MY SUMMER VACATION IN THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
AH, FUCK IT, LET’S GET THIS OUT IN THE OPEN: I LIKED INDIANA JONES AND THE LEGEND OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS, AND I DON’T REALLY UNDERSTAND WHAT EVERYBODY IS GRIPING ABOUT
Last July this thing happened called TRANSFORMERS. It was one of the biggest movies of that summer, but I thought it was a terrible one. My main problems were the characters, the story, the comedy, the action sequences, and (this is a first for me) especially the design of the characters. The CGI characters were so overcomplicated and indistinguishable from each other that they actually made Michael Bay’s notorious camera placement and editing beside the point, because even if it was two robots in front of a stationary camera in one continuous shot you still might not have any clue which one is which, what they’re doing or which direction they’re facing. That’s actually the biggest problem of many big problems in the movie and I’m pretty sure it’s a cinematic first – using the latest technology, Michael Bay invented a completely new way for a movie to suck. So I figured it was a bad, bad movie.
The internet begged to differ. As the writer of the only harshly negative TRANSFORMERS review on The Ain’t It Cool News I got my biggest and angriest talkback ever. They told me I went in expecting Hamlet or SCHINDLER’S LIST, this isn’t supposed to win Oscars (good, because it didn’t, not even for special effects) and what do I expect, it’s a big summer popcorn movie, it’s just supposed to have some explosions in parts, only some kind of snob would go in holding it to some type of standard of quality, fuck you you cocksucking faggot bitch, etc.
This was upsetting to me because actually I’m not a snob, I think you have me confused with somebody else. I’m Vern – remember, I wrote that book about Steven Seagal movies. I’m the dude who would seriously consider busting Wesley Snipes out of the joint if promised a greenlight for BLADE 4. I’m way more interested in PREDATOR than GONE WITH THE WIND. Summer popcorn movies and explosions are important to me and I couldn’t figure out why everybody had agreed on this fake story about how summer movies are supposed to suck and you have to like them no matter what and only an asshole doesn’t. I mean couldn’t you use that same argument for BATMAN AND ROBIN or LEAGUE OF THE EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN or etc.? Why aren’t you a snob for not liking those ones? Check your brain at the door, dude! Fun! Popcorn!
And more importantly, haven’t you guys seen GREAT summer movies before, some of them directed by the very individual who besmirched his name by producing TRANSFORMERS? I mean you guys know the first summer event movie was JAWS, right? And you’re telling me they’re not supposed to be good? Then why the fuck wasn’t Spielberg thrown out of Hollywood for making JAWS? You’d think he’d have to be because JAWS is fucking good!
That’s what kept spinning in my head. Number 1, how did he go from JAWS to this shit? Number 2, have we really come that far, from a great movie like that kicking off the whole concept of the big summer movie to all of society agreeing that only a huge prick would even suggest that you should go into a summer movie hoping for it to be legitimately good? Have standards for summer entertainment lowered in the thirty-some summers since JAWS? I really wanted to study this and for a long time I seriously considered ways to investigate this issue and write my next book about it.
But here we are just 3 movies into Movie Summer 2008 and we have a huge monkeywrench thrown into my argument. Because here we have Spielberg returning to summer movies as a director with INDIANA JONES AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE FORBIDDEN whatever it was. But this time it’s ME writing the positive review, and it’s the talkbackers who hate, despise, want to murder this movie. (What did they expect? Hamlet?) That’s the problem with subjectivity. Last summer I’m wondering “why have standards gotten so low?” and now I’m stuck with “Why are everyone else’s standards way higher than mine?”
Most of my circle of movie lovers I talk to really liked the movie. But on the internet it is widely agreed that it’s an outrage, so much so that nerds are trying to replace that stupid “jump the shark” phrase with a reference to one of the sequences in the movie. Recently talking to a buddy I don’t see that often I said I liked it and he said, “Really!? You’re the first person I’ve heard say that!” I was afraid to even ask if he had seen it and changed the subject.
The night I saw the movie I was able to live in a positive bubble. The crowd cheered wildly, I didn’t hear any douchebags rattling off nitpicks as I left, it was a good vibe. The next day when I checked and saw the talkbackers cutting it apart with razors, analyzing it with high powered microscopes and sending in tissue samples for lab testing it was kind of a kick in the nuts. It felt like going to your car after a Prince concert and finding out somebody jacked your stereo.
So why the fuck did I like this outrage, this affront to all that is sacred, this metaphorical crime against a fondly remembered chronologically early portion of your life history? Because I thought it was fucking good, that’s why. I mean I see some of the complaints, there were things I didn’t like, things that could’ve been stronger for sure, but no dealbreakers. What I didn’t like was far overshadowed and outnumbered by what I did. I thought it was the same enjoyable tone as the previous sequels but also taking the series to a new place just by virtue of dealing with Indy’s age (how it holds him back, how it changes his outlook on life) and with a new time period (since it is now 1957). I liked the characters, I liked the story (simple as it is), and I liked how it strung together a bunch of thrilling, expertly staged, constantly escalating action sequences.
That’s the most important one: GREAT FUCKING ACTION SEQUENCES. I know, I thought those were illegal in the 2000s, but I guess Spielberg hates cops and rules so he made this movie as a huge fuck you to the Man. He says:
I will not apologize for the steadiness of my cam. I will not be ashamed of the momentum, suspense, surprise and payoff created through a carefully planned series of moving images. Gentlemen, I want you to be able to watch this and not only understand what the fuck is going on, but be excited about it! I’m not out of order, you’re out of order! Your whole shot sequence is out of order!
You know, I’m not sure why I wrote that. I actually don’t have to make up a fictional Spielberg quote about action filmatism because I have a real one. At this point I would like to refer back to February’s Vanity Fair, in which Spielberg described his approach:
“I go for geography. I want the audience to know not only which side the good guy’s on and the bad guy’s on, but which side of the screen they’re in, and I want the audience to be able to edit as quickly as they want in a shot that I am loath to cut away from.”
and about scripts he said:
“Part of the speed is the story. If you build a fast engine, you don’t need fast cutting, because the story’s being told fluidly, and the pages are just turning very quickly. You first of all need a script that’s written in the express lane, and if it’s not, there’s nothing you can do in the editing room to make it move faster. You need room for character, you need room for relationships, for personal conflict, you need room for comedy, but that all has to happen on a moving sidewalk.”
When I first read that I think I must’ve yelled at the magazine. “Exactly! Exactly! FUCKING EXACTLY!” I couldn’t figure out why the fuck Spielberg had not printed these exact words on a giant placard and held it in front of Michael Bay’s face wherever he walked. That would’ve been earning that producer’s credit.
Now, having seen the movie that he was working on when he said those words I can say that he lives up to them. Sure, it drags a little in the middle, maybe it was not in the express lane for one section, or maybe there was an accident that caused a major backup. But otherwise he practices what he preaches. I don’t care what everybody else says, this is a good example of the kind of movie I wish there were more of in these summers.
(now I’m gonna start talking specifics. NOW ENTERING THE TEMPLE OF SPOIL.)
I love the opening of the movie, because just like TEMPLE OF DOOM’s opening it completely threw me off. I did not expect it to open with a dynamically-shot drag race scene set to an Elvis tune. As it branches off to follow communists disguised as American soldiers making a hostile entry into an air force base it actually starts to feel like some weird period piece version of an UNDER SIEGE movie. I saw one talkbacker who hated the movie explain that the movie was derailed as soon as they introduced Indiana Jones by taking him out of the trunk of their car.
I would offer that as exhibit A that certain people could never enjoy this movie no matter what. Because what kind of a fuckin nut has a problem with that? That is the perfect entrance for this movie. Somehow you expect to see him introduced as some badass, panning up from his boots, he’s got his hat and his whip and does some badass thing. You probaly shouldn’t really expect it though because in TEMPLE OF DOOM they played with this by putting him in a white suit at a night club, and in part 3 they introduced him as a boy scout. In this one they introduce him as an old man being dumped out of a trunk, all disheveled. And you get the iconic shadow, but he has to straighten out his hat. It’s fucking perfect! This is 20 years later, a head of hair grayer, he’s in a bad situation and we want to see how he gets out of it.
My colleague Moriarty read a bunch of different drafts of the script and is personal friends with the guy who wrote a draft who did not get credit and says he will never work with Lucas again. So he criticizes the script as a Frankenhooker or Leatherface’s mask type creation stitching the various scripts together. Well, okay, and I would love to see that Frank Darabont draft. But we as normal people who watch a movie when it’s completed and do not follow every stage of development are allowed to see it as it exists instead of as the unfortunate alternative to what might have been. And from that perspective I gotta admire alot of the writing. For example, in the very opening they’re told they can’t come into the base because of weapon testing. You know what that means, but then the story starts, Indy is introduced, alot happens and you forget all about it. Until Indy has escaped and wanders into a suspiciously perfect looking suburban neighborhood. Your first thought might be “I never thought I’d see Indiana Jones in a ’50s suburb” but your second will be “wait a minute, I know what this means. I’ve seen HULK. I’ve seen HILLS HAVE EYES the remake. OH SHIT INDY, GET OUT OF THERE!”
I thought this was a great moment, because for the first time you genuinely cannot figure out how the fuck Indy is gonna get out of a situation. You can outrun a boulder but I don’t know about this one. His solution is completely desperate as it should be. Yes, he survives a ridiculous scenario. But he does it Indy style. I must formally object to this idea that we all agree that scene sucks. Maybe “nuke the fridge” should mean “scene in a movie that you are surprised to find out nerds hate for some reason.” For example the Wachowskis nuked the fridge when they had people dancing before war in THE MATRIX RELOADED. I thought it was the perfect thing for dirty, sweaty, horny humanity in a big cave to do right before their last stand against emotionless, squid-like killer machines. But it turned out it was the worst thing ever, at least until surviving a nuclear bomb test.
I’m all for the bomb test. It’s 1957, you gotta get a bomb test in there. When I heard they were making a new INDIANA JONES I figured it had to take place in the ’50s, and I wasn’t sure if that could work. I associate that dude so much with Nazis and World War II. But it turns out that working in all kinds of ’50s themes was one of the things that made the movie so fun: the hot rods, the Elvis song, communist villains, greasers, McCarthyism, rumble at the malt shop, Area 51, flying saucers. It turns out to all fit so naturally. The outside world is slowly changing but it doesn’t really matter because the outside world is only Indy’s day job. His adventures take place in ancient temples, tombs and hidden chambers that would look the same in 1957, 1942 or 1236.
The other aspect I was concerned about from the advertsing was the character Mutt Williams, played by Shia LeBeouf (star of TRANSFORMERS). I didn’t see why Indy needed another sidekick. And if he did why can’t it be a guy he already knows at the beginning of the movie, like Short Round. When they introduced him on a motorcycle dressed like Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE I was worried. Why couldn’t they have cast a young guy who’s more badass, like James Franco or somebody? But as soon as he dipped his comb in that guy’s drink he won me over. I think he’s a funny character with his bluster, his hair combing obsession, the way he mentions his fencing training and you know what that means. Shia does a good job of making his character funny and his stunt doubles do a good job giving him a little Jackie Chan physical humor and Errol Flynn grace.
The one universal complaint about the movie I can understand is the little Tarzan moment. Mutt gets stuck in a tree surrounded by monkeys, he notices how they’re swinging on vines so he copies them and they follow him. And the vine swinging is not shot to look realistic, but phony like those old Tarzan movies. I do agree that this pushes things a little bit farther than the other sequels do. At first I thought “what the fuck are they doing?” But I cannot lie. Like the universally hated dance sequence in SPIDER-MAN 3 I was kind of charmed by the sheer goofy audacity of it. The payoff of Cate Blanchett trying to continue driving at high speeds along the edge of a cliff while covered in a pile of monkeys won me over. So I like the Tarzan scene more than I like little Short Round beating up a bunch of adults in TEMPLE OF DOOM. It’s a finer vintage of ridiculous. But I don’t blame you for being haunted by it in your sleep.
That whole chase section is probaly my favorite part of the movie. One complaint I’ve seen is that it’s too much effects, it’s not organic like the truck chase in RAIDERS. Okay, I agree, organic is definitely better. But RAIDERS is a little more real and less jokey and cartoonish than any of the sequels. If I had read somewhere that Spielberg planned to ignore twenty-however-many years of history and make a sequel more like the first one then maybe I would’ve been disappointed, but I never got that misleading memo. This is a chase in the tradition of the speeder bike chase in RETURN OF THE JEDI (a movie that has a way worse Tarzan reference, by the way) and the mine cart chase in TEMPLE OF DOOM. Yes, it is over-the-top, yes it involves alot of special effects to make it happen, but the way it’s constructed for me is completely thrilling.
And speaking of effects, I just cannot handle this whining about there being CGI in the movie. You got a better way to depict a swarm of ants devouring a guy? I don’t think puppets are gonna work. They probaly tried little people in costumes crawling all over a rubber head the size of a house but decided the talkbackers would say it looked too fake. Why would there be a rule that the new one cannot use technology not invented yet when the other ones were made? Since the beginning these movies have tried to push the technology of special effects, and in this one it seemed to me like they actually held back with the digital. (I even thought they had intentionally made the backgrounds on the jeep sword duel scene look like old fashioned blue screens, but I’m not sure. I’ve since heard that was supposed to be done for real but couldn’t be because of the combined forces of a hurricane and a set-in-stone release date.)
Okay, so it was weird to have a CGI prairie dog right at the beginning of the movie, but I’m not gonna throw a movie out on the basis of 5 or 10 seconds of prairie dog.
The big question to me I guess is why this is such an enjoyable movie to me and not to so many others. I mean, I think everybody is wrong about HULK but I can’t be completely surprised because part of what I like about it is the ballsiness of Ang Lee making half Hulk kicking ass movie, half serious drama. This isn’t like that, this seems to me like a really well made if fluffy version of a mainstream crowdpleaser kind of movie. But the pitchforks and torches are out. I don’t quite get it.
I’ve asked around about this and the answer I usually got was “expectations.” Most people could go into TRANSFORMERS with no expectations and when they were given a load of moronic horse shit they just though, “well, I guess that’s what TRANSFORMERS is supposed to be.” But with INDIANA JONES everybody has memories of those movies, everybody wants a certain thing out of them, wants this one to be perfect, or doesn’t want this one to exist unless it can be magically transported to their childhood and they can remember it fondly while polishing the vintage CRYSTAL SKULL Burger King glasses they got on ebay.
I think it’s a good theory, and I can definitely picture this one being more appreciated when it becomes old (just like TEMPLE OF DOOM was). I guess those expectations are a bitch. I get it with the STAR WARS prequels. I get a kick out of those personally but they are way more objectively “bad” than this one is, and more importantly they’re a very different type of movie than the originals. The whole look, scope and technology used in making them is so different, so it’s easy to understand loving the one trilogy and hating the other. With this one I can’t see it though, it’s so much a natural extension of the other ones, another similar adventure in a similar tone but with some twists and angles based on the character’s age and the time period it takes place. Another Indiana Jones adventure. If the guys in talkback hate the duck going down the waterfalls, how do they feel about the raft falling out of the airplane in TEMPLE OF DOOM? It seems to me like a selective enforcement of realism standards.
Anyway, if that is the answer then that’s fine, that would make it a phenomenon specific to INDIANA JONES, a series I think is great but that has never had the religious significance to me that it seems to have to many people. I never got a costume and learned to use a real bullwhip, like the dude who kept going to the front of the Cinerama before the midnight show. I guess George Lucas was right in that interview that pissed everybody off where he said that no matter what the fans would hate the movie because they already have it written in their heads and unless it matches that exactly they will say that it molested them.
But I have this other theory that’s way more depressing to me. It came about when I read some of Chud’s “Tag Team Indiana Jones Post-Mortem.” Those guys all separately reviewed the movie, hated it, then later came back as a combined force to continue reviewing it and continue hating it. I don’t mean to imply that their opinions aren’t valid, but alot of it reads as the kind of joyless, humorless, nitpicky criticism that makes it seem like the writers don’t even like watching movies anymore. It’s the curse of a movie series being this beloved I guess. You saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK as a kid, you had no idea what it was and it knocked you on your ass. Now you’re all grown up and full of opinions and you followed this movie through every stage of development and rumored development and had an opinion on every plot point before you sat down to watch it. You go in already knowing everything about the movie and come out outraged that it didn’t rekindle your childlike sense of wonder.
Anyway, Nick Nunziata (producer of GRIZZLY PARK) wrote:
“These are not the premier craftsmen of rewarding and honest mainstream entertainment anymore. That mantle has been passed on to men with last names like Raimi, Jackson, del Toro, and Nolan. Steven Spielberg has made some extraordinary dramas since his heyday as the master of the summer movie, but he’s really wasting his time in this kind of fare. Although they set the standard in many regards, it may just be that this kind of material works a lot better when the participants have something still to prove.”
(Kind of weird that he put Raimi in there. I mean, I’m the guy who didn’t think SPIDER-MAN 3 was that bad. I still love the guy but if you gotta match up “past his heyday, worked better when he had something still to prove” with either Spielberg or Raimi, I’m gonna choose Raimi.)
See, I gotta disagree because I feel like Spielberg is showing these other guys how it’s done. Yes, I like all of those directors listed, but they aren’t making the same flavor of “rewarding and honest mainstream entertainment” that Spielberg is doing here. Raimi did the SPIDER-MAN movies, but I don’t think they’re any better than this, and all nerds have now disowned him because of part 3. Jackson – do you expect to see summer fun time movies out of this guy ever again? I thought you guys all hated KING KONG. Del Toro is a genius, no doubt about it, but HELLBOY is not as good as this, BLADE 2 seems like a one-off and the other stuff is not mainstream entertainment.
And I’m really glad he mentioned Nolan. He has so far released one “mainstream entertainment,” BATMAN BEGINS, I don’t think he’s ready to take the torch yet. BATMAN BEGINS is great, but its flaws are the same flaws as most other “honest mainstream entertainment” and also the exact things that Spielberg excels at and has brought back to the big screen with CRYSTAL SKULL. BATMAN BEGINS is a movie about a character whose quest in life is all about fighting and swinging around, and yet rarely has a compelling scene about those things. He outrages a clan of ninjas in a burning temple on top of a mountain, but instead of a classic fight and escape scene he slides down a mountain. He gets in multiple fights and instead of choreography we get shakycam. Then at the end there’s a big action climax on a CGI monorail – I’ve seen it several times but don’t remember much about it. Every time I read people excitedly saying that Nolan is great because he doesn’t have a second unit director on DARK KNIGHT I think “No! You don’t understand! You NEED a second unit director!”
(in defense of his action skills, the Batmobile chase scene is really good.)
To me BATMAN BEGINS is miraculous because it’s a super hero movie that is great because of the characterization, the drama, and the approach to realism, despite having kind of a stupid looking costume and lackluster action set pieces. I agree, that makes Nolan very respectable, and you could definitely argue that those are more important things to be good at. But as a fan of these “summer popcorn movies” that everybody has such low expectations for, and of action movies in particular, I have been pushing for a resurrection of the art of the exciting action set piece. Some of the movies by those directors named do have those (the Spider-man’s have some pretty good ones, and of course BLADE 2 has some classic fight scenes) but for the most part in modern movies they’re few and far between. If BATMAN BEGINS had action scenes as exciting as the ones in CRYSTAL SKULL (in a realistic tone that fit the movie) it would be up there with T2 and what not as one of the all time classics.
CRYSTAL SKULL brings back that geography (which side of the screen is he standing on?), it brings back the thrill of the chase, the love of inventive action beats (who cares if it’s cartoonish, how could you hate Marion driving off the cliff, onto the tree, the tree cushioning their fall and then catapulting back up to knock the climbing communists off of the cliff?). It’s a return to the art of speed, thrills and excitement that have a rhythm and build to them so that you are excited to get to the climax of the scene and not just exhausted. And when it gets to the end of the movie it feels like it has gotten to the end, it doesn’t feel like it’s been the same pitch from beginning to end (see Sommers, Stephen).
So what that quote from Mr. Nunziata makes me worry is that maybe he’s right – maybe Spielberg making these kind of movies is obsolete, but not because he’s lost his touch – because people don’t want to see these kinds of movies anymore, not even grown adults who write about movies for a living. From what I can see, Nunziata didn’t review TRANSFORMERS, but the other two in the post-mortem (both intelligent individuals) gave it higher ratings and way more positive write-ups than CRYSTAL SKULL. And they might even like it better in retrospect, because Devin Faraci recently referred to it as “really good.” And I still can’t figure it out, but he’s definitely in the majority on that one.
Oh shit. This is the I AM LEGEND ending. This is where I realize that I was the vampire all along. Maybe the Shakycamites are the new civilization, and I have no right or hope fighting it. Maybe the type of movies I like, the type that Spielberg describes in those quotes, are something quaint that only people like me want to see. Eventually “good action” will be a nostalgic novelty niche like “Grindhouse.” Somebody will put a bunch of money into a really kickass action movie some day and it will flop and the genre will be dead forever. And directors who dare to hold a shot for longer than 2 seconds will be beaten and hung.
Well, hopefully not. I would like if they at least have access to lawyers. We’ll see what happens.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.