Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why is the New Indiana Jones Movie So Very Disappointing?

Nearly a year ago, a photograph of Harrison Ford in his iconic Indiana Jones costume surfaced on the internet. It was the first shot of the standard marketing campaign of major studio movies in the 21st century, the whetting of the fanboy appetite through online media. What the fans did not know until this weekend though, when the movie went on general release all around the world, is that the picture of the aged icon was about as a good as it was going to get.

As William Goldman reminds the world in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, no-one sets out to make a bad movie. But that is exactly what Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is. People writing that the movie isn’t that bad are either being kind or else are so devoted to the original trilogy that they’re blinded by the glaring flaws in this latest instalment. Most people will leave the theatre with a vague sense of unease – they know they didn’t particularly have a good time, but it wasn’t awful, was it?

Yes, it was. Indiana Jones IV bears all the scars of its protracted birth. The script has been through development hell, and the scorch marks are still to be seen on the celluloid. There are certain fundamentals that must be obeyed in narrative for this type of story to work. An Indiana Jones picture is never going to be Battleship Potemkin; it must obey the rules of genre fiction.

HC McNeile, the man that wrote the Bulldog Drummond stories, believed a good adventure story is like a good golf shot; it should begin explosively, rise swiftly, and then fall to earth, stopping dead at the pin. This is the case in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first movie of the Indiana Jones series. The explosive beginning is the rolling boulder; the revelation that the Nazis have discovered the Ark of the Covenant is the rising arc, and the denouement is God’s terrible vengeance and that guy’s face melting before His wrath. That’s a picture.

By contrast, the narrative of Crystal Skull (one feels so Hollywood in referring to movies in a word or two!) is all over the shop. It’s difficult to follow, there’s too much detail and, overall, it’s hard to really give a fig. In Raiders, Adolf Hitler is attempting to gain control of a device that would render his Reich invincible; in Crystal Skull – um, well, you tell me. What does that skull do exactly, except give John Hurt the opportunity to try his hand at what modern cineastes have to come to understand as the Patrick Stewart or Sir Ian McKellen role?

It’s nice, of course, to see Hurt and Ray Winstone make some good money in this sort of venture, but what purpose do their characters serve, exactly? What do they do? As for Shia LeBeouf, the only reason for his presence seems to be as a person to say “Daddio” at appropriate intervals.

In the slang sense, as opposed to recognising paternity, as it were. Which is another problem with the movie, and one distressingly common to sequels. The temptation in making sequels is to emphasise the character traits that we know and love (and thanks to which the producers are very rich people). Unfortunately, this often happens at the expense of narrative.

Example: when Marion Ravenwood appears in Crystal Skull, she echoes her first appearance in Raiders, with a “well, well, well – if it isn’t Indiana Jones!” type of line. But in Crystal Skull, she sent for Indiana Jones in the first place. She should be expecting him. People don’t always register this of discrepency, but it does generate a vague unease, and this unease then becomes one of the reasons why people leave the theatre wondering why exactly they didn’t have the blast they were hoping for. These sort of inconsistencies litter the script, and they are the stretch marks of time spent in Development Hell. The Jones’s family moment in the quicksand is particularly wretched.

The other things that litter the script are action sequences. Action sequences, even in an action movie, are like sugar in your tea. Just enough is sublime; too much is treacle. There are far too many action sequences in Crystal Skull. It’s like Spielberg and Lucas thought they needed to shove in as many as they could and in doing it they lost a lot of the charm of the original iteration of Indiana Jones.

Which was this: when Indiana Jones gets beaten up, it hurts. It never knocks much of a stir out of James Bond, you’ll notice, even the more realistic Daniel Craig version, who took those shots to the nuts very well indeed, all things considered. But Indy was like TV detective Jim Rockford, getting beaten up all the time and hating it. One of the iconic moments in Raiders was when Indy and Marion are on the steamship, making their escape. Marion is looking at her reflection in one of those reversible mirrors and, in attempting to reverse the mirror, delivers Indy a tremendous upper cut with the end of the mirror. He ruefully rubs his chin and remarks that it’s not the years – it’s the mileage.

Now that Indy is showing both years and mileage, Spielberg and Lucas had a tremendous chance to run with that idea, the vulnerable part of Doctor Jones. And they missed it, every time. There are some throwaway references to Harrison Ford’s age, and the forced setting of the movie in the fifties, which sits particularly badly with the whole flavour of the series, but they don’t work because while they tell, they don’t show, and this is in violation of the one cardinal rule of narrative. It’s an opportunity persistently missed, and it’s very disappointing.

Is there any bright side? Well, the latest trailer for the new Batman, with the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, looks absolutely fantastic. That’s something.

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