Heads up: This is the official, Conway's Corner obligatory Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull review. Feel free to skip it if you've had enough Indiana Jones talk over the Memorial Day weekend. If you're interested in my take on the film (and why would you be? If you're a reader of this blog, you've probably already seen it), then read on.
Naturally, like many guys my age who grew up reading comics and can kinda-sorta remember old time movie serials from watching them on Fifties television, I'm a huge Indiana Jones fan. And like many Indiana Jones fans (I think this is true), I experienced a gradual sense of deflation over the first three movies, from balls-out excitement watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, to excitement tempered by distaste watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, to finally a grudging excitement and a ho-hum sense of lowered-expectations satisfaction from watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (It's not that Last Crusade was a disappointment, by any means; it's just that, the best that could be said for it, was that it wasn't a disappointment. It was, in a word, okay. It hit the right beats, it didn't go too far overboard, and it wasn't an embarrassment to enjoy. But still and all, truth to tell, it was no great shakes. Fun, yes, but not particularly memorable. Except for one or two lines by Henry Jones, Senior.)
And now we come to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
I enjoyed it, but honestly, I had to work at it. On at least three separate occasions, the filmmakers (this is one of those cases when the plural really does apply; this is a film by both Spielberg and Lucas, with all the good and bad that implies) threw me out of the movie and made me aware I was watching something that bore no resemblance whatsoever to reality. Yes, I know, any movie that involves a two-fisted archaeologist, a female commie sword-fighting psychic, and secret alien remains hidden in a magnetic box at Area 52, bears little resemblance to what we normally refer to as the "real world." But none of that is beyond the realm of acceptable "fantasy reality;" i.e.: if you accept the basic situation -- we're in an action movie about commies pursuing the mystery of what happened in Roswell in 1947 or whenever, and they're opposed by an over-the-hill archaeologist who's already had some pretty extreme adventures -- then you won't have a problem accepting any of the foregoing.
But you might have a problem with how Indiana Jones survives being trapped at a nuclear test site in Nevada; or how Mutt Williams catches up to a pair of speeding army vehicles in a South American jungle; or how the filmmakers chose a lame circular escape attempt to provide an opportunity for the Big No-Surprise Reveal concerning the identity of Mutt's long-dead dad. (Uh, guess what, it's Indiana.)
Look, I'm willing to accept that a 65-year old man can fight like a 30-year old. (Fitness is relative; a 65-year old Joe Frazier could easily cream most 30-year old non-athletes.) I'm willing to believe the U.S. government kept a secret stash of alien artifacts in a warehouse in Nevada in the 1950s. (It's outlandish but there's nothing to say it couldn't have happened and we just never found out about it.) I'm even willing to believe Indiana Jones dumped Miriam Ravenwood at the altar and it never came up in conversation with his dad a few years later, despite the fact this was the daughter of one of his father's best friends.
However. I am not willing to believe a human being can survive being blown up by an atomic bomb just by hiding in a conveniently lead-lined refrigerator. I am really not willing to believe said human would survive being hurled several miles through the air inside said lead-lined refrigerator. Then get out and still have his hat.
I mean, come on.
There's nothing this flat-out unbelievable in Raiders of the Lost Ark. (The closest you get is the idea that Indy hid out on the superstructure of a German U-Boat while it crossed the Mediterranean; lucky for him it never submerged.) There's nothing this unbelievable in Temple of Doom (okay, maybe it's a stretch Indy and his pals survive falling from a plane by means of an inflatable raft; but you can justify it because we don't really know how far they fell, or at what angle they hit, or how deep the snow is they landed on, etc.). And unless I'm forgetting something, there's nothing this out-of-reality in Lost Crusade.
But wait, you're saying, what about all the fantastic magical stuff that happens in these movies -- the Ark opens up and releases killer demons; an Indian mystic pulls the living heart out of a human sacrifice (and forgets to do it to the hero's girl friend); Henry Jones, Sr., survives a fatal gunshot wound thanks to the healing properties of the Holy Grail. Aren't those things unbelievable? Aren't they outside the boundaries of reality?
Sure they are; but they're the MacGuffins of these films -- the plot devices that motor the rest of the story. Whether they're inherently fantastic or not doesn't matter. They are, in effect, the gimmies of these movies. By the time they arrive we've suspended our disbelief. Because, up till then, everything else we've seen has been within the bounds, more or less, of commonly accepted reality.
But, come on -- Mutt Williams playing Tarzan with a troop of monkeys? Swinging from tree to tree and doing it fast enough to catch up with a speeding truck? Really? Really? (By contrast, I don't find it unbelievable that Mutt gets in a sword-fight with the commie psychic; it's been established that he fenced, and it's established that she fences; and while it's a stretch, it's at least humanly possible that by coincidence, these two people would find themselves in opposition, and both end up with swords. Not likely, sure; just possible.)
And, please, how's this for a limping plot device: Indy and his people escape from the bad guys and get separated from each other just long enough for Miriam to tell Indiana he's Mutt's father, and then, as soon as Indy knows the truth but before it leads to any awkward conversation, they're captured again and the plot is back on track. How incredibly convenient for the filmmakers. How utterly predictable. Nothing is accomplished by the failed escape attempt except the revelation Indiana is Mutt's father. It's a total movie moment and it completely took me out of the "reality" of the story.
To me, these three things -- refrigerator escape, Tarzan moment, circular escape attempt -- are signs the filmmakers did not take their responsibility to the audience seriously. They didn't just push the bounds of believable; they knocked those bounds over and trampled them underfoot. I almost felt like they were laughing at us: "Sure," they seem to be saying, "you may take this stuff seriously, but we sure don't. How dumb is this material, anyway? Isn't it ridiculous? Aren't you ridiculous for wanting to suspend your disbelief? Don't think so? Then watch this!"
Anyway... as I said above, I did enjoy the movie, but I had to work at it. I had to suspend my suspension of disbelief. Which is a shame, because it didn't have to be that way. The atomic bomb sequence is superfluous -- you could just as easily cut from the rocket sled escape to Indy in FBI custody; Mutt could've found another way to catch up with the bad guys; and clever script-writing could have given us a lovely moment between Miriam and Indiana as the truth of Mutt's heritage slips out -- maybe providing some insight into why she kept it from Indy for so long, and how he feels about the sudden knowledge that the world still holds some surprises for the man in the battered brown hat.