Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.20: Spielberg's The Lost World/Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. The month finishes with Spielberg’s most recent film, 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Grade: 32 (C-)

Is there anything to say about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. One of Spielberg’s least interesting, least essential films, it has become a whipping boy despite strong box office and relatively solid reviews. I was among the many who defended it as “good, solid fun” and “a hell of a lot better than Temple of Doom. While I still stand by my assertion that the second Indiana Jones outing is the weakest, of the bunch, I can no longer defend the (hopefully) final outing of the series. If Temple is the single ugliest film Spielberg ever made, then Crystal Skull is the laziest, a low stakes, low energy update hardly worth the fuss it caused. But first, let’s backtrack to Spielberg’s other unnecessary sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Grade: 41, C).

In the second Jurassic Park film, the focus shifts to Jeff Goldblum’s eternally snarky Dr. Ian Malcolm, apparently the only one of the original film’s characters who broke his non-disclosure agreement, and is now the laughing stock of the world (“ha ha, dinosaurs…”). Malcolm is recruited once more by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to go on a research mission to Isla Sorna, an island adjacent to the original’s Isla Nubar, and the breeding grounds for the dinosaurs. Hammond wants Malcolm, among others, to keep the dinosaurs from being exploited by his nephew’s company by documenting the animals in their habitat. Malcolm is initially uninterested, but when he learns his girlfriend Sarah (Julianne Moore) was recruited and is already on the island, he plans on rescuing her. Of course, plans in Spielberg films never go very well.

This doesn’t begin to cover the array of characters that populate the film, from Pete Postlethwaite’s hunter to Vince Vaughn’s tree-hugging photographer to Peter Stormare’s mercenary. There’s a reason I’ve chosen not to mention their names: none of them are memorable (aside from Vaughn’s annoying character), and most are fatally underused. Even Moore isn’t really given much to do. The original Jurassic Park was wrongfully accused of having unmemorable characters as an excuse to string together a bunch of set-pieces, but those characters had something more to do and a clear reason for why they acted the way they did. The same can’t be said here.

The film explores several Spielberg tropes: the dark side of technology, selfishness blinding man’s treatment of others, the futility of making plans, and, most notably, man trying to control something not meant to be controlled. None of the themes are explored in a compelling way, however, and the main theme is set up in the most absurd and painfully simplistic allegory this side of Avatar. The hunters are bad, the preservationists and nature lovers are good, and that’s that. The film’s message of preservation and non-intervention is honorable, but the straw-man villains are one-dimensional, at best, and the heroes’ attempts to keep the dinosaurs safe usually end up endangering others. It’s hard to care when the main characters’ actions (see: taking a baby Tyrannosaur from its parents, releasing caged dinosaurs in a highly populated area) are so irredeemably stupid.

But what about those set-pieces? Well, many of them are well-constructed, as Spielberg’s mastery of Hitchcockian suspense and Hawks-style adventure is as strong as ever. But when there’s little to care about around them, it’s easy to scrutinize them and see that these particular action scenes don’t really make a lot of sense. From a scene in which one character decides his fear of snakes is more noteworthy than the fact that there’s a dinosaur waiting to eat him to the King Kong-styled finale, most of these scenes seem to not have been worked out beyond how to do it. That final set-piece is particularly bothersome: a T-Rex makes its way to the city, but there’s no way for it to have killed the crew of the ship it was on when it was locked away (were there Raptors on board, or something? If so, why don’t we see them?). Why isn’t there a stronger response to it? Is the “we must preserve nature” allegory going to go that far? None of it makes sense, so it’s difficult to give a damn.

But at least everyone’s trying in that one. On to Crystal Skull: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is now fighting the Soviet Union. His enemies: Agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a woman obsessed with psychic warfare and extraterrestrials, and treacherous partner George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone). Everyone seeks the Crystal Skull, which, when returned to Akator (or El Dorado) will bring great fortune. On Indy’s side, “Mutt” Williams (Shia LaBoeuf), a greaser who later turns out to be Indy’s son (spoilers, I guess); Harold “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt), an old colleague gone mad; and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt’s mother and Indy’s old flame.

If the above plot summary didn’t really tell much, it’s because there’s little to tell. To the film’s credit, the opening sequence is quite strong. Indy is taken by Spalko and company to a government warehouse (where it turns out the Ark of the Covenant lies), and they find a mysterious mummified creature. Indy gets a handful of solid lines (“I like Ike!”), the friend’s betrayal is established, and the initial chase is strong. I’ll even defend the dumb-as-hell but still silly fun “nuke the fridge” sequence that gets so much hate amongst fans. These were never realistic movies, and that scene isn’t half as insidious as its detractors claim.

The real pain sets in as Indy goes back to his University: Denholm Elliott is dead and Sean Connery opted out, so Marcus Brody and Henry Jones, Sr.’s absences are explained away as “well, they died”. Jim Broadbent is instead brought in as a barely-there replacement, and there’s no strong relationship between him and Indy. He’s one of the many actors wasted, along with a mostly static Karen Allen and a rambling John Hurt. Blanchett gives a solid villainous turn, but she isn’t given much to work with. Ray Winstone, meanwhile…his character’s purpose beyond the opening sequence is still unclear. His motivations grow weaker and weaker, and after a while he’s a crushing bore. None of these characters are as memorable as the usual Indy/Spielberg characters, and the film’s momentum grinds to a halt as there’s hardly anyone to care about. Ford, for his part, looks as bored and tired as he has for the past fifteen years, and while some of his lines aren’t bad, his delivery is lazy.

This doesn’t begin to cover the majestic black hole of charisma that is Shia LaBouef, woefully miscast as a greaser (one with a rather stupid name, at that). LaBouef’s leading-man status is one of the most puzzling recent developments in the movie industry. He isn’t very good looking, he’s not tough, he stutters like it’s nobody’s business, and he doesn’t have much screen presence. Perhaps casting him as a weasel would be more appropriate; introducing him like Marlon Brando in The Wild One sure as hell isn’t. The best description ever given about Mr. LaBouef was one by my cousin and fellow film-fanatic Loren Greenblatt (whose blog, g-blatt.blogspot.com, you should check out): “He has all the sexual magnetism of a young Don Knotts.”

A bigger problem: Spielberg’s usual strength in dealing with father-son relationships backfires here. Indy left Marion before she had his son, and now he doesn’t know who Mutt is until she tell him. Why not have him know it’s his son from the beginning and struggle with that? Why not have him know Mutt’s mother is Marion and thus increase the stakes exponentially right away? It’s a major opportunity that Spielberg misses out on, leading to a saggy middle section with a low-stakes series of chases and fetch quests leading to an unsatisfactory ending. In the end, the Crystal Skull isn’t a very interesting macguffin, and there’s little real struggle to understand its significance. It’s the Sankara Stones all over again: no one understands it, and there’s no reason to care.

It could all be easier to swallow if it seemed Spielberg was even vaguely invested in what was going on, but aside from the strong opening, the set-pieces are well-constructed bores with little to no invention to them, the gags reek of “eh, good enough” when they’re anything but. Spielberg’s usually seamless blends of CGI and real effects fail him here: the digital effects stick out like a sore thumb. Everything feels low-energy, in part because Spielberg and Lucas are no longer paying tribute to something they loved as kids; they’re now paying tribute to their own creation.

The question remains for both of these sequels: why? What’s the point of returning to these characters and these stories. The Lost World has a slightly more compelling reason, in that Spielberg was coming off of Schindler’s List and felt it might be fun to do a light entertainment, and it gave him a chance to explore an environmental issue he cared about. That investment didn’t extend to the characters, however, and Spielberg’s decision to handle it as light entertainment failed to elevate it to the level of art, as Spielberg usually does without fail. Crystal Skull is even more unnecessary: this story was wrapped up just fine with Last Crusade. Spielberg even said he was done with Indiana Jones; Lucas wanted to return to it (as usual), and Spielberg and Ford more or less said “Eh, okay.”

Something to consider: Spielberg has made great advancements as an artist in the past two decades. He tells more ambitious stories and his worldview has darkened a bit. Even his blockbusters (Minority Report, War of the Worlds) and “light entertainments” (Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal) are spiked with a greater sense of loss and more thought-provoking themes than in the past. Here, there’s nothing beyond a series of set-pieces for a character who seemed finished long ago. This doesn’t have the same investment that The Adventures of Tintin will hopefully have, as that’s a story he’s wanted to tell for ages. These films were stories he’s already told, and better. He can’t tell the same stories over again. He’s grown up, and any attempt to relive the old, exactly as it was, will ring hollow.

This more or less wraps up this month's Director's Spotlight, save for reviews of Spielberg's upcoming The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, which will hopefully end the month on a less sour note. At the end of the day, this is one of my favorite filmmakers, a man whose works first made me love the movies and whose advancements inspire me to this day. I'll have a final rundown of his filmography in the upcoming weeks. Finally, for anyone who's interested, January's Director's Spotlight will focus on one of the greatest filmmakers of Old Hollywood: John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen). Schedule to follow.

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