Sunday, May 25, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I’ll be curious to see how the future treats Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Coming out of The Matrix: Reloaded or Revenge of the Sith, I think most people were pretty charged and liking what they saw. However, they soon got cut down repeatedly on the internet, and the consensus narrative became these movies were bad. That’s a valid opinion, but I think it says more about peoples’ expectations than the movies themselves, and the inability to live up to an idealized original. The new Indy film isn’t perfect, but I think it has the same flaws and same strengths as the originals, and was an incredibly satisfying experience on the whole.

I loved the first half hour and the last forty-five minutes or so of the film, and felt that the middle dragged a little bit. One of the major reasons for this is that Cate Blanchett totally killed it in her role as Irina Spalko. Indy films have never been known for their villains, there’s guy with the black hat from Raiders, guy who rips out hearts in Temple, not exactly memorable characters. Irina isn’t exactly a character, she’s a presence. By that, I mean it feels like she came right out the pure essence of B movie, a villain who doesn’t have any particular emotional complexity, she wants what she wants and is going to do whatever she needs to do to get it, while at the same time, our hero is going to do whatever he can to stop her.

Watching this performance a couple of days after rewatching her work in I’m Not There makes a pretty strong case for her being the best actress of her generation. The range is astonishing, and as Lucas’s recent Star Wars prequels show, it’s not easy to do this kind of acting, to find that mix of fun craziness and some kind of emotional believability. It’s easy to act in quotations, to reduce the work to some kind of pastiche, it’s harder to play these absurd situations totally straight, and yet not overly serious. She pulls it off, and most notably, she’s just a lot of fun to watch, she owns the screen whenever she’s on, and gives this movie something that none of the others have had.

Everyone else was pretty solid as well. Harrison Ford made it believable that Indy could still do these things, it was great to see him acting in a good movie again, not the kind of schlock he’s been in recently. He’s not the world’s most versatile actor, but he does what he does better than anyone else out there, and his mix of charm, humor and action ability was on full display here.

For me, the part of the film that really lingered was the sequence inside the temple UFO at the end. If you’ve been reading for a while, you probably know of my love for scenes where characters confront universal forces, and interact with other, higher dimensions. But, I was not expecting to see one in this film. I knew aliens would be involved, but I wasn’t expecting the metaphysical experience to follow, the spinning aliens coalescing into one, or the great moment where Irina comes face to face with an alien, prompting her mind explode. It’s definitely a throwback to the classic faces melting in the ark scene from Raiders, but I think that appropriation says a lot about the film’s implicit point.

The previous movies have been about characters coming into contact with relics of major religions. People can accept the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail would have this power because we’re culturally conditioned to believe in magic in the past, but not the present. Much of America believes that a man parted the red sea, that a man came back from the dead, but if you said it happened today, they would never believe. In a lot of ways, aliens became a modern mythology, not unlike gods of the past. They exist outside our world, leaving no proof of their existence, but still dominating our dreams, our cultural idea of the other.

On top of this, we’ve got the classic idea that aliens were the ones who originally brought life to Earth, that aliens were the gods the ancients worshipped. So, there’s a basis in past mythology, but really, what the end of the film does is raise a b-movie concept to the level of religious experience. The implicit message is that the religion of today is movies, it’s movies that ignite our dreams and form our view of the universe, particularly of God, of what’s beyond us. It’s made quite literal when the classic flying saucer emerges from the ashes of the temple, the gods of the past giving way to our current perception of god.

So, if we’re to view aliens as the gods of today, wouldn’t that make Indiana Jones the Odysseus of the present? He’s a cultural icon, with his own totems and symbolic representation. Lucas has talked a lot about creating his own mythology with Star Wars, and that’s what they’re exploring here, the intersection of pop mythology and religious tradition.

I really loved that, and I think it’s a surprisingly deep set of ideas to explore in a film like this. Aside from the interesting philosophical stuff with the aliens, the whole chase through the jungle sequence is fantastic. Yes, the monkey bit is goofy, but it feels right in context. I always hate reviews that say you have to just accept something what it is, but in this case, that kind of feels right. The movie exists in a world where logic is slightly removed from our own, you can either enjoy it, or nitpick it. Here, it’s not like you have to turn your brain off to enjoy the film, it just hits a different part of the brain.

I’ll sometimes get into debates with people about why I don’t enjoy “mainstream” movies, why I can’t get into an Adam Sandler comedy or something like that. The problem is most so called ‘fun’ movies aren’t fun at all, they have no intelligence or layers, and most of all, they’re not actually fun. People use dumb as a synonym for fun, the movies I find fun are like this one, intelligent enough, and expansive in their pop scope. There’s some ideas mixed in with some really well executed set pieces. I’d love it if more ‘mainstream’ movies were as good as this one. I’ve got issues with the weird, soft look of the film and some of the dragging in the film’s center, but on the whole, it’s a great success.


Mauricio said...

I loved it too. The texture achieved by mixing the mithology of the fantastic of the 40's with the 50's shows the extreme talent of Spielberg. The nuclear blast is one of the most achieved moments in his filmography: interesting,funny, absurd, haunting, strange, all at the same time. I think the guys that write and draw Planetary must be envious of the movie. More or less, it's the same idea... but better.

Patrick said...

I was definitely feeling the Planetary vibe too. I wish that series would end already so I can catch up and read the last few issues.

Patrick C said...

Re: Planetary
Warren Ellis has said the final script is done, just waiting for John Cassaday's schedule to clear up so he can draw it.

I really enjoyed the movie also. I left it thinking I liked it but didn't love it, but as I thought about it over the next couple of days I liked it more and more.

I could have done without the CGI groundhogs at the beginning though.