Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Before we get started let’s just get this out of the way first: this article will contain spoilers about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If you have any interest in seeing this film (I can’t be arsed to re-type the title and from now on will refer to it as IJATKOTCS or ICOK for short) then for Spaghetti’s sake stop reading this now and go see it. The only thing more annoying than hearing a spoiler is mentioning an inconsequential detail such as, say, the crystal skull belonging to an alien race who were some sort of archaeologists of early human civilisations worshipped by the Mayans, and then having some cretin whine at you as a result.

Although even knowing that much about ICOK won’t ruin it for you. Sure in the first paragraph I may have given away the main thrust of the plot but since when has that been a problem for the Indiana Jones franchise? Indiana Jones films have always placed administering shots of pure ecstasy to the parts of the brain that deal with memorable movie moments over anything as loathsome as plot, which is no doubt why so many Indy fanboys still physically cream themselves at the merest mention of a man stuck in a lonely dark tomb with a whip, leather jacket and hat to match.

ICOK, as seems to be the vogue in a Hollywood desolate of fresh ideas or innovation (beyond scavenging whatever material it can from comic books and computer games), is a film 19 years in the remaking. In which time we’ve discovered the internet, the middle-east and, who would’ve thunk it?, whole brand new ways to shoot action movies. There’s been a lot of pre-game talk about how ICOK wasn’t going to be one of these CGI heavy films. They promised us classic stunts. Harrison Ford, we were assured, would be fighting fit and throwing himself about with no other visual aids but the fire in his soul.


Fair enough, an army of 23 gazillion demon hellspawn never appears on screen, no main characters are CGI mutations and there aren’t any spaceships (wait…) but there’s still all kinds of computer hocus-pocus that goes into making any action movie visually more impressive than they were 19 years ago.

Before I plunge into an in-depth analysis of ICOK (and I promise that despite this inordinately long pre-amble said plunging shall occur) I ask you to cast your mind back on the first three Indiana Jones films. I imagine even cultural Neanderthals who have never seen an Indy film will have those iconic images of rolling boulders, melting faces, machete hacked rope bridges and red lines across a map spring to mind. These are the memorable parts of a series of action films that had to titillate in the days before you could ask a computer to make a 65 year old man defy every natural law. And titillate they did, still do, and manage to do a damn good job of doing during the meanwhile.

But, as everyone knows, those numbers that follow the title of the series signify not the growing age and maturity of the piece but rather the multiples of special effects and all round gusto that are expected by whatever cigar chomping executives are financing the film because as we are all meant to know visual feats of awesomeness=quality. And so, where a simple high-speed powerboat chase down the canals of Venice may have sufficed before, ICOK has to drop an atomic bomb on proceedings before the film’s even got going. Just to warm things up. Literally.

I went into ICOK expecting a phenomenal opening scene because, let’s be honest, in order to enjoy Indy films all you really need to do is watch the opening and closing scenes and let your imagination paint in all the intervening boring stuff. What I didn’t expect was an intro akin to the Family Guy Chicken Fight. For starters Indy goes from being held hostage in a warehouse of ancient artefacts by a small army and fighting his way loose. He then hops, skips and jumps into a mad chase involving jeeps before fistfighting his way through various walls.

So far so Indy.

He then somehow lands fists flaying onto a rocket-on-rails which he uses to set fire to a group of pinko commie soldiers before riding it like a cocaine cowyboy into the middle of the desert. Slightly extravagant but all’s fair in an opening scene. Things take a turn for the hilarious however when Indy stumbles into what looks like a 50’s town but is actually a nuclear testing zone filled with plastic dummies. And then a nuclear bomb explodes.

8m X 8m rolling boulder. Single most destructive creation on the planet. That’s not raising the stakes, that’s going all-in blind on top of betting your mother, soul and dignity.

I mean, once your protagonist has begun the film by surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge you pretty quickly get the message that he’s sodding indestructible and that every action set-piece is going to involve a series of increasingly ridiculous scenarios that make past action Indy action scenes look like sedate episodes of Last of the Summer Wine.

It is slightly confusing how, after this immensely over-blown opening scene, ICOK for a moment becomes something of a social commentary. The lamenting over Indy’s new-found sense of befuddlement as he enters old age, a topic which Spielberg no doubt could have spun into an interesting Indy film by itself if he wanted the world to laugh at him, are mentioned and then strapped to a shuttle and jettisoned into the galaxy of Inconsequentialism as Indy appears to get more fit the more he smashes his body around. McCarthyism is also briefly plopped in as a token gesture to any Russians pissed off that the generic psycho-Nazi (sorry, Communist) villains may have been their grandparents.

And so, inevitably, Henry Jones Jr. (Indy’s real name, as ICOK seems intent on reminding you) gets back to adventuring and fighting at the first opportunity. The opportunity in this case coming in the form of crazy-rebel-youngbuck Mutt Williams who has scraps of paper containing a riddle about a crystal skull sent to him by blah-blah-blah-who-cares-the-important-thing-is-that-shit-happens.

I don’t know if there’s meant to be any suspense about the fact that Mutt is Indy’s son or not. My favourite line from Last Crusade is, ‘We named the dog Indy’, so the name Mutt acted as a decent enough signpost, and more importantly than that it’s FUCKING OBVIOUS from the start because Spielberg loves his schmaltz. Whatever, young Shia LaBeouf gives an entertaining and energetic performance, but that’s hardly surprising given that he’s the only character in the film who looks like he can’t ride the bus for free.

Ray Winstone spends the majority of the film wheezing away like he’s about to suffer a heart explosion, John Hurt acutely portrays a nursing home resident who regularly throws excrement at the nurses and Karen Allen has been barren for many a full moon now. Two of the most loved characters, Marcus Brody and Henry Jones Sr., have packed it in all together. In real life in the case of Denholm Elliott and career wise for Connery; although seeing Indy mourn over the death of his father did make me feel like I was being mentally prepared for the shocking and terrible day when Sean Connery actually kicks the bucket.

Still, huff, puff and wage their battle against the evil Irina Spalko they do, along a narrative path borne by action scenes like a non-stop rollercoaster so that by the end everyone, crew and audience alike, feels a faint sense of daze and confusion about how they got there and what just happened. The start of every action scene is a spawning point for an incredulously long chain of events that leaves one wondering how Spielberg plans his holidays.

A simple drive through the jungle with your wife and kid to the temple of your choice not enough? How about breaking out of a hostage situation and taking control of the truck, firing a rocket launcher at a big sawing machine thing, smashing into other trucks, inter-jeep-juggling of priceless artefacts, sword fighting, jeep leaping, cliff-edge driving, monkey swinging and bonnet bumping your way to your desired location.

But as the jeeps finally come crashing to a halt don’t think you can rest yet! Did we mention millions upon quadrillions of ginormous flesh-eating ants, who love nothing more than to consume humans in a gruesome fashion who swarm our plucky heroes as they pull their broken bodies from the wreckage and herd them towards a sheer drop to a wild river? And another fight. And insane stunts involving boatcars being used for strategic tree-catapult purposes.

It was immediately following this, as the boat full of OAPs casually hurtled over a sodding great big waterfall not once, not twice, but thrice that I began to think Spielberg was being a bit of a cunt. As the final temple revealed its secrets by lifting up its shafts into a giant phallic obelisk I could practically smell Spielberg’s dick cheese on the celluloid.

And the cheese did smell good. There’s no doubting Spielberg’s talent for the entertaining. The exponential explosions of action scenes had me laughing out loud with sheer joy. At one point I found my hands inadvertently clapped together which was slightly perturbing. There was a visceral sense of entertainment that made me feel like an 8 year-old child again watching my first Indy film. Given how many action films have been getting this so wrong the last few years it’s nice to see that someone can still do it, even if it does take the piss.

But ICOK isn’t an Indiana Jones film. Not in the same way that the first three were. It’s got the characters and the history, the jokes, references and everything else you’d expect to make you feel at home and comfortable but the possibilities for action films nowadays makes it incomparable to the early trilogy. For some people that will be too much and they’ll run away screaming about Spielberg being a monster who has vomited on everything that was good and holy about the world, while others for whom I wish a life not filled with tears, gasoline and fire will enjoy it or not for what it is.

No comments: