In the coming days and weeks there will be a considerable amount of bandwidth spent on the reaction to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The deluge of criticism began long before the film’s premiere at Cannes last week; in fact, fans of the series have been quite vocal about the prospect of a fourth installment since drafts of potential scripts began popping up on the internet a few years ago. Skepticism reached a peak when Frank Darabont’s draft was rejected in 2006 by the film’s producer and creative consultant, George Lucas, but received high praise from Dr. Jones himself, Harrison Ford, and director Steven Spielberg. Worries about Ford’s age seemed to go hand-in-hand with the concern over the science-fiction plot of various screenplay drafts: Jeb Stuart’s early draft was titled, “Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars.”
I’ve been asked by several people to share my thoughts on the finished film, and while I will offer some initial comments I need to see the film again before I can be sure about things like composition, shot lengths, music and sound mixing, and story structure. Mostly I would like to discuss how the film has been received thus far. Beware of major SPOILERS!
The internet affords a great number of ways in which we can discuss movies. David Bordwell has provided an intriguing guide to web criticism in a recent blog post that aims to detail the types of criticism that fills the blogs and websites of cinephiles like myself. It’s essential reading, since Bordwell stresses the importance of informed criticism and the long-form review. We’ve become too accustomed to capsule reviews and statements that often contain more exclamation points than periods. How many times have we read the line “George Lucas raped my childhood!”?
One of the key issues surrounding the production of a fourth Indiana Jones adventure was the expectation factor. Many fans felt burned by the treatment of the Star Wars mythology in the prequel trilogy, which led to the ridiculous statement about Lucas ruining the childhoods of millions of fans. In many ways, the expectations for the Star Wars prequels were far higher than for Dr. Jones, yet we had to wait a few years longer for another Indy adventure than we did for another visit to Tatooine (16 years to 19 years).
Fans had presumably learned their lesson from the Star Wars prequels not to expect the world from the creative artists at Lucasfilm. With the announcement that filming had begun on Indy 4, fans took a collective deep breath and crossed their fingers. Even though the prospect of another Indy film resulted in a more muted response from fans and critics, I still felt that the “fear the worst, hope for the best” attitude was a smoke-screen for a very high level of expectation.
In recent weeks, the “lowered expectations” attitude has spread from fan forums to critical discourse. At Cannes, some suggested that as long as the film didn’t succumb to the fate of The Da Vinci Code — which was panned with enthusiasm at the festival two summers ago — then everything would turn out fine. In other words, as long as the film did not fail too miserably, then its wreckage might still be salvaged.
Others thought that as long as Spielberg and company recaptured the magic from the first three films, limited the use of computer generated imagery, avoided too many references to Ford’s age, and kept the plot in the established canon of the Indy universe, then all would be fine.
Low expectations, right? Hardly. Beneath the surface of the skeptical viewer is the one who wants it all, even though they’ll be the first to admit that to capture lighting in a bottle again isn’t really possible. What is more troubling, however, is how the first two Indy sequels have been spared from much criticism lately. Those films are “canon” and have come to be iconic representations of the character and the mythology of the series. Never mind the fact that at the time of each release, the films were held to be poor companion pieces to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Writing for The New York Times in 1984, Vincent Canby had this to say about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:
The screenplay, written by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (”American Graffiti”), from a story by George Lucas, is serviceable but no match for the witty one by Lawrence Kasdan for ”Raiders.” Unlike ”Raiders,” the new movie’s script never quite transcends the schlocky B-movie manners that inspired it. Though it looks as if it had cost a fortune, ”Indiana Jones” doesn’t go anywhere, possibly because it’s composed entirely of a succession of climaxes. It could end at any point with nothing essential being lost.
In an eerily similar review, Caryn James had this to say about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989):
Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay for ”Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” which opens today at Loew’s Astor Plaza and other theaters, cannot match the wit of Lawrence Kasdan’s script for ”Raiders.” Yet of the three Jones films, ”The Last Crusade” may well become the sentimental favorite, the Indiana to end them all.
Each film has its strengths and weaknesses, its triumphs and its flaws. The passage of time has seemingly erased the negative press that either sequel received upon their initial release. The darker and bloodier Temple of Doom has often been cited as falling outside the Indy canon because of its violence; the pulpy silliness of Last Crusade met its own set of detractors for treating the Nazis as broad comic figures.
There have also been those who have dismissed the series from the beginning. Pauline Kael’s review of Raiders pays little attention to the visual and sonic inventiveness of the film and instead focuses on the spectacular nature of the narrative:
Kinesthetically, the film gets to you, but there’s no exhilaration, and no surge of feeling at the end. It seems to be edited for the maximum number of showings per day.
On Temple of Doom, Dave Kehr wrote the following:
Yet the blunt Freudian images of George Lucas’s story (the film is a male birth fantasy in which the hero must deliver a tribe of children from slavery in a dark, damp mine shaft) and the relentlessly juvenile focus of Spielberg’s mise-en-scene come to seem oppressive and pandering; the film betrays no human impulse higher than that of a ten-year-old boy trying to gross out his baby sister by dangling a dead worm in her face.
Kehr’s assessment has been revived by Carrie Rickey, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In a recent article she suggests that
Given the subsequent installments, it is hard for me to muster enthusiasm for a franchise that has done so much to dumb down movie scripts, ramp up movie tempos, perpetuate colonialist stereotypes, and, yes, marginalize women. Most egregiously, the films in the Indiana Jones cycle have grown increasingly shallow and preposterous. Some might say that’s part of their charm.
Rickey’s critique of the series is informed by little research and lacks a credible source for any of her points. In some sense, the critique is no different than any garden variety cultural study of the films, where words like “imperialism,” “colonialist,” and “masculinist” are tossed around with very little care. This is not to suggest the criticisms are off base. Rather, this sort of argument requires a more rigorous framework that is too imposing for the confines of pop journalism. We should value contrarian views, but not at the expense of rigorous research and development.
As some of you know, I’m very skeptical of such grand theorizing, especially when it seems to promote the author’s agenda more than it informs our understanding of a particular film. If we want to really understand how Crystal Skull fits into the canon of Indiana Jones, then we need to step outside our expectations and consider the stylistic and narrative components of the film. On that basis can we begin to piece together what went right and what went wrong.
I’m not trying to suggest that these films are immune to critical inquiry. Effective criticism should not offer an indictment of what a film should be, but rather what it is. How does it work within the confines of its genre? How well or poorly does the film communicate the story?
The style of action movies have noticeably changed since the late 1980s, and more significantly, Spielberg’s aesthetic and thematic style has changed as well. He has arguably become more confident with his storytelling techniques, resulting in challenging and cinematically arresting works, including A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), and Munich (2005).
In the press, Spielberg tried to appease fans by suggesting that he would don the hat of his younger self for the production of Crystal Skull. Indeed, there was a concerted attempt in early press to stress the fidelity of the new film to the previous ones.
Before entering the theater to see Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, my wife, Monica, told me something that really made sense to me: we’re lucky to have another Indy adventure. She’s right. No one needed to make another Indy film; in fact, the sunset finale to Last Crusade was a pitch-perfect sendoff to the series. To expect anything from the film other than a good time is asking a lot. Can we ask that the filmmakers bring their A-game to the show? Sure, and I completely believe that everyone’s heart was in it. Rather than a final chapter, I felt this to be another adventure for Indiana Jones; an addendum rather than a bookend.
However, I could not help but feel that everyone was trying to emulate the tone and texture of the earlier films. It’s rather obvious that Spielberg dusts off an earlier style in action scenes, but the result is noticeably stiff. There is a distinct self-consciousness to the work that limits the effectiveness to some of the action set-pieces. The film is different from its predecessors, since it is made nearly two decades after the last installment. Why should we disparage Spielberg and crew for evolving their style?
To be honest, that is my big criticism of the film. There’s a stunted feeling to the narrative that may be the result of the stitching together of various screenplay drafts. My own feeling is that the script needed another one or two drafts to polish some of the exposition and deepen the relationship of Marion and Indy and Mutt.
We undoubtedly expect too much, especially from filmmakers who have helped to shape the look and sound of modern American movies. Does it stand with the other sequels? Absolutely. It’s not as sharp or terrifying or silly as the others, but it has its own flavor.
The science-fiction angle of the plot made perfect sense to me. Not only did the film capture the surface anxieties of the 1950s — McCarthyism, nuclear annihilation, the suburbs — but it also captured the pulpy fascination with saucer men from Mars. Some will say, “Yes, but is it Indiana Jones?” Of course it is. Every film had its dose of supernatural superstition. The archaeological component is not a large component to the latest adventure, but the subtext about alien archaeologists put a big smile on my face.
Specifically, I have always been enamored with Spielberg’s thematic interest in extra terrestrials. All I can say is that it feels like home to me. And — major spoiler coming — when the alien travelers are revealed in the film’s climax, I was immediately reminded of the look and shape of the creatures from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They’re a constant in the bearded-one’s work, and work wonderfully well in the spirit of the 1950s saucer conspiracies.
In general, the first forty minutes worked flawlessly to reintroduce Dr. Jones. The prairie dog opening was fun, but I feel that I’m on the outside of an inside joke between Spielberg and Lucas. The warehouse scene was concise enough not to linger and embellish the connection between it and Raiders. It also featured the best joke in the film: Indy miscalculating his jump and landing on the wrong truck. My own love for Spielberg’s suburban animism was beautifully reworked in the Doomtown sequence. Adding to the mythology of the Jones story, I thought it was particularly nice to know that when America entered World War II, Indy fought the Nazis and came away a decorated war hero.
There is a laundry list of smaller items that I loved about the film, none more satisfying than Indy’s school-boy reaction to seeing Marion for the first time. As the credits rolled, I must admit that I felt the same way.