Indiana Jones and the Vague, Indiscernible Disappointment

Here’s the funny thing about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which I just returned from watching at a midnight showing): Nothing in this movie is any more ludicrous than anything in any of the others. So why did it all feel so much more… fake?

Maybe “fake” isn’t the right word. “Sterile” fits better. Dispassionate. I can’t put my finger on it, but something about it all just felt like I was removed from the action on screen. “It felt like a movie I would have enjoyed more if it was made in 1980,” I said to my friends when it was over, but why? Yes, much had to do with the CG effects, but simply saying “it looked too CG” is starting to feel like a cop-out.

(Consider this your spoiler warning)

When Indy survived a nuclear blast by stashing himself inside a fridge (“Lead Lining,” the sticker helpfully informs us), was it really any more preposterous than when Indy escaped a plane on an inflatable raft? Or when he and his various cohorts are fighting off an army of Ruskies across various jeeps and trucks blazing through an Amazon rain forest, does it look any more “real” than, say, when Indy and his various cohorts raced in mine carts through the subterranean caverns of the temple of doom?

This is so much more awesome…

…Than this

Of course not, so why were the latter scenes so much more exhilarating? It’s a sincere question, because I’m really not quite sure of the answer. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a lack of a certain… tangibility. No, seeing a model tank that’s at 1/6 scale hurtle off a cliff is no more “realistic” than seeing a computer generated jeep hurtle down (three) waterfalls. But it is more real, at least in the sense that you can actually hold that tank, no matter how small it is.

This movie (and boy do I hate to say it) did indeed have something in common with the Star Wars prequels: a lot of it felt like I was watching human beings interacting not in the real world but in a world created around them. As with the Star Wars prequels, it gives the effect of watching a glossier version of those Command & Conquer blue screen cut-scenes.

Kane… LIVES!

But that’s not to say the movie sucked. I actually had a smile on my face through most of it — it’s just that vague feeling that it wasn’t as much fun as it should have been. And while the effect of modern technology was part of it, there’s also the simple fact that I’ve seen these sort of set-pieces three times already. “If you eat four pounds of sausage, how do you choose which pound tasted the best? Well, the first one, of course, and then there’s a steady drop-off of interest.”

So wrote Roger Ebert in his glowing review, but here’s something he wrote in the review of another Indy film: “If there is just a shade of disappointment after seeing this movie, it has to be because we will never again have the shock of this material seeming new. ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ now more than ever, seems a turning point in the cinema of escapist entertainment, and there was really no way Spielberg could make it new all over again.”

He also wrote in that review that, “Perhaps it is just as well that ‘Last Crusade’ will indeed be Indy’s last film. It would be too sad to see the series grow old and thin, like the James Bond movies.” Well, Casino Royale reinvigorated that franchise, and Spielberg has gotten away with one more Indy flick. Never say never again, you might say, but this time, it’s probably best for Lucas and Spielberg to quit while they’re still ahead.

(Which is to say: Please, Lord, do not let them create Mutt Williams and the Spin Off Series No One Wants.)

(Note: Originally written May, 2008)

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