Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

A couple of days before going to see this movie, I had the misfortune of having the entire thing spoiled for me in an online forum. One effect of that was to work harder to clearly indicate when I would be giving spoiler information about books and movies. The other was to make me very scared. It seems things are moving along in the Indiana Jones universe. As much as we might like, we cannot randomly return to the setting of these adventures and expect Indy to always be in his 30s and fighting the good fight. If this were a book or comic series, it would be easy to shoe-horn stories between existing adventures. But actors get older and trying to use make-up or CGI to make them appear far younger for the length of an entire movie is, among other things, too depressing to conceive.

It's clear from the outset that the wheel has turned. No longer is Indy dealing with Nazis or unscrupulous collectors—the enemy this time is the Soviet Union and all the evil they signified in 1957. And pretty early on, we can see that there is a shift in the danger Indy faces as well, as KGB agents led by Cate Blanchett break into America's warehouse of weirdness for a specific object, while ignoring the Ark of the Covenant, the centerpiece of the movie that got all the attention. No longer is mysticism the focus of Indy's work; it is technology that turns the world now, and the Russians wants what we have. If this isn't clear enough, the first extended chase scene is closed with the 20th century's worst nightmare, the explosion of an atomic bomb. The faces of mannequins burn off in a subtle allusion to the close of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when that same Ark melts the faces of Nazis who presume too much.

Unfortunately, the story has to deal with the years since we last saw Indy. We find out that he fought for the OSS in World War II, continuing his escapades and receiving may honors for them. This is not enough, however, to keep the taint of the red scare from him; since he has now dealt with KGB agents, the CIA has no way of ensuring his loyalty and so they black-list him. On his way to his new job, he is found by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who has come to him at his mother's direction to enlist Indy to rescue her from her kidnappers (that it is the same KGB agents really comes as no surprise). And off they go to the Amazon (completing another interesting circle with the opening of the first movie) to find Mutt's mother and friend.

What follows is the standard series of adventures based on the slimmest of clues. While Indy is once again brilliant in his deduction, it becomes painfully obvious that he is pretty clueless about people. This is not a side of him with which we are familiar: we know he is focused when on an adventure, but he is actually written to be pretty obtuse about personal matters here. It's not really a problem—more of a quirk—and his lack of deduction allows major reveals to come as surprises to some of the audience. The storytelling is wonderfully fun, hearkening back to the set pieces that were so exciting in the earlier films. And the CGI work is breathtaking, in a much more understated way than in most summer blockbusters. Unfortunately those set pieces skew a little close to earlier works of Lucas and Spielberg, enough to actually become something of a distraction, but not enough to ruin the movie for me.

What I find most interesting is the clamor against the general direction of the conclusion of the adventure. To be hoest, it was this that had me worried when it was spoiled for me. But all I can say is that it works for me. I would have preferred something in the tenor of the first three films, but I understand why the movie went where it went, so long as the movie is considered as the end of a generation. Again, paranormal is replaced with technology. At one point Indy mourns his father and companion Marcus, while at another he reminisces about his adventures as a child (a nice reference to the unfairly ignored series, Young Indiana Jones). The movie concludes with a new day dawning, both in the general thrust of the adventures of Indy and in his personal life. The door has been closed on a chapter of history and culture marches on.

Harrison Ford is stalwart as Indy, fitting back into the role much as into a pair of comfortable slippers. LaBoeuf is solid as Mutt, a young man who has interesting traits that make him something more than the standard sidekick. Karen Allen is also good in her return as Marian Ravenwood. Blanchett chews the scenery nicely as the lead KGB agent with an interest in unexplainable phenomenon. It is clear that the door remains open for a new series of films featuring Mutt, but it is my hope that they are never made. The series has progressed from the classic 30s and 40s serials to the campy B-grade science fiction movies of the 50s and early 60s. It is a natural progression and Mutt a fine character for them. But the focus of the series has been Indy, and he has entered a more relaxed place in his life—including a cushy new position. The potential for further adventures for him is apparent, but the character is only going to get older and become something of a self-mockery. I'm fine with the place that the series ends up.

Now if they want to figure out a way to tell some of the stories of Indy in the OSS, that would be something worth seeing.

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