Jun 16, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

“What a drag it is getting old.” Yes, Mick, it is. Cultural icons are supposed to be immune from old age. But actors, even action heroes like Harrison Ford, are not. And that has a ripple effect through this entire movie.

Try as he might, Ford can’t convincingly do the moves of Indy in his prime. And no amount of editing or movie slight of hand can hide it. So the story mechanics, and this genre has a lot of them, show through in glaring detail.

Perhaps as a compensation, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has gone slapstick. A lot of the action scenes look like the Keystone Cops. As a comic book action serial, the Indiana Jones movies have always walked the fine line between serious action – where death is believable – and comic action – where the audience can come along on the joyride. But when you go too far into the comical, and particularly slapstick, you run into the problem of the later Matrix films. The first Matrix was man-on-man conflict where the fights seemed real and there was some suspense about whether the hero would win. The later Matrix films were one against a hundred, so the punches looked like cartoons and there was never any doubt of victory.

Screenwriter David Koepp, a seasoned pro, tries to “take the stink off” the problem by admitting Indy’s age up front. He also tries to make the story personal, similar to the successful strategy used in the Batman series (Batman Begins) and the James Bond series (Casino Royale). Koepp brings back Marian and introduces a young sidekick whose Brando motorcycle uniform is suddenly hip again compared to 40s Indy. But it doesn’t work. Indy is the classic rogue action hero, and trying to turn him into a family man just made me cringe.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull also suffers from a major structural flaw in the script, a weak opponent. The action-fantasy form has a clear divide between those films with a comical opponent – which are usually failures – and those that have a believably deadly opponent – which are usually a success. Here we have a Soviet death mistress, played by Cate Blanchett, who looks like she’s straight out of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Blanchett’s voice and hair make her such a dead ringer for Natasha, I was waiting for Boris to show up and at least make the movie funny. But alas he never came.

Finally Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull dies from no plot. In the Action Class, I explain why this is always a big problem in the action form. Most screenwriters don’t know that action is not the same as plot, and that if not handled properly, action will kill your plot. This is especially true in James Bond-like action stories in which an unbeatable hero is challenged in a series of all-out attacks. The story becomes a series of stunts, of action set pieces, each the same beat with a different skin. In short, no plot.

Not that any of this has hurt the box office. But you only have to look at the second Pirates of the Caribbean to know that the script is not the only source of a film’s success, or even the major one. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull shows us once again George Lucas’s ability to create a cultural icon that can grab the imagination of the world.

John Truby