Film: Steven Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

1989.

Summer. Maine.

We are in the process of tearing down an ancient red tin shed in the backyard and building a new wooden one in its place. I spend my evenings running barefoot in the cooling grass, sweaty and grungy and entirely happy with my place in the universe. I am ten years old.

There came a late morning – surely a Saturday, since my father was home from work – with the sun streaming through the kitchen window, when the natural order of my cosmos took a sudden turn for the monumental. My father suggested we go see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Not for my birthday, not in return for mowing the lawn (my brother was still burdened with that one), but simply because the man must have suspected I would be in awe. Even at that age, I would pore over the TV Week to see what movies would be playing on Cinemax or TBS, and what time, so that I could pop a tape in the VCR and record whatever segment of whatever movie I couldn’t catch in person, for whatever reason. Jaws was a favorite. So was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, of which I had the last twenty minutes on a tape that regularly saw the wheels of the VCR early Saturday mornings – often before sunrise – while I ate a bowl of sugar with Golden Grahams or Shredded Wheat.

This may have been my third or fourth movie seen in a theater in my life, after Return of the Jedi, ET, Flight of the Navigator, and possibly one other. We weren’t a theatergoing family; I think the next one I saw was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, for my birthday in 1991; the intervening two years were a long boil on the stew of my imagination, in which moments from that summer 1989 event simmered and fermented and solidified into cardinal benchmarks of my moviegoing sensibilities. The rats. The tank chase. Books aflame. Rapid decomposition. That sweet, sweet Alison Doody.

It’s fair to say, with respect and deference to the influence of, say, Tarkovsky, Tarr, and Herzog, that outside of the sight of a woman jerked violently back and forth by her legs through the calm evening waters off Amity Island, no other film provided such a lasting basis for me as a filmmaker and a film viewer. Two years ago I saw Last Crusade at the Ziegfeld, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the most unadulteratedly entertaining films Spielberg’s made, full of delightfully kinetic action setpieces, fantastic bickering between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, and intoxicating sights such as the canyons of the American West and Petra. And a veritable cornerstone of my burgeoning sexuality in the form of sweet, sweet Alison Doody.

It is with a sense of deep betrayal and personal affront that I report that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has taken pornographically blunt advantage of my youthful memories, cashing them in for a quick, cheap fuck on a warehouse floor against a green screen, with no thought toward romance or protection. I cringe for all of the many single-digit-year-olds slurping sodas and crinkling candy bags in the theater around me, who, if they remember the movie at all tomorrow, will have no idea that they have been violated already, their moviegoing identities badly skewed before they’re self-aware enough to notice, for somewhere down the road they will find themselves critiquing other films against the formative influence of this lazy, wretched half-baked ratatouille of pilfered joy.

Lazy is the key word. Not long ago, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg gave a joint interview in which Lucas warned that audiences would reject the film, and Spielberg denied as much. This speaks volumes, since Lucas is given story credit, and the movie’s problems start there. The stuff that made the Indiana Jones films so enthralling in the past is almost entirely absent here: deft dialogue (delivered swiftly), expedient character development amid and between action sequences brimming with wit, muscle, and fluid grace. Lucas mentioned the audience rejection of his recent Star Wars films as evidence of the certain failure of Crystal Skull, but stops short of suggesting what twenty minutes of this movie make abundantly clear: that the problem is Lucas, and his inability to fashion any communicative cinematic element, such as interesting action or insightful interactions among characters. He’s also got an astounding way with dialogue in those films, and has evidently schooled screenwriter David Koepp here with truly astounding results.

Ineptitude seems infectious, or perhaps the input of too many executive-level folks in the development stages proved too diverse to coalesce; either way, Crystal Skull holds together about as tightly as a gob of wood chips, and with far less, I don’t know, grace. That word keeps coming to me in describing the Indiana Jones films, because at their best, they’re remarkably graceful in pace, plotting, and cinematic fluidity, cutting like butter and zipping along with high-end invisible grease. The impetus to tackle not only Indiana Jones as an older man, but also his Brando-son, and Marion, and John Hurt – I’m still not sure what he’s all about – and Ray Winstone – just, come now, STOP already – and THEN the plot (I think it’s about aliens. At some level) overwhelms any hope for cohesion to the degree Spielberg has attained in the past with at least two of the three previous films. Oh, and let us not discuss Cate Blanchett here. Let us forget we saw her in it. Goddesses shouldn’t be crucified like criminals. Forgiveness implies judgment, and that’s for other people.

Here, there is one thing worth admiring, in the same way one can admire a turkey sandwich or modern air travel. For the first time since possibly Schindler’s List, Spielberg has taken his Aderol and not tried to infuse every frame with so much Steviepants. Actually, the graphic calmness of this movie is so out of character with contemporary Spielberg that I’m filled with enormous doubt that he actually directed the thing. He may want to consider taking me up on my doubt. Not that he should return to the chaotic perfectionism that ruined Munich. I just think maybe he was bored to tears this time around. Like everyone else, it seems.

You know, I didn’t need this. Three solid movies worked fine – better than fine, really; dramatically fine, even classically fine. Indiana Jones didn’t need to achieve military rank or graduate away from thugees and Nazis. Marcus Brody didn’t have to die, and Marion Ravenwood never had to come walking back onto my screen again. It’s not because I don’t care, guys, it’s just that I own you now, and you don’t get to change.

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