Wild horses couldn’t keep moviegoers from the theaters on this, the Memorial Day opening of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull . But I’ll bet a lot of people come away grumbling. How can the film possibly satisfy nearly twenty years of salivating fan expectations?
The answer is that it can’t, and I’m a little worried about the film’s long term prospects. Audiences have been primed, by the first three films in the series, to expect breakneck action sequences and knife-to-the-throat suspense. But the first two action scenes in Crystal Skull , a shootout in a warehouse and a motorcycle chase, are so limp, you might find yourself waiting for the movie to start. Only a much later sequence, involving amphibious vehicles, has a touch of the old kinetic magic.
Partly, this is due to the fact that the other films contained dazzling, dangerous, real stunt work. In the back of our minds, we know that in this age of computer graphics, the stunts in Crystal Skull were enacted in a warehouse painted green, where if you fall you’ll land on foam, not stone. And Harrison Ford’s stunt double, so much lither than the 65-year-old actor, has had his face digitally shadowed. It feels like a cheat.
But what if I asked you to change your expectations a bit? The film’s director, Stephen Spielberg, is not off his game, he’s just changed the way the game is played. An older, wiser, crustier, seen-it-all-and-then-some Indy requires a different kind of movie. There’s some melancholy here, the suggestion that Indy has made some wrong choices in his life and is living with regret. There’s one image in particular that’s almost haunted. Indy stands on a cliff, in silhouette, as a mushroom cloud billows on the horizon. This could have been played for a laugh, but there’s something strangely compelling about it. The image would look great in a frame, hanging on a wall of the Smithsonian.
A large part of the change in tone is due to Janusz Kaminsky, Spielberg’s regular director of photography since Schindler’s List . By way of example, illustrating how the look of Spielberg’s film has changed, compare the first and second Jurassic Park films. The first is a thrill machine, Jaws redux, filled with bright colors and sharp lines that leave nothing to the imagination. The second film, shot by Kaminsky, is so much darker it’s almost jarring. The jungle becomes a truly mysterious and dangerous place where your imagination can get the better of you.
And that’s true of Crystal Skull as well. The ruins in the film are actually scary. A little artificial town at ground zero, peopled by mannequins, gets under your skin. Not what you expected from an Indiana Jones movie? Well, that’s a good thing. Remember how hated Temple of Doom was back in its day; it was dark and strange, and so much more interesting than The Last Crusade , basically a retread of Raiders . Temple of Doom has been vindicated by time, and so, too, will be The Crystal Skull .
And what of the story, finally settled on after years of wrangling between George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, and Harrison Ford? It takes place in a 1950s played for menace. Godless Russians are in for godless Nazis, headed by Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko, with more than a hint of the dominatrix about her. The MacGuffin has changed from quasi-religiosity to little green men. Karen Allen makes a welcome return as Marian Ravenwood, Indy’s old flame from Raiders ; the film makes the mistake of not bringing her in early enough. In addition, a couple of secondary characters could easily have gotten the axe, leaving more time for Indy and Marian.
You might not like the story, but you have to hand it to them: the film’s makers have really tickled themselves pink. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and seeing Dr. Jones put on the fedora again feels like a surprise, and most welcome, gift. Just keep an eye on those expectations.