Saturday, 31 May 2008

Making it up as we go along

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull: could it ever be as good as we hoped? One theory says that the long, long wait gave Spielberg, Lucas and Co. time to really dazzle us; alternatively they were struggling to find something good. Sadly, it's more the latter than the former, although it's not a bad film as such. It's just a little...uninspired.

The problem is that they've looked through too many draft scripts. I read an interview with Harrison Ford at some point, where he revealed that he, Spielberg and Lucas have been disputing the merits of various treatments, each vetoing the other two on different points. It shows: for each scene, you can tick off which of the trio fought to include it. For the intro sequence (which is excellent, but sadly the best part of the film) it stacks up thus:

Humorous prairie dog: Lucas
50s joyriders: Spielberg
Indiana and chum fighting commies in warehouse, with the whip and the guns and the trucks oh yeah: Ford
Rocket chair: Spielberg
More bloody prairie dogs: Lucas

Lucas is now too rich and I would guess too stubborn to be corrected, but if someone were ever to have sat him down and explained why the Ewoks were a foul blot on ROTJ, we might have been spared not only the prairie dogs but also the monkey army, a little interlude which (again) sucks all the tension and joy out of the big chase scene half-way through the movie. There's a difference between appealing to children and treating them half-wits, but it's one which clearly eludes Lucas.

Ford, however, is excellent. He sells the action well, partly because it often clearly is him scrambling over crates or through the jungle and partly because, as in Raiders, it looks like Indy really gets hurt. But he also makes the most of the comedy moments, in an understated way, and handles the more saccharine moments of the script with a degree of grace.

On the other hand, executive input to the script helps him a lot. The rest of the cast were not so lucky, and struggle with roles that are either underwritten, paper-thin or completely dispensable. Ray Winstone, in particular, is landed with a character from some other draft, dropped into this one with little do but crank the plot onwards when required. Cate Blanchett clearly has a lot of fun with her fencing Ukrainian mentalist, but her character is given increasingly little to do and by the end is barely more menacing than her own henchmen. John Hurt plays the role of Sean Connery's diary from Crusade, spitting out cryptic clues as needed. We shall draw a veil over the characters of Mutt and his mother, a returning Marion from Raiders. Both actors try their best, and we can't ask more than that.

Spielberg, on the other hand, does know better. The movie struggles on, linked by scenes which were clearly quite cool in whichever script they first appeared in. (One of the casualties of this cut n paste job, incidentally is Indy's whip, which is used maybe three times in two hours, and once clearly forgotten about.) But when we reach the grand finale, the film finally falls over as Indy, the lead villain and assorted supporting characters hang around watching while the deus ex machina grinds through its operations. You can make the case that this merely recalls Indy's heroic eye-shutting at the end of Raiders, but that was at least quick. This version drags on for at least 15 minutes while whoever did the CGI pads their final bill, leaving our heroes with nothing more to do than run away after a while.

In Raiders, Indy's key appeal was defined with the throwaway line: "I don't know, I'm making this up as I go along". That attitude works well for heroic archeologists - film-makers need a coherent plan.

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