Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Umpteenth Jokey Title

Spoilers? Probably...

The glowing review that Keith Uhlich posted on Sunday at The House Next Door for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is still generating comments. As I type this, the latest are focused on the scene in which Marion drives herself, Indy, Mutt and Dr. Oxley off a high cliff and onto a sturdy tree branch, which bends far enough to allow the jeep/boat hybrid a safe landing into the river below.

Commenter Chris P, reacting to the assertion that this scene is equivalent to Indy’s leap of faith towards the end of Last Crusade, says:

“Before his leap of faith, Indy's scared. He's nervous and not sure it'll work. And when it does, he's even more amazed than the audience. He feels for us. We feel more a part of the adventure because of his emotional reaction to it.

By contrast, Marion has it all planned out, it works exactly as she expected -- nothing goes wrong, there's not even a moment where she thinks "uh oh, maybe this was a bad idea" -- and we don't get a woop of unmitigated joy, or even a sense that maybe her feigned bravura was just that, when something so amazing does work.

Simply: that short scene sums up everything that was wrong with the movie.”

Uhlich later responded:

“To which I say that we do get that sense of unmitigated joy in Karen Allen's smile after the stunt works, a visual cue that rhymes with her beatific reaction to Indy's "none of them [the other women in my life] were you" and with her mad "are we still alive?" laughter after they go over the three waterfalls.”

What this exchange boils down to is a round of “No it’s not!”/”Yes it is!”, and I suppose we can simplistically say that either the film worked for you or it didn’t. Though Uhlich is a good enough writer to make me wonder if I might be wrong, I do side with the camp that’s emphatically anti-Crystal Skull. And I think Chris P is on to something.

That particular scene makes use of the dreaded three letters: CGI. Though Karen Allen’s smile is winning, it’s not precisely enough to convince me of the adrenaline rush likely to accompany such a daredevil stunt. I wonder if Allen was ever shown the equivalent of the cliff in question, or the waterfalls she survived. Some highly-skilled digital artists created a nice-looking picture of a large tree whipping itself against the cliff, knocking several Russian digi-soldiers to their deaths. But Spielberg never provides a shot to convince, nor do the flesh-and-blood actors react in a way that suggests such a spectacle really happened. Mayhaps this wouldn’t be so jarring a letdown if Spielberg hadn’t already pulled off a virtuoso cliffside sequence in Temple of Doom, where none of the problems I mentioned exist. Because there was no CGI. That was a real, flimsy bridge over a really frigging high drop.

I get the supporters’ argument that it’s unfair to judge the movie based on what you expected, rather than what was presented -- though plenty that’s presented is worthy of derision, but this post isn’t about reaction shots of gophers and Shia LaBeouf’s injured testicles, so I’ll move on. Isn’t it fair for longtime fans who’ve invested in a franchise that employed innovative camerawork, on-site special effects and stuntmen (plus, as one commenter at HND put it, “a crisper, more ‘analog’ look”) in three previous installments to expect the same of the fourth? Rather than cartoonish, unconvincing CGI to cover up for most every daring feat? The excitement of the narrow escape doesn’t exist in this movie. The characters simply disappear behind the computer graphics, then appear again, safe and sound.

I appreciate Uhlich’s analysis of Spielberg’s imagery and the thematic content, but he expounds on it far more elegantly than the film ever does. After the movie, I told my friends, “I want to weep, it was so bad.” I grew up watching the Indy movies with my father, wondering at the movie magic on display. What do kids today have to wonder about? It’s all computers. I take my entertainment seriously, and Crystal Skull felt mostly like a bunch of clowning around.


Joseph B. said...


Totally agree with you. You can check out my rant on my blog.

Evan Waters said...

Well, my review has been in the positive, though I do think this is possibly the lightest installment in the series, and the action isn't quite as brutal and visceral. That said, I don't think this is enough to outright ruin the picture, and there are some good incidental moments- what this put me in mind of was the shot after they've gone over the waterfalls, of Marion kind of spaced out and gripping the steering wheel. It's partly for laughs but it's also a moment of "wow, did we just live through that?" Similarly, though Indy's survival of the atomic test is really stretching things, the shot of him looking up at the mushroom cloud is utterly brilliant both as a visual and a sign of the times.

That said I'm not sure how useful these direct scene comparisons are, because those scenes are aiming for different things. It works as a sign of Marion's resourcefulness and adventuresome spirit, but it's not the major beat that the "leap of faith" is.