Saturday, May 31, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

2008, US, directed by Steven Spielberg

The fourth Indiana Jones adventure starts out rather well: a thrilling drag-racing scene on an isolated Nevada highway sets the 1950s tone very effectively, while it's nice that the filmmakers acknowledge up front, shortly thereafter, that their leading man has added at least a few years even if he's still able to throw a punch when called on (Harrison Ford looks suitably grizzled at times). The drag-racing scene and the great set piece that follows, in a vast military warehouse, showcase Spielberg's gift for clear, action-filled storytelling: these sequences are viscerally exciting but also contribute much to the narrative, establishing Indy's return and the identities and abilities of the various bad guys that will drive the tale forward, while there's also an agreeably spooky edge to the mysteriously magnetized box that's at the centre of events.

Spielberg blows hot and cold, however. While there are other passages that are equally satisfying, such as the section that introduces a new sidekick, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), and which includes another memorable chase scene, by contrast the sequence with a nuclear blast ultimately seems like an afterthought - the implications of both nuclear testing and 1950s Communist witch-hunts aren't given any satisfying follow-through - while the film eventually spirals over the top into special-effects overload, leaving the actors at sea. The action moves along so swiftly in the later sequences that the characters have no time to grow together: they're on the same page only because they're in the teeth of adversity, since they haven't had the chance to exchange more than a few sentences (the manner in which the film throws a "big revelation" into a scene fraught with danger is symptomatic of this, even if it also happens to be rather amusing).

The film's most enjoyable when it evokes both its own past glories - with nods to the first and third films especially, including a series of jokes that involve the much-missed Denholm Elliott's character, Marcus Brody - and the kinds of movies that inspired Spielberg and George Lucas in the first place: old-time serials that chronicled outlandish feats of derring-do but also the great action films of the 1930s. There's a wonderful scene late on where LaBeouf simultaneously channels Errol Flynn and Tarzan, which gives a sense of the light touch that could have been sprinkled more liberally through the film. That such scenes also refer back to films which were much less overblown and cluttered is perhaps a lesson to which Spielberg and company might have paid more careful attention.


Andy H. said...

Your thoughts on the prairie dogs?

Gareth said...

I thought the first use was amusing, since it both functions as a joke in its own right and as a reference to another famous Indy visual joke, but later it seemed to me that their reappearance helped to rob things like the nuclear test of the profundity that they deserved (the post-irradiation scrubbing did the same thing; it was amusing, but completely undercut the terrible things we had just seen, which were quickly forgotten).

Andy H. said...

That's more or less where I'm at.


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