Aug 10, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the CGI Monster

Is my Medicare paid up?

Oh sure, I rhapsodize about B-movies and underground cinema, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a summer blockbuster once in a while. And in truth, I was really looking forward to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, heralding the return of Indiana Jones to the screen in almost 20 years. (1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is in my opinion the best of the series, not just for its non-stop adventure, but for the wisdom to subtly laugh at itself.) Let's face it, Harrison Ford is no spring chicken, but at first this movie wisely lets Jones act his own age, setting the film in the Cold War, so that the hero is indeed 20 years older, just like the actor who plays him. And it's great fun seeing him performing all this derring-do in an older man's body, as he properly miscalcuates a few moves and moans about his aches and pains. And since this is set in the 1950's during the Cold War, this time Indy is combating the Russians instead of the Nazis, there's no short supply of cartoonish over-the-top maniacal villains to outwit. Just when I thought Cate Blanchett was going to play Katharine Hepburn for the rest of her life, here she is in a Louise Brooks haircut as the cold villain. (It's not a stretch to imagine a dominatrix outfit underneath the gray uniform.)

And for the first half hour-- I was absolutely hooked. From the big fight in the warehouse and the atomic blast right up to the chase imploding the school library, I totally bought this popcorn entertainment. Like its predecessor in general, during this time, the movie is not only thrilling, but it pokes fun at itself. And it even appears this will continue to be a fun ride, once the plot kicks in, gamely attempting a revisionist history combining the Mayans with Roswell! But after that point it strictly becomes by-the-numbers, as the heroes become as rubbery as all the CGI effects thrown their way. Suddenly these people stop being human, and thereby the suspense goes out the window, and just becomes one setpiece after another, strung together to please those with attention deficiency disorder. It is great seeing Indy with a younger sidekick (Shia LaBoeuf), and Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood (perhaps the only heroine to hold her own with Indy), but all that fanfare is for naught, as her screen time is given a big "So what?". Still the main culprit is the screenplay, which can't do a thing with such promising material and gives these characters little to do except grow rubber limbs and strangely remain impervious to every pitfall that comes along. Too bad.

It may sound ridiculous critiquing a summer blockbuster movie as it's made with a certain agenda, but this starts by promising something more than just by-the-numbers popcorn. For all the money they spent on this, they couldn't find a proper scenario to string it all together with. Ultimately Spielberg falls prey to the summer blockbuster formula that his string of films helped create, yet his films stood apart from their progeny because they didn't forsake good characterizations and storytelling. That's why this ultimately ends up as an amiable disappointment. Call this Indiana Jones in Search of a Script.

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