Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Failure Films: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Oh, it just had to be aliens.

Once filming wrapped on 1989’s Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, all eyes fell upon the duo of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to see what they had planned next. There were five films planned in the series, and with such a wealth of other items around that could be ‘found’ by Indiana – Excalibur, Atlantis, El Dorado – it seemed that the pair would have no end of fun with their franchise. But instead, feeling like there was nothing worthwhile left for Indiana to find, Lucas closed down the project, leaving it a trilogy of films. And the general public, for the most part, was happy with that.

The Indiana Jones films follow the eponymous lead character; an archaeologist who is distinctly more ‘hands-on’ that most would be, in that he goes on missions to recover sacred artefacts before the Nazis can use them for their own evil purpose. The title role was filled with some flair by Harrison Ford, a former carpenter-turned-actor who had previously come to fame with Lucas while playing the role of Han Solo in the massively influential Star Wars trilogy. With Ford playing the role with weary disdain and a sardonic sense of humour, Indiana Jones became an iconic figure amongst film fans. With his battered old hat, leather jacket, and trusty bullwhip, Jones was beaten up repeatedly during his quests for the ark of the covenant, some magical hindu stones, and the holy grail respectively, which merely added to his appeal. He barely managed to survive, let alone win his quests, and people like a hero who takes a beating (see also: Bruce Willis, Bruce Campbell – when you think about it, Bruces seem to be quite game for anything, if you also take Forsyth into account). With the on-form Lucas producing the films, and Spielberg himself directing, the trio set themselves up to be quite the force in modern cinema.

So that all ended, as anything promising always does (Pushing Daisies), and the Jones franchise took a turn into TV – Lucas produced a “Young Indiana” show which was reasonably successful, while Ford went on to other films and Spielberg became one of the biggest directors in the business today. And almost twenty years went past without one mention of the fedora-totin’ hero. Until, that was, Spielberg’s son came up to his dad one day and asked 2dad, when will there be a new movie?” That was all that it required for Spielberg to decide to make a new film. Ford would doubtless be up for it, if the script was strong enough, so all that Spielberg needed was some kind of interesting item for Jones to look for.

And now, watching ‘Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull’, that turns out to be the single most glaring mistake that the duo made. The rumour was that Lucas had been pitching an Indiana Jones film with aliens in it ever since 1989, to the righteous scorn of both Spielberg and Ford. He’d also been commissioning writers to draft possible scripts for a long time, including Frank Darabont – who created one idea which was particularly important, and we’ll discuss later on. Ultimately, Lucas wanted an alien film, and he wasn’t going to grant anyone access to the film series unless Martians appeared in it somewhere. Spielberg finally agreed, and the item to be searched for became “the crystal skull”. It’s a genre which Spielberg has already done to death with E.T. and Close Encounters of The Third Kind, and Lucas himself should be kept as far away from aliens as possible, having managed to completely wreck his most beloved film series with some illogical and poorly-judged prequels. It’s fair to say that aliens were not a good choice for this film.

We’ve moved on nineteen years since the last time Indiana picked up his hat and rode off into the sunset, but Jones hasn’t changed. When we first see him in the movie he’s been captured by Soviets and taken to Roswell, where he is forced to show them the location of a mysterious chest which contains… well, surprise, an alien body. This is Roswell, after all. What did you expect? He makes an escape from the Soviets, naturally, and then for some reason finds himself on a bomb site. Steady, because this is the most famous part of the movie. With just seconds left before an atom bomb is dropped on the village he’s in, he climbs into a lead-lined fridge and is blown out of the stateliness, only to then step out of the fridge and wander off. This is a vital moment: “nuked the fridge” has become an internet term on the scale of “jumped the shark” recently, and is used to describe a moment when a film series gets mad. Now granted, the other three films weren’t too realistic – but there was a slight chance that the events could have happened. No matter how bizarre things got (and in the second film the main character was brainwashed after drinking magic potion), the original three all took the events seriously, accepting the silliness and yet trying to keep realism going on. This film does not do anything of the sort.

Spielberg wants to embrace the silly fun of his original movies, which is understandable, but when in the film we have something like this happen it takes everyone out of the experience. It’s at this point that everyone snaps out of the film for a minute, at least, and shakes their head in disbelief. There are several other moments where this happens, and it’s an unsatisfying experience. However, let’s first discuss the biggest development of the film: Shia LaBeouf. He is Indiana Jones’ son! Jones finds out this during one of many lukewarm set-pieces scattered throughout the movie, as he is trapped in quicksand alongside Karen Allen, who played the heroine in the first film. Incidentally, Allen doesn’t stop smiling once throughout the film and doesn’t seem anything like the feisty, angry young woman who appeared in Raiders. She is set dressing and doesn’t get the chance to do bloody anything at all. Shia, however, is the man. He is the focus. And he’s not bad! Granted he gets nothing to do at the end, either, apart from look on as Ford does stuff, but he does it well. The expectation was that he would prove to be hideous in the film, as in every other film he’s done, but instead he is witty, quiet, and makes the most of his few lines. His character, Mutt, is also quite well realised, which adds a lot to the movie both in terms of looks and in terms of character.

And that alone pushes him above most of the other characters. John Hurt is the most obviously underused, playing a professor who was turned mad by the crystal skulls of the title. Why he chose the role at all is a mystery, because all he does is repeat lines in a slightly confused voice. Karen Allen is negligible in the movie, and Ray Winstone is completely let down by the fate of his character. He is a double-crosser, and thus you would expect him to receive a hilariously nasty death. Instead he changes his mind about being a villain and it makes no sense. Why he even bothered to be a part of the Soviet party made no sense, but why he would then abandon them again is even less sense-filled. And then his final scene is done quickly and poorly, rendered in full CGI-crappiness. When was it that CGI stopped being a sign of good filmmaking, and became a crutch? Probably after The Phantom Menace was released. Anyway, back to the film, and the primary villain turns out to be psychic mentalist Cate Blanchett, utilising a brilliantly incoherent accent which enhances her role significantly more than her dialogue. She is given no cool moments of triumph, and does nothing but fail and glower as she follows Indiana and his team across the World. It’s a mighty shame, because the roots of a decent character are there, but they are all sown by Blanchett’s ability to elevate a script which does not deserve her talents. So really out of the cast, only Shia and Harrison Ford come out particularly well.

This is without taking into account the fact that the film is about aliens. Let’s finally get round to discussing this, shall we? The thing which Indiana is looking for turns out to be a crystal skull, which he finds in a burial chamber somewhere in South America. He was led there by cryptic messages left by Hurt’s character, which makes this film more a Dan Brown novel than an Indiana Jones film, but he eventually finds the thing and it’s not a human shape. Obviously it is alien in origin, which is fair enough. But at the end of the movie the entire cast stumble upon a chamber filled with crystal skeletons. It turns out that the skull isn’t a tribute to the aliens or some kind of technology, but instead is an actual skull. An actual alien skull. In the other films Indiana typically is faced with a test of character at the end; whether it be closing his eyes so he doesn’t see what’s in the ark of the covenant or overcoming brainwashing or letting the holy grail be destroyed. In this film his big escape at the end consists of running off when the aliens come back to life and standing from a distance to watch them take off. There’s no big heroic moment, no fun tricky riddles. He simply runs off, leaving Cate Blanchett with the aliens – and what happens to her is disappointing and lacklustre. It’s a sour taste at the end which ruins what was previously merely an average film. While the beginning is tacky, the middle shows all the promise of a proper film. It’s the writing that takes it down at the end, because they rush it.

Spielberg’s direction starts off in the same vein, being far too showy for its own good, but gradually settles down and stops detracting from the characters, but there are points where the CGI takes over and you can see how bored he is with the whole experience. He seems to be going through the motions somewhat with his work, and I take great pleasure in putting all the blame at the doorstep of George Lucas. All the film had to do was be reasonable, and the public would have accepted it. Instead he’s tried to turn it into a George Lucas production and he’s essentially killed off a lot of the charm that the series was associated with. It’s shambolic, when you get down to it. He’s dragged down a good director and excellent cast into the mud.

Or should that be quicksand?

Verdict: Pass..... sort of.

Next Month's Failure Film: HOT ROD!


  1. "distinctly more ‘hands-on’ that most would be, in that he goes on missions to recover sacred artefacts before the Nazis can use them for their own evil purpose"

    how about his 'hands-on-ness' with every women he meets????

  2. This was one of those films where I walked away kind of liking it, but every time I thought of something in the movie I'd like it less and less. It's like a sleeper bomb.