Sunday, June 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of blah, blah, blah...

Once there was a time when the combination of George Lucas and Steven Speilberg could do no wrong. And during that period they made 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' - one of my favourite movies ever. This was the first film I ever saw multiple times at the cinema. I think I saw it on three consecutive weekends when I was 11.

Then they followed it up with 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' a few years later. It was darker and not quite as good, but still great fun.

Then Lucas lost it. He went on to make 'Howard the Duck', the Ewoks movie and ultimately create Jar-Jar Binks; not a great career progression. Speilberg went all serious on us and lost the knack of doing a great blockbuster. The third Indiana Jones movie 'The Last Crusade' was quite good, but not as great as the first two.

And now, after a couple of decades of waiting, comes the fourth, and presumably final, Indiana Jones movie. Was it worth the wait? No. Was it an entertaining film? Yes. Was it another Indiana Jones movie? Not really...

Spoilers below. So watch out if you haven't seen the film...

The basic plot of Indiana Jones movies is that Indy has to get to some ancient religious (and generally magical) artifact before the bad guys (generally Nazis) get to it to use the power for their own evil ends. Along the way we get some whip-cracking, swash-buckling, fist-fighting, gun-toting, truck-chasing action.

But Indy is now 20 years older and we're now in the 1950s. So the bad guys can't be Nazis anymore (actually, I think they could have been, especially since the action mostly takes place in South America - I'm sure there were some Nazis hanging on there in the 50s...) and our hero can't swash his buckle in the same way he used to (actually, as we will see, he can, but the producers obviously thought we wouldn't believe that) so we have a younger sidekick who turns out to be Indy's son. OK, I have no problems with either of those changes.

But let's consider the ancient artifact... Its not a well-known, but lost, Judeo-Christian artifact like the Ark or the Grail in films one or three, its not a fictional Hindu artifact like in film two, its a completely fictional - and clearly alien - artifact from a completely made up religion. You see, from the very outset the rules of this film have changed - we're not in the realm of religious-fantasy, we're firmly in the realm of sci-fi. And that's not Indiana Jones territory.

I'm a big fan of Stargate (the original movie as well as the TV series it spawned), and the premise of this film is very much in Stargate territory. Then there are elements of the Mummy movies thrown into the mix (most notably the swarming ants scene). Then finally there are some elements of Indiana Jones movies thrown in for good measure: hating snakes, truck chases, clifftop fights, a bit of tomb raiding, melting faces, etc., etc. But they are not the starting point, they feel like they've been thrown in there to keep the punters happy. And some of the classic Indy elements are spoiled as they are brought in incorrectly, like the scene with all the natives swarming out of the temple - very much like the opening scene of Raiders, but there Indy only escaped because he had a hapless accomplice with a plane, here we had to resort to sci-fi crystal skulls to scare off the natives. Silly, and not very Indiana Jones.

So this fails as an Indiana Jones movie, and if I'd gone in armed with high expectations I'd have been quite disappointed. Thankfully I'd heard about the silly alien thing (although it pervades the entire movie, its not just the last half hour like some reviewers suggest) and had gone in with as few expectations as I could. And hence enjoyed it quite a bit.

You see, the character of Indy is still intact (even if he's in the wrong film) and Harrison Ford does a great job of making the ridiculous Lucas plot and dialogue seem real, or at least believable. I have no issues with the James Dean-esque son of Indy and thought he brought a new angle to the story. The baddies were a bit two-dimensional with Cate Blanchett behaving like the sort of psycho nutter who is usually second in command to some cat-stroking evil genius. But the cat stroker never appeared, so we were left with a slightly incomplete set of baddies. And Ray Winstone was rubbish.

So what we're left with is a load of quite enjoyable action scenes, a charismatic couple of central characters, a nice re-appearance of Marion from Raiders and some hints of social comment from Speilberg, all tied together with a ridiculous plot and premise.

I liked it. I will certainly watch it again someday. But it was not a worthy successor to Raiders.

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