Thursday, June 05, 2008

I like Ike.

It's always hilarious when the sequel to a blockbuster announces its elevated self-importance - think of the final scene of Back to the Future replayed at the start of Part II with newfound gravitas (complete with a swooping crane shot), or pretentious, "November Rain"-esque opening images of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Interestingly, the Indiana Jones sequels have gone in the opposite direction, from the brilliantly out-of-left-field musical number that opens Temple of Doom, to the Hardy Boys-style mini-adventure in Last Crusade, and finally to the opening shot of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a brilliantly corny dissolve from the 70's/80's Paramount logo to a literal molehill. What others read as contempt for the audience I just took as a joke, one that finds Indy's creators admitting what you are about to see is fogyish, square and (at a time when biggest and loudest seemingly equals best) relatively small. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is about and a product of the tension between the old and new, nostalgia and modern sensibilities, a filmmaker's past and present, analog and digital. In attempting to straddle 1981 and the present, number four is an old man of a movie - cranky, a little bloated around the middle, and chock full of wisdom. And, for what it's worth, it had me smiling from beginning to end.

By setting the story in the '50s, with Commies and Drapes replacing wartime intrigue, Spielberg and Lucas don't shy away from the 19-year gap between movies. The shift in time periods is more than an opportunity for Lucas to wax nostalgic about the American Graffiti days; the transition is immediately and delibarely jarring, as we're reintroduced to to a Dr. Jones who is increasingly mystified not by any artifact but by the passage of time. The movie's high point arrives early on, as Indy's wildly improbable escape from a nuclear test site culminates in a stunning, already-iconic image, the sequence illustrating Indy's two greatest adversarities - modernity and domesticity. Indy must confront the latter when his search for the interdimensional artifact leads him to discover the son (Shia LaBeouf) he didn't know he had and the woman (Karen Allen) he'd run away from. What's surprising about Spielberg's return to father-son territory is that it doesn't feel remotely heavy here - it appears that Spielberg is finally done with some of these issues, and is comfortable enough to poke some fun at himself. It seems Spielberg, who for all the "Peter Pan" criticisms has pushed himself towards maturity more than any of his detractors, is ready to inherit the elder statesman hat. And he wears it well - this is Spielberg's most Fordian (John, not Harrison) of movies, a large-scale entertainment with an adult's sense of perspective.

It's clear that, as with Last Crusade, Spielberg's interest is more in the familial dynamic than with the artifact in question, and it's here that Crystal Skull falters a bit. In a way, I preferred that the focus wasn't so much on the shiny object (the materialism of such a plot device was sort of taken for granted in Reagan's America), but David Koepp's script does fail to tie the object to the film's themes in the same way that its predecessors did. The presence of aliens makes sense both chronologically and as a nod to some of Spielberg's best work, but it still feels sort of unconnected to the rest of the movie, although Cate Blanchett's pageboy-sporting villian was the best since Belloq (also, as with I'm Not There, strangely attractive). At the same time, I didn't mind that it was sort of meandering - I liked the margins, like John Hurt's cartoonishly mad Professor Oxley and the sharp banter between Indy and Marion Ravenwood (their reunion is pitch-perfect, and Karen Allen is clearly having a blast). There are a few things that don't work - Ray Winstone is wasted in a lame role, and the monkeys are a little too much for me - but they never feel pandering or overcalculated in the way that other series revivals can (no Bantha doo-doo here). An ant attack scene that left me wanting to see real creepy-crawlies aside, the movie isn't overrun by CGI, and the action is as smart as ever. These are films defined by motion, and while Indy takes a little more time getting from A to B than he used to, Michael Bays and Jon Turteltaubs of the world would do well to pay attention - this is how you film frenetic action and keep it coherent.

While most of the buzz around Crystal Skull has revolved around the question of how a 65-year-old Ford would do as Indy (good as ever, you damn whippersnappers!), the more interesting question for me was how Spielberg would return to pure escapism after two decades where even his popcorn films have a newfound social awareness and aesthetic complexity. The resulting movie is one that eagerly tries to give the audience what it wants but is perpetually looking forward - it's a lark, but one of surprising thematic heft. It's not Raiders of the Lost Ark - few movies will ever thrill me the way that seeing Raiders on a huge screen at Loews Boston Common did - and it's not going to please anyone, particularly those primed to dismiss anything Spielberg does. Still, when the release of Crystal Skull, as any new Spielberg movie does, got people talking again about Willie Scott and "Kick the Can" and the last 15 minutes of A.I., I got to thinking about how funny it is that even his detractors remember scenes and moments in such detail so many years later.

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