Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Although we all like to lay the ills of the world at George Lucas’ door, the blame for the existence of the fourth Indiana Jones movie is not his. As Steven Spielberg tells it, it’s down to the persistence of one Harrison Ford that it came into being. A decade of flops will make you desperate, I guess. So Harrison got his hit, and we got a turkey.
I had avoided Kingdom of the Crystal Skull since a bruising cinema visit in 2008. So it had occurred to me that it might be an interesting revisit, of the “It’s not that bad after all” kind. But it really is that bad. What’s most striking is how resoundingly the trio of prime movers get things wrong. Spielberg and Lucas are unable to recapture the vital spark of their youths that made them their generation’s most successful moviemakers. For a time, they really had their fingers on the pulse of what an audience wants. But, with Kingdom, there’s a disinterest that permeates the botched enterprise. It’s not even as if the problem is it being a calculated cash-in; it’s more as if they don’t even know why they are cashing in (which makes sense, if it was down to Ford). Previously they at least exhibited a keen commercial acumen; even Lucas’ much-maligned Star Wars prequels have direction and, sporadically, a sense of purpose.
While Kingdom is full of the kind of distracting CGI you associate with Lucas’ prequels, the finger of blame more frequently points at his director. Spielberg notes on the Making Of documentary that he saw the riding off into the sunset at the end of Last Crusade as the end. Even on that film, he referred to regressing himself to a state where he would be interested in making that sort of film again. To an extent, that comes across as pretentious waffle. After all, he would soon embark on Jurassic Park and follow it with an identikit sequel; it wasn’t as if his serious-minded self had taken over completely. But there are points in Last Crusade where you can tell the director isn’t fully engaged. He’s been there, done that. When Henry Jones Sr. is on screen the director is alive, but the tale itself isn’t really doing it for him.
In Kingdom, that studied return to old pastures is not just evident as the occasional rocky action beat or flat piece of exposition; it blights almost every scene. The director has discussed how he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski studied the look and style of the original trilogy, imitating the masterful photography of the sadly departed Douglas Slocombe. So why does the film look so horribly fake, to the extent that you assume actual locations are badly-lit interiors? Basically, it’s not Kaminski’s way of doing things, and he can’t do what Slocombe can do very well.
Spielberg also said that his approach to the action and the editing was to pace it the way those films were. Is that why the film is slow, never once clicking into a suspenseful rhythm brought on by escalation of the narrative? If so, why are the first three films (and Raiders in particular) as gripping as they ever were? I can see why Spielberg has adopted the tone of revering those films as antiques, where one has to relearn the art involved, but the ability to do so appears to have deserted him. Perhaps he would have been better (particularly given how he and Kaminski fail to approximate both the style and energy of the trilogy) to draw a line and say, “If I’m going to make another film, I’ll make it the way I make my films today”. The Minority Report approach to action and lensing could well have been disorientating at first, but it might at least have ensured the director was engaged and the environment felt immediate. It wouldn’t have been any more drastic than some of the other great jarring breaks that are made from the approach of the first three to the fourth film; the setting (post-WWII, for reasons I’ll bring up) the MacGuffin (space aliens), the approach to stunts and effects (CGI is everywhere, the action is rarely without ILM augmentation). Even John Williams’ score comes on like half-heartedly, unsure if a scene is vital enough to introduce the famous theme.
This is also a director unwilling to go the extra mile to give his film verisimilitude. He’s not interested in the challenge of working abroad (staying near one’s family is commendable, but the choice underlines why he no longer fits the series) so Hawaii doubles for Peru. That, and filming on a soundstage with a CGI-augmented jungle; everything that the earlier films avoided, basically.
As it stands, this may be the poorest work of Spielberg’s career; Kingdom constantly draws attention to how slackly it all fits together, like a blind man doing a jigsaw puzzle. Whatever his failings in his understanding of screenplays, you’d be hard-pressed not to admit that the ‘berg a master craftsman; even in his weakest movies the technical brilliance shines through. You wonder if he was half-asleep here; do you think he gave Ford any notes on his performance? I doubt it very much. Like the “Print it!” approach to a first take you see in the documentary, he most likely took the path of least resistance. Which is why he accepted CGI over physical stunts (the jungle chase) and as far back as agreeing to the MacGuffin that both he and Ford initially demurred at The only other film that approaches this level of missing the wood for the trees is Hook, but the director is open about his failings there. Here, he insists he’s very happy with the film. But this is also someone who claimed that he could see no physical difference between the Ford of Last Crusade and the Ford of Kingdom. I call bullshit on that, Steven.
Ah yes, the long gestation. Scripts were knocking about as far back as the early ‘90s, all with the alien angle that Lucas had fixated on. I recall reading about what changed the minds of Spielberg and Lucas in the pre-release articles for Kingdom, and there was a sufficient lack of specificity to leave me unconvinced. Basically, Lucas was having his way or there was no movie. The other two never liked the premise, and still don’t, but enough back-and-forth had to occur to make it seem like all parties had given ground. Fifteen years of development hell later, a screenplay is settled on that still had Russians, still had aliens (“inter-dimensional” beings was the sop that Lucas threw to the ‘berg). That’s exaggerating the process slightly; Indy 4 was left for a while in the mid-to-late ‘90s, and interest reignited around 2000.
To be fair to Lucas, I don’t think the crystal skulls premise is such a bad one. They are intriguing, mysterious, inviting of more questions than there are answers. But, like Temple of Doom’s Sankara Stones, they lack a compelling mythology. Their properties are left murky, touching on telepathy and mind powers but never really doing much with that aspect (notably, this runs on directly from Jeffrey Boam’s ‘90s script, with its Russian psy-ops and mentalist aliens). There’s no hook, other than “Look, aliens!” Which we’ve seen many, many times before. So where we end up is “Look, an alien (sorry, inter-dimensional beings) spaceship taking off”. Which is Close Encounters but much, much, much less awesome. What it has in common with Roy Neary’s event is that Indy is reduced to the status of stander-by. Then, he has only one truly memorable – and much vilified - action sequence in the entire film.
Again, not to malign Lucas unduly, the dictates of Indy’s age make the appropriation of the paraphernalia of the era that surrounds him entirely reasonable. It makes sense that Indy in the ‘50s should encounter the atomic age, and Reds under the bed. And, by process, the space invasion movies of the period become an obvious reference point. The problem is, there’s no tension to this quest. Lucas makes sure there’s a von Daniken-esque splattering of “ancient astronauts” references (the Nazca lines in Peru; “Only the gods can read them, because only the gods live up there”) or oblique references to Roswell. But this isn’t a lost artifact sought by generations. It’s a very twentieth century connection of some rather wildly-placed dots that gained traction a good decade after the period Indy finds himself running, slightly bandy-legged, through. Perhaps, if we see Indy at 80, in the era of Flower Power, Atlantis will finally be the MacGuffin.
Raiders remains the only film in the series that gets the MacGuffin perfect, the evocative combination of awe, majesty and occult dread. There’s not a little of Lovecraft in the depiction of the Ark, a portal to another world of unknown and terrible forces. The shot of the rat, in some discomfort, as the Ark throbs and hums in the bowels of a ship, tells you more than a hundred lines of exposition (not that the descriptive dialogue in Raiders isn’t irresistible too). Is the switch from an object of religious significance to one of science-fictional associations a deal-breaker? Again, it comes back to whether you can make your audience believe in it, and give it some potency. If Kingdom follows Temple’s error in failing to sufficiently empower the MacGuffin, it makes matters a whole lot worse by changing so much while simultaneously going out of its way to remind you that this is the same show (a good, if superficial, example is Indy’s attire, which may look fine on a 47 year-old but looks rather inappropriate on someone in their mid-‘60s; as forced as Mutt’s Marlon Brando impression).
Ford isn’t one of those actors who becomes more regal as he ages (like Indy’s screen father, Sean Connery). Even if the actor is physically toned, he can’t disguise the puttying of his features. Credit to the actor for wanting to play up Indy’s age, but the only time he looks right as Indy is when his is professorially besuited at Marshall College. An appropriate inversion, as his tidied, bespectacled appearance in Raiders never felt right. There needed to be recognition of this, rather than Spielberg nodding approvingly and saying just what the actor needed to hear (“You look exactly the same, every take is perfect”).
Because it’s not just the uniform, it’s Ford’s performance. The are scenes in Kingdom where you’d swear the actor’s been wheeled on reluctantly for a Comic Relief (or SNL) sketch, so forced and unnatural are his rhythms. The truth is, Ford – for whatever reason - has become a progressively less vital actor as the years have gone by. He’s rarely taken on roles of wit or humour, and where he has his played grumpy (Morning Glory). Kingdom might have been best dubbed, “The cantankerous old man in the hat is back”, because it doesn’t seem like the same guy. He’s not so much straining to hit his old beats as staggering about cluelessly, hoping something will get near the target. The opening scene at the Area 51 warehouse is painful to watch, he’s so off-beam. That and the overly colour-corrected visuals, lends a sheen of artifice that makes viewing distracting and non-immersive. Is this what they’ve done to out hero? And Spielberg appears to pace the film for a 65-year old action hero, rather than placing a 65-year old action hero in a film paced for a 45-year old one (ie, the 1980s).
Indy: If you want to be a good archeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library.
There are precious few memorable lines in Kingdom, but where there are, Ford invariably makes heavy work of the delivery. He’s someone who used to know instinctively how to do it, just as Spielberg instinctively knew how to make a silly bit of overplayed comedy sing. The above quote, after the motorbike chase early on, could easily have worked in an earlier film. But here it comes across as laboured, both in delivery and the director failing to catch the lightness of tone and edit.
Mutt: You’re a teacher?
Indy: Part time.
If Ford’s rocky in the opening scene, the re-encounter with Marion is just painful. Neither Ford nor Karen Allen (who has weathered much better than Ford, and still radiates youthful energy) get the interplay going smoothly; it’s meant to be the awkward comedy of re-acquaintance, but these comedians are dying on stage. There is an over-rehearsed (or should that be under- ?) self-indulgence on display that needed to be resisted or tempered by a forceful director. Fortunately, that’s the worst of it; the scene between them in the back of the truck, where Indy tells her the problem with all of the other women in his life was that “They weren’t you, honey” and Marion grins gleefully, almost makes up for the terrible clumsiness elsewhere. Raiders scripter Lawrence Kasdan apparently punched-up the Indy-Marion dialogue, but unfortunately he wasn’t given input on how it should be performed.
Maybe the problem is partly that you can’t get performers to do good work in an unnatural environment (again, it all comes back to Spielberg). A number of reliable actors are all-at-sea. Indy in action generally fails because the big sequences lack any tension or focus. It’s not, in fairness, because Ford is old. It’s because Spielberg cares so little he’ll let CGI do the job for him. Shia LaBoeuf is just as unconvincing (I’ll come back to him in a bit, but he’s the least of the film’s problems) in the fights. Indy’s big dust-up with the Colonel Dovchenko (Igor Jijikine) is the pre-requisite fight with a brick shithouse (Pat Roach in earlier adventures) but it lacks the viscerality of earlier encounters. As does the extended jungle chase with its CG vehicles; there’s no real danger. When Dovchencko is consumed by a swarm of ILM ants you’re long-since resigned to the trajectory of the movie. We’re now firmly in the world of Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy movies, the ones we scoffed at for lacking the tangibility of Indy’s world.
Ross: Don’t you know it’s dangerous to climb into a refrigerator? Those things are deathtraps.
The first 40 minutes or so of Kingdom are just about reasonable, however. The CGI gopher announces the worst excesses to come, right in the opening shot, but the sequence that inspired a whole new phrase to replace “jump the shark” is one of the few I think works well; the “nuke the fridge” moment. I’m not a fan of Kaminski’s photography anywhere in the film, but he can’t ruin the eeriness of the deserted town Indy happens upon. And his silhouette against the mushroom cloud is one of the film’s few iconic shots. Even Spielberg manages to inject a modicum of tension into the proceedings.
Indy: After all those years we spent spying on the Reds…
Accusing Indy of being a communist can’t disguise that he is firmly identified with the establishment now; he was a colonel during WWII and it looks as if his activities extended beyond that timeframe. I’ve tended to disagree with the idea that the Indiana Jones character is a reflection of American imperialism abroad; it seems to me to be a slightly trite argument, particularly since he consistently positions himself as an individualist (even showing fear of the government in Raiders). He’s opportunistic (working “with them” to find the Ark) but he finds himself burned by such an approach (it is sequestered and stored away). Now, one wonders if the commie-accusation is a rather self-conscious shorthand way of trying to say that, despite being the straight-up war hero and serving his country, Indy is still his own man (“Dr. Jones, let’s just say that for now you are of great interest to the Bureau”). A better, but perhaps too subtle, method is having him uphold the theories of Vere Gordon Childe, a Marxist archaeologist. Certainly more so than the crude, “I rode with Pancho Villa”. Ultimately the title affects his status as much as “General Solo” in Return of the Jedi. The anti-hero is diluted and becomes a faintly dull hero.
Is that an Untouchables reference? Quite possibly, having Ford paraphrase Connery. The chase in and around Marshall College is at least replete with real stunt work (“Get on, gramps”). Unfortunately it is never particularly dramatic.
Indy the archeologist can’t convince regarding the crystal skulls because Ford the actor doesn’t care for the MacGuffin. Not that he’s especially well-served in scenes or dialogue.
Indy: Your mum didn’t escape, they let her go. So she could mail a letter and I could translate it.
David Koepp is unable to instill a clear sense of progression into his plotting. Events just happen, with little effort necessary for Indy to do any seriously brainy or brawny work. Whilst Frank Darabont (who delivered a script he’s claims Spielberg loved), M Night Shyamalan, Jeb Stuart and Jeff Nathanson all had a go, Koepp gets sole credit for the screenplay (with Nathanson and Lucas bagging story). Koepp has written (and directed) some very good screenplays, but his work for Spielberg has never been wholly satisfying (the Jurassic Parks and War of the Worlds being his other collaborations). For all the talk from every writer involved in Kingdom that scribing an Indy adventure was a dream come true, the reality suggests it turned into an unrewarding slog.
All the clues Indy and Mutt need to embark on their quest are to be found in Oxley’s cell, and when they arrive at the grave of Francisco de Orellana it’s short work to find the crystal skull. True, this sort of thing afflicted the opening sections of Last Crusade, but it feels writ even larger here. Indy’s fight at the Nazca temple lacks inventiveness in the staging, a neat trick with a blow pipe aside. And, of course, it looks and feels like the set it is.
Later on, the clues that Indy interprets as map directions are so impenetrable, Ted Rogers may as well have delivered them on 3-2-1.
Mutt: What are you? Like, Eighty?
I’m dubious that LaBoeuf will ever have the right kind of screen presence to take over from Ford, should the series become properly generational. He carries so much baggage from his impulsive, petulant off-screen persona that it’s difficult to root for him. That’s not to say he’s not a decent actor; he is, and he works reasonably well with Ford. But he’s saddled with idiotic and tiresome character traits (the whole greaser, Wild One Brando schtick; Lucas’ bright idea) that tend to suggest the production team want him to resemble his off-screen prickishness. What I’m saying is, the failures of Kingdom are not at all LaBoeuf’s fault. Who knows, maybe in another 15 years that actor will have developed sufficient gravitas to carry of leading a Jones movie.
There is the occasional moment that works splendidly; the fake-out passing of the fedora in the film’s last scene. But mostly, the actor is encumbered with wretched silliness of the sort more commonly reserved for Jar Jar Binks. Gape in disbelief as he swings from vine to vine with CGI monkeys in tow. Cringe as he engages in a swordfight with Spalko across two moving vehicles.
In the TV series, Indy apparently had a daughter (either it’s non-canon now, or he’s got legions of little bastards scurrying around the place). I recall there were ‘90s rumours of Indy’s brother appearing, with Kevin Costner’s name touted. That might have been a more satisfying route (updating Costner to the suggested-for-every-role-ever-by-Firefly-fans Nathan Fillion would have worked), because the desired déjà vu of the father-son relationship from Last Crusade can only come up short by comparison. Spielberg’s a sucker for such sentiment, though, so it’s hardly surprising the fraternal route never gained any traction.
I feel a bit sorry for Karen Allen; in spite of the off-key scenes with Indy I’ve mentioned, she’s a winning presence and you can’t help but adore her just as you did Marion in Raiders. But they don’t use her very well. When there are attempts to draw on her spunky persona we get a sequence like the rapids riding; one that displays such scant disregard for logic and physics that anyone who isn’t addicted to the likes of Van Helsing would respond to it with disdain. Following a virtual-cliff edge car chase, she commandeers a (vehicular) duck and confidently drives it over a cliff, where it lands in a tree before plunging into a river and descending several enormous waterfalls. There’s no sense of reality intruding here, it’s silliness without impact. Some might point to the life raft sequence in Temple of Doom (or the rail car chase) and I’d acknowledge the point, but only so many increments of heightening the environment are possible before the audience will no longer accept them.
I’m generally a fan of Ray Winstone’s work, albeit he is at his best within a limited range and milieu. He can lift an average crime movie by dint of his screen presence, and cast well (Sexy Beast) he’s a star presence. Unfortunately, he’s memorable for all the wrong reasons here. His performance is broad and hammy, and he has zero chemistry with Ford. Perhaps the truth is that he’s one of those few British actors who don’t cross the channel very well. Mac’s character is banal too, so it’s not all down to Winstone. Insufficient work has been done on the to make him likable, and not enough the other way to make him memorably villainous. When Indy attempts to save him at the end it’s genuinely mystifying why he bothers (other than as another reference to the earlier trilogy, Elsa in Last Crusade).
Sadly, Cate Blanchett isn’t at her best either; a haircut and a curious accent in search of motivation. She’s a bad Russian, and she’s a she for no other reason than one of Lucas or Spielberg decided that a properly evil chick should be the antagonist (in contrast to Elsa’s misguided one, I guess). Again, there’s no chemistry with her co-stars. And not an ounce of humour; I’m trying to recall Blanchett in a comedy and I’m coming up short, She was much better essaying not so dissimilar nefariousness in Hanna. The idea of a character obsessed with her own (unimpressive) psychic abilities isn’t a bad one, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if she were actually proficient in some way? As it is she’s more Ronald Lacey than Paul Freeman. Except, of course, that Lacey did so much, so well, with so little.
Hurt’s agreeable as Ox, a good payday for the actor as he barely has to say anything until the final scenes. He makes a much more interesting aged professor than Indy does (Hurt’s only two years older than Ford, but his face wore its years much earlier), and LaBoeuf manages to sell Mutt’s affection for him. But Ford is unable to convince you that Indy really knows these people, be it Ox, Mac or Jim Broadbent’s Stanforth (the Denholm Elliot replacement). In Raiders, there was never any doubt of his past history with Marion, Marcus and Sallah.
When the big climax comes, it’s just another collapsing temple. But one with mechanisms that are so elaborate and intricate, that it’s always clearly just CG that would never function in reality. The result is you shrug; more weightless, “Who cares?” visual trickery. Great torrents of water take our heroes up or take them down, things go round and round and round. Where’s the impact? And there’s such a paucity of inspiration in showing Spalko’s tête à tête with the inter-dimensional beings, you’d be forgiven forgetting that it happened at all.
Have we seen the last of Indiana Jones? Paramount’s rights to release future installments may make Disney think twice about pursuing the franchise the way they have Star Wars (now they’ve bought Lucasfilm), but where there’s money to be made a fast buck will ultimately win out. There were rumours that a fifth film was at the storyline stage, but with Ford in his 70s there’s no chance they’ll try and keep him centre stage (whatever the final shot of Kingdom indicates to the contrary). My bet would be for a continuation being announced in the next five years or so, with Ford in a supporting capacity and LaBoeuf either recast or accompanied by a more classically heroic and hitherto unmentioned Jones relative. The format of Indiana Jones lends itself to a multitude of potential storylines (many explored in tie-in novels, computer games and comic strips); the success of The Mummy series proves that it’s a goldmine. I’d be happy to see a Spielberg and Lucas-free continuation that rinses away the bad taste of Kingdom. Someone needs to recover the sense of adventure and the attitude of Indy, as it was woefully absent from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.