Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and The Curse of the Thousand Screenwriters

I've always enjoyed the Indiana Jones franchise. I was born in 1984, so I experienced these movies through VHS tapes smuggled out of my parents' library and watched over and over again. I remember my brother screaming "Kali Ma! Kali Ma!" and trying to take my still-beating heart out of my chest in between rewindings of our favorite parts. Good times.

The movies seemed to get that on some basic level a young boy would like nothing more than to travel around the world killing scores of Nazis or insane Hindu cultists while securing historical artifacts and getting the girl. O.k. so it's every grown-up man's fantasy too. It got the fantasy so right that even when it was winking at us, the franchise still kept us glued to our seats with the promise of high action and even higher mysticism.

So what to make of the newest installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Meh. That's about all that I can summon up either way on the subject. There's some good stuff in the movie, there's some bad. But none of it is enough to move me either way. And what a sad statement that is considering this used to be one of the most exciting franchises out there.

So what went wrong? I have a strong feeling that the root of all the problems I have with this movie stem from one factor alone: the terrible wrath of the writers' strike. The huge plot holes, the tin-eared dialogue, the uninteresting characters, the rushed feel of the second act, the cut and paste mash-up of elements that never cohere into a solid whole; it seems like a rush job on an old reliable franchise. The classic Hollywood cash-grab.

The plot is largely beside the point. The gist is that the Communists want to get hold of an ancient alien artifact that will allow them to control the minds of the people of the Free World. Standing in their way is an aging Indiana Jones and Mutt Williams, played well by Shia LaBeouf.

Sounds good so far. But really all of this means one thing: Let's see Indy kick some Nazi, er, Commie ass! And we do see that, for the most part. Lots of Commie ass is kicked. Artifacts are retrieved, then lost, then regained again. Bullwhips are cracked. Exotic locations are shown and then shown getting blown up. The bad guy (er, girl) gets the deserved comeuppance. It's Indiana Jones baby!

Only it's not. Or at least it doesn't feel like it. The action scenes are too safe and marred by CGI. Plot devices are introduced, such as Indiana Jones being blacklisted by the FBI for being a communist sympathizer, and then forgotten. Entire plot points hinge on Indiana Jones or other characters doing things that anyone with half a brain would never do, or at least not do that way (such as Indiana Jones giving the Russians the Roswell alien, etc.) The mysterious artifact has immense and important magnetic properties one minute when it suits the plot and then is forgotten in the next scene. A character changes sides, or appears to change sides, three times during the movie and the only explanation for why seems to be because the writers couldn't figure out a way to keep the Commies on Indiana Jones's trail otherwise. And the final shot in the jungle left me feeling more tired than awed.

For lovers of the franchise there is a lot of winking in the film to past installments. But instead of being funny or interesting, most of the back looking only serves to make us want to watch the better movies.

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