said I’m also not some twisted fanboy who has dissected every frame and memorized every reference. I *like* the movies. But that’s about it.
All of which is important to keep in mind, because again, I went into it hoping for the best. “Wow, they made another Indiana Jones movie? Cool. This should be fun.”
The problem started when I saw the trailer a few weeks ago. Something just looked… off. It didn’t feel right. Based on such a small sample I began to fear that they had overdone the CGI and turned what was meant to be a gritty, throwback stunt-show into the computerized soup that most action films are today. But I held out hope that it was just my imagination. I didn’t read any reviews beforehand and went into the movie totally cold outside of that brief trailer. I went in expecting to be whisked away to my youth, and came out feeling betrayed. So for the sake of my sanity (and the hope of some sleep tonight), I will now vent about all the things in the film that drove me crazy. Spoilers to follow.
Now bear in mind, I have seen the film once. ONCE. And most of what I am about to spew bile about are things that bugged me during that first screening as they happened. It wasn’t stuff that bugged me after careful consideration. I talked a friend’s ear off for twenty minutes in the parking lot the moment it was over just so I could get SOME of it off my chest, but clearly that wasn’t enough. All I’ve done for the last two days is keep rehashing in my mind the reasons I was so disappointed in hopes that I’d discover I was over-reacting. Not likely.
First off, the look. As I said, I’m not a film student. I generally only notice good cinematography when I’m *supposed* to, like when you get a breathtaking shot of a landscape or a clearly symbolic camera angle. Never in my life have I walked out of a movie pissed off about the way it was LIT. Until now. The entire movie was lit with this awful soft lighting that gave everybody and everything a gentle glow which completely goes against the rest of the series. It was maddening. Outside of one shot where there was a black shadow slashing across her face (in an obvious attempt at making her look sinister), I couldn’t recall seeing a single shadow on Cate Blanchett’s face the entire film. She was lit from every angle, which combined with the pale-white make-up job they gave her, made her look almost inhuman. In the jungle, in a cave, standing out in the open under a blazing sun, didn’t matter. She was always perfectly awash in a magical blend of light to make her look… not lit. The rest of the movie was more of the same. I get that Harrison Ford is kind of old and that vanity probably played a big part in making him (and everybody else) look a little, I dunno, fuzzy? But Jeez Louise, it’s Indiana Frickin’ Jones! He’s SUPPOSED to look haggard! It’s part of the charm.
Add to that the fact that it was painfully obvious that they shot a great deal of the film on sound stages. Again, when there was “sunlight”, it didn’t feel like sunlight, it felt like giant lamps up in the sky pretending to be sunlight. Even in the times where they were actually on location, it appeared as though they augmented everything with so much artificial light that it diluted the power of the sun. Crazy. I kept thinking back to the fabulous chase seen in Raiders where they’re tooling across this stretch of jungle/desert under a BLAZING SUN! No special lighting needed. Just the sun, motherfucker! And if that wasn’t bad enough, they couldn’t even fake the sun CORRECTLY. Not five minutes into the film we see Indy outside of a giant military warehouse where he’s having a face-to-face conversation with Blanchett. I repeat: FACE – TO – FACE. Cut to Harrison: cheesy “sun” light coming in from off to his right. Cut to Blanchett: cheesy “sun” light coming in from off to HER right. WHAT?! How the bloody hell can the sun be over HER right shoulder and over HIS right shoulder when they’re standing FACE TO FUCKING FACE!!! AAAAAAGGGGH!!! I’ve never lit so much as a puppet show and I saw how moronic that was.
So yes, I hated the lighting. Immensely. More than I probably should, but like so many things about this film, the more I watched, the more irritated I got. To wit…
CGI. Ugh. I had read that they did most of the “stunts” in the movie the old fashioned way – as stunts. CGI was only used to “enhance”. I call shenanigans. In the first three films of the franchise, computer graphics and special effects were generally only used for things that weren’t possible (guy’s face melting, rock cavern collapsing), or to remove the trace of safety devices for the actual stunts. But anybody who believes that Shia Lebouf actually straddled two jeeps driving at full speed under ANY circumstances, is beyond retarded. I mean, there they were driving through the jungle over branches and rocks and Lord knows what else, and he’s able to maintain his balance with one foot on two separate cars? COME ON! There’s a difference between being plausible and being possible. Part of the joy of Raiders is knowing that SOMEBODY, whether it was Harrison Ford or a stuntman, was actually being dragged behind the back of that jeep. And that when Indy or some bad guy jumped from one moving vehicle to another, it was actually happening. Not so in “Skulls”. I lost count of how many shots we got of Blanchett standing, I repeat STANDING in the back of a jeep traveling at excessive speeds over rough terrain where she looked like she was floating. For God’s sake, at least PRETEND that it’s a rough ride. Help us suspend our disbelief.
As for the rest of the CGI, okay, yes, I expect it for things like the big climactic ending with the alien powers and all that malarkey. That’s what effects are for in a film like this. But were the jungle monkeys really necessary? Or the army of man-stealing red ants? Again, the beauty of the first three films lies in the fact that when there was a pit of snakes, or a cave filled with rats, or a man covered with tarantulas, they used – TA DA! – actual snakes, rats and tarantulas! The only saving grace of the monkeys was the fact that they distracted from the fact that seeing Shia Lebouf pull a Tarzan through the jungle was ridiculously contrived, even for a swash-buckling action film (don’t even get me started on how he managed to get ahead of the speeding jeeps in doing so). The monkey in Raiders? You know, the one who dies from eating the bad date? He was real. He was cute. So why in the blue hell did we get subjected to such obvious fakes in this film? As for the ants, I concede it probably wasn’t possible to do that bit with real ants (which begs the question: why do the bit?), and I was actually okay with watching them drag a rather large Russian man into their ant hill (thank heavens they made the opening big enough – strong foresight shown by the ants). But can somebody please explain to me how they were able to form a ladder in mid-air so that they could reach up after Cate Blanchett as she was hanging from a tree? I’m no ant expert, but I’m pretty sure they don’t have the power to do THAT. You know, I should have walked out of the theater in the first ten seconds when I saw the CGI groundhog nearly get run over. For a moment I thought I had stumbled into “Caddyshack 3”. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had replaced Indy’s theme music with a new Kenny Loggins track. Just pathetic.
Here’s the thing. I don’t mind computer effects. Most (screw that, ALL) action films today use them. Technology has advanced to where they can do things simpler by using a computer to fake it, and for things like Iron Man and Spider Man and The Terminator, it works. But the Indiana Jones films are built around the concept of the pulp serial films from the 40’s and 50’s. They’re a THROWBACK. You accept a great deal of ridiculousness in the plot because it’s not about the plot, it’s about the action. But when the action is all computer enhanced, what’s the point? Where’s the fun? Had this been any other film I wouldn’t have minded the way it was made, but they had a legacy to live up to and they didn’t.
It gets worse. Now again, I “get it”. I know what Indiana Jones is about and I am always willing to toss aside certain things like physics and logic as long as they at least acknowledge somewhere along the line with a wink and a nod that the whole thing is a big goof. Let me in on the joke. The first three films are peppered with little moments where Indy pulls off some near-impossible stunt and then follows it up with a sheepish grin or under-his-breath one-liner that basically says, “even *I* can’t believe that worked”. Plus, PLUS, it was always INDY who got away with the stuff. He was the hero, so he got to strain credibility. Not in this mess of a film. An amphibious jeep goes over three, count ’em THREE waterfalls, and not only do all four people survive (which would have been acceptable in the Indy-verse), but they STAY IN THE FUCKING JEEP!!! We’re not talking little dips. THREE – HUGE – WATERFALLS! IN A ROW! And not only does the jeep not flip over, not only does is somehow manage to go into the water nose-first, submerge, and immediately pop back-up, but all four people, including a withered old man who’s clinging to a giant glass skull and therefore CAN’T HOLD ON TO THE JEEP, manage to stay seated. Until the third one of course, you know, because now that there’s no more falls to go over, physics can kinda sorta start to apply. I remember the water fall scene from “Romancing The Stone”. It was great. That was two people in a car with an enclosed roof and THEY didn’t manage to stay in. And that film wasn’t exactly a Discover Channel reality show. But not Indy and company. They didn’t even look like they’d suffered anything more harrowing than a little water damage once they landed. Nor did they seem the slightest bit shocked at their remarkable good fortune. Unbelievable. Of course, considering that everybody and their mother was leaping from one moving jeep to the other during the chase scene that preceded the big waterfalls sequence, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I guess just hanging out with Indiana Jones makes you fearless and amazingly agile, even if you’re old and deteriorated.
Well, at least the story wasn’t so awful. Right?
They KIND OF followed the formula, but even then they didn’t get the spirit correct. Take the opening scene for instance. In all of the other Indy movies, the opening sequence is used to jump start the movie by plunking Indy in the middle of an adventure-in-progress, so we can get one quick action scene into the first ten minutes of the film. Plus, it allowed for a quick cameo by the villain-du-jour and establish a relationship with Indy. Now this is nitpicking to be sure, but so be it. In “Skulls”, they did a similar sequence, but the big glaring thing to me was that it wasn’t an Indy adventure where the villain shows up. It was a sequence driven by the villain. When the film opens, Indy has already been kidnapped and is being dragged into something he has no clue about (at first). The joy of the other films is that he was out on his own adventure that the bad guy happened to spoil. It takes the wind out of the story when Indy is the reluctant participant. He wasn’t robbed of something by an opportunistic enemy, which would have helped set up our desire to see bad-guy come-uppance later. He merely managed to escape a situation he never wanted to be in in the first place. It completely alters the flow of the film.
Now, having been 20 years since the last installment, there were some obvious gaps in time that had to be glazed over. Unfortunate, but understandable. But there are ways to make those gaps more palatable to an audience, and this film choked on them. Couple of quick examples. They introduce us to “Mac” (played by Ray Winstone), who is supposedly Indy’s sidekick. Now, we’ve never seen or heard of Mac up until this film, so we’re obviously not invested in him or in their relationship when we first meet him. That in mind, does it make ANY SENSE to have him turn on Indy within the first five minutes of the film? WHO CARES?! Just because you spout a line of dialogue saying you’ve been threw all sorts of shit together doesn’t emotionally ties us to you, because we didn’t see it! Had they pulled John Rhys-Davies out of mothballs and plucked his character in that part, there would have been some genuine hurt for us the audience when he turned. Which, I might add, would have led to a genuine feeling of redemption when he later turned back near the end. Winstone’s character, who we don’t know, turned against Indy, then back to his side, then against him AGAIN, and Indy STILL tried to save him in the end. Gee, it sure would have been nice to know what inspired such blind (and stupid) loyalty, outside of some throwaway anecdote.
I’m overlooking the overused “this is the son I never told you about” storyline that I think we all saw coming the moment Labouf was announced as being in the film, because it’s just so cliché that it’s actually acceptable for some twisted reason. What I can’t overlook is the idiotic dialogue that Karen Allen had to spew surrounding it, namely the part where she talks about Indy “disappearing” on her sometimes after Raiders. Really? He disappeared? You couldn’t find him? Hmm… did you try looking AT THE UNIVERSITY WHERE HE’S BEEN TEACHING FOR THE DURATION OF THE SERIES!!! Oy. Seems to me the guy hasn’t been that hard to find, considering he still had his tenure.
Which reminds me, the motorcycle chase seen in the first half of the movie. How dumb were those Russians? They lose Indy and Mutt (and what a brilliant choice THAT name was) on the streets of the town where Indy lives and works. Cut to: Indy and Mutt… IN INDY’S APARTMENT!! Gee, lucky for them the bad guys who were chasing them weren’t smart enough to look him up in the phonebook. No wonder Communism failed. Maybe it’s me, but if I know somebody’s trying hunt me down, the last place I go once I’ve evaded them is back home. But I’m kooky that way.
The less said about Cate Blanchett’s character the better. The awful Boris & Natasha accent turned her every appearance into a cartoon, and undermined everything that happened surrounding the character. This was a classic case of a successful actor bringing too much to a role, just because they can. I think she’s a wonderfully talented actress, but she needs to get over this “I’m a chameleon” thing and play it straight once in awhile.
Here’s some other shit that was so dumb it made me want to scream at the screen when it happened.
Is it necessary for every action movie this decade to slip a kung-fu fight somewhere into the plot? How exactly did some Peruvian monkey man learn the finer points of Asian martial arts? Indiana Jones lives and dies by throwing haymakers. How exactly is he supposed to have outwitted the master of Peru-Fu?
The quicksand scene. They’re in the jungle in the middle of nowhere. They beat a hasty retreat into the jungle, get about 100 feet away from the camp with bad guys in hot pursuit, and what do they do? Stop. And chat. Nah, no sense to keep running. And don’t bother whispering, the meanies won’t hear you even though they’re just on the other side of that tree line. Just talk in your normal voices. Morons. Of course, once he realizes he’s in quicksand, and the kid is off looking for something to serve as a rope, what is Indy’s ingenious next step? Tell the old guy, who up to this point has been a mental vegetable, to go get help. BRILLIANT! That’s just the guy I’d send wandering out into the jungle looking for “help” when I’ve got evil people searching for us: the unstable guy! The fact that he shows up five minutes later with – you guessed it – THE RUSSIANS – was one of the few logical things to actually occur in this film. And Indy has the nerve to act INDCREDULOUS about it! WHO THE FUCK DID YOU EXPECT HIM TO FIND, THE RED CROSS? There’s not exactly a U.S. Embassy around the corner, Dr. Jones, you’re in the middle of nowhere.
Crimeny, they couldn’t even get a good joke correct. Cut to: Indy strapped to a chair in previously mentioned jungle. His “old buddy” Mac is going through a bit of exposition when Indy tells him, “first thing I’m gonna do when they unstrap me… is break your nose”. A funny line, made all the funnier when he does in fact follow through and punch Mac right in the noz once the clamps are off. Hell, Mac even says, “you broke my nose!”. Cut to: the next time we see Mac, mere hours later (if that), not so much as a bandage! Never mind any discoloration or swelling. I mean, come ON, how easy a gag is that? You put a big white bandage over the bridge of Mac’s nose, you darken his eyes a bit, and you’ve got a running gag at your disposal for the rest of the film. Nahhh, too much trouble. Let’s forget the whole nose-breaking thing ever happened.
Or Shia’s motorcycle. They went through great trouble to show them bring the bike with them to Peru, with Indy even rolling his eyes at the kid on the airplane trip down. Seems like they kind of went out of their way to show how much the motorcycle means to Mutt. So what’s the payoff? Ummm… well, once they’re kidnapped, Mutt makes some offhand comment about the bike still being at the tomb and… well, nothing. That’s it. Never mentioned again. Even at the end of the film, when they’re back at home. No sign of the bike. That’s the kind of thing in the old films where they would have made sure we knew that he got his cycle back. They would have tied up that particular loose end. But not here. Lazy pricks.
The whip? Barely used. Indian’s snappy comebacks? Pretty much non-existent. Surviving a nuclear explosion? Don’t get me started. Indy’s hat finding it’s way into a church like a lost puppy? Let’s not mention it. You know, I find it amazing to believe that Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford were actually involved in this fiasco, because it came across like a film that was made by a bunch of people who had read about the first three films but had never actually seen them. Truly horrifying. Walking out of the theater I was reminded of the way I felt when I saw “Naked Gun 33 1/3” in the theaters. On it’s own, it might have been a funny film. I’ll never know, because all I remember is that it was a completely different kind of comedy than the first two and as a result, had no business being called “Naked Gun”. “Crystal Skulls” is the same way for me. Had it been the latest in the “Mummy” series with Brandon Fraser in place of Harrison Ford, I probably would have enjoyed it. But I expected more from a franchise so beloved. And this movie let me down. Big time.
Hopefully now that I’ve vented about it, I can get on with my life.