Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jaded Eye

Watching the new Indiana Jones movie gave me severe diarrhea. Actually, the two events are most likely unrelated, but I wanted to take a cue from the pharmaceutical business and warn of any potential side effects: a small but not insignificant group of viewers reported spending the 15 hours following the movie being frequently and painfully reminded that man lives entirely at the mercy of his gastrointestinal tract.

As for the movie itself: I liked it a lot. I thought it was very much in the spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the goofiness of Temple of Doom and the self-awareness of The Last Crusade.

I went in almost completely unspoiled, knowing nothing except the basic cast and roughly when it was set. I didn’t have high expectations, and I wasn’t going in looking for flaws, either. I’d recommend everybody do the same.

So don’t bother reading the rest of this until you’ve seen it (and you know you will).

What most surprised me about the movie was how frequently it was able to surprise me. You could make a checklist of everything you need to see in an Indiana Jones movie, and this movie has each one. Still, it managed not to play like checking items off a list; there was enough variation and cleverness and choreography of the individual elements that I felt like I was watching something new.

The two big chase sequences — in the diner and through the rest of the college town, and the later car chase through the jungle — were both lifted right out of the Indiana Jones playbook. But I was impressed by how they kept throwing on new twists and making them better than anything I’d seen before. The jungle chase in particular tops the best action sequences from Jurassic Park (and in case that sounds like faint praise, I still say that Jurassic Park is a not-very-good movie that happens to have some of the best action sequences ever filmed). And the whole bit culminating in the rocket sled and the atomic bomb test was a great way to push the movie forward into the late 50s.

There’s a steady stream of look-how-old-everybody-is humor, and I’ve got to admit that a few of the scenes with Indy cracking a whip or jumping on someone just made me sad to watch, but it all managed to stay just on the safe side of self-parody. Shia LeBeouf has the thankless job of being the Cousin Oliver of the Indiana Jones franchise, but they cleverly avoided Short Roundism by setting up his character as a poseur, to let you know everyone’s in on the joke. He starts as a parody of the greasers and bikers in The Wild One (and I guess American Graffiti, for that matter), but eventually shows a little more depth.

Of course, character depth isn’t this movie’s strength. None of the Indiana Jones movies have been marvels of character development, really, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is probably the worst at it. Everyone kind of floats through the movie, character and motivation left vague and muddled. The closest the movie comes to a memorable character is Cate Blanchett’s, a Soviet dominatrix with psychic powers and swordfighting skills! But when you consider how little she actually does in the movie, and compare that to how awesome her character could have been, it’s disappointing.

That pretty much sums up the biggest problem with the movie: it feels pretty shallow, and you can’t help but think how much more could’ve been done with this material. It’s Indiana Jones in the 50s with Area 51 and Roswell and Los Alamos and Rocket Sleds and Motorcycles and El Dorado and Aliens and Psychic Powers and Mayan Temples and Secret Warehouses and a Soviet Dominatrix! But in the end, it’s a bunch of individual scenes that are pretty cool on their own, but don’t add up to something epic. Plenty entertaining, and a very good action movie, but definitely the end of a franchise and not as earth-shattering as the beginning of a new one.

And since I couldn’t completely turn off my jaded obsessive internet fan brain, I do have a few other gripes:

  • I kept wanting the hot rod full of teenagers at the beginning to do something, anything. By the time the opening credits ended, I’d already invented a dozen possible storylines, only to see the car drive away after doing nothing.
  • Would a neighborhood built for an atomic bomb test have electricity and a TV running non-stop?
  • It annoyed me that Harrison Ford’s name went before the title of the movie in the opening credits.
  • As much as they talked about doing everything possible without CGI, there were an awful lot of effects shots, many of the glaringly obvious. Especially the monkeys.
  • I’m still on the fence about the vine-swinging and monkeys. And the prairie dogs.
  • Weird natives coming out of the walls in a temple: awesome. But again, they stopped at the neat image and didn’t bother to do anything with them.
  • The dialogue at the end of the movie, before the wedding, was just plain cringe-inducing.

So it’s not even my favorite movie of the summer (that’d be Iron Man), and in terms of the Indiana Jones movies, it’s running neck and neck with The Last Crusade. Anyone looking for a life-changing cinematic experience like the first time seeing Raiders is going to be disappointed. And anyone looking to be disappointed is going to be disappointed as well.

When I see the mushroom clouds of geekrage erupting all over the internet, I’m a little tempted to feel sympathy for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, since this movie is clearly presented in the same spirit as Raiders of the Lost Ark: a campy, pulpy, action-heavy homage to older action movies. But then I remember how much more money they have than I ever will, and it goes away. There’s got to be some comparison to Oppenheimer there: Spielberg and Lucas basically created the obsessive internet geek by creating the Summer Blockbuster, and now they’re having to live with the repercussions. “Now I am become Dork, the destroyer of words.”