Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: David Koepp; story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson; based on Characters by George Lucas
Cinematographer: Janusz Kamiński
Producer: Frank Marshall
by Jon Cvack
I had put on this film immediately after I finished The Last Crusade ('89). I hadn’t seen TLC in nearly a decade, and the film was even better than I remembered, epitomizing Spielberg’s ability to converge craft of highest order with popular storytelling. Having always heard Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was terrible and made close to zero sense, I took my time getting to this one; not wanting to tarnish the first trilogy. But with TLC giving me hope that Spielberg’s prowess would at least provide some mildly entertaining sequences, I figured I’d put this on and give it go. What I experienced was one of the most heartbreaking moments I’ve experienced with cinema - as this is not just Spielberg’s worst film, but one of the worst sequels ever made, making Lucas’ Eps. I-III feel like Lord of the Rings. This film serves as the antithesis of what Spielberg stands for - relying on a barrage of computer graphics for extraordinarily illogical sequences, and obvious throwback elements to help try and relieve these problems. While with the original trilogy we dealt with magic and religion, this round we’re introduced to aliens, in which Spielberg forfeits any insight into any interesting questions whatsoever in order to provide us with a gaudy CGI fest that only leaves you more upset for how much better Spielberg is when he abandons the practice.
The story follows a Golden Yeared Indiana Jones, whose hair has gone gray, and whose aging body has forced him to slow down. We open in the middle of the desert near Area 51 as a caravan of Russian spies dress as American soldiers in order to invade a warehouse where a strongly magnetized box exists. It was from nearly the opening shot, when we see the two actual American soldiers ask the Soviet spies to forfeit their weapons, when Spielberg cuts to a shot of the commanding officer who then dips to a knee, revealing the half dozen spies with guns behind them, opening fire, as though the American soldiers wouldn’t have seen the strange formation these soldiers were taking while getting out of the cars. I always resent this type of logical forfeiture in order to try and accomplish a cool shot, which it isn’t is. As happens when you watch enough movies for a long enough time, I knew I was in for the long haul on this one.
Indy is then revealed and so is the evil Irina Spaiko (Cate Blanchett) who’s one of the most boring villains ever created, adopting the stolid Russian personality placed within Mia Wallace’s body. I can’t tell you one unique thing Irina does or says, and given what I mentioned in my TLC essay, in which a fucking tank driver was able to become a memorable character, I couldn’t help getting annoyed and fast. Still, I figured maybe this was a slow burn and Spielberg would surprise us. We then enter the warehouse, using gunpowder to try and find a heavily magnetized package, where they throw it up into the air and follow the direction it drifts toward. Eventually they find the box, which contains an alien corpse, and then Indiana attempts to escape and we get our first taste of Spielberg’s dependence on CGI rather than expanding on what he has demonstrably done with highest quality three times before.
Let me pause to state that the primary problem with CGI is that, and the reason I would rather watch old films than many of these VFX-diarrhea machines is because I know that it’s not real. I know that Irina is not really driving a jeep through this warehouse that suddenly is about two miles long, even though it’s supposed to be the warehouse from The Temple of Doom. Time and again we cut to these great wide shots, showing the tens of thousands of boxes, as the car speeds the aisle, while Indiana Jones literally sprints across narrow rafters up across the ceiling, using his whip to swing down onto Irina, who’s still driving. None of this is real. It doesn’t look real, it doesn’t feel real. It’s like a video game or cartoon, in which case I rather just pick up a video game or watch an animated film. I honestly cannot comprehend how filmmakers today still refuse to understand that part of the spectacle for action-adventure films - and what makes them so effective - is that what we’re seeing looks as though it’s actually happening. Time and again, all we get is as much CGI as they can cram into each and every shot, rendering the whole thing completely unbelievable.
Case in point is The Last Crusade, where not once in the entire film was I pulled out because something didn’t look real - with maybe the exception of the blimp’s establishing shot, which looked more like a matte painting and not trying to be the coolest, most amazing complex shot of a blimp ever possibly conceived! The story transports you because we’re seeing Harrison Ford actually hanging from a gun turret cutting into a mountain, or his face being pushed into a tire tread, or an actual tank - even if a model - actually falling down the mountain. There is no magic to seeing an ornate CGI shot. I don’t imagine what the crew must have done to achieve it, or what the actor risked to perform it, or how the director decided to capture it. I just see a bunch of people in a room on their computers working complex software.
BELOW: Somehow driving unimpeded through the middle of a jungle, and it only gets worse
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