Thursday, June 05, 2008

Lucas, Spielberg ruin my childhood memories again

I confess, I was too depressed to write last week. I blame George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Thank you, George, for once again violating my childhood. “The Phantom Menace” wasn’t enough, was it? It wasn’t enough to make all those years I devoted to “Star Wars” feel like a colossal waste. To say nothing of the money I spent on the action figures, comic books and, of course, my “Star Wars” lunchbox. I even had the stupid bed sheets.

No, you had to sully my memories of the Indiana Jones trilogy, too.

And Steven, you let George get away with it. You could have said no. You could have said the story was terrible and just walked away. But you didn’t. Way to go, Steven. You haven’t disappointed me this much since “Hook.” You ripped out my heart and laughed while it was still beating.

I ought to send you two the bills for all of the therapy I’m going to need to erase “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” from my brain. Refunding the eight bucks I spent on the ticket isn’t going to cut it. I saw the movie, and I can’t unwatch it.

See, I knew it was a bad idea to revisit the Indiana Jones series 19 years after “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Even back then, I could see the trend line: The humor was broader, the dangers less threatening than in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But “Raiders” is the ultimate adventure film, better even than any of the “Star Wars” movies. So, I gave “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” a chance, despite the nagging voice telling me to look away, like when Indy said not to look at the Ark.

But I didn’t, and I got my face melted off.

Still, you’ve got to hand it to Harrison Ford. The man is 65 years old, but he has an easier time beating up the bad guys and escaping certain death than he did back during his tomb-raiding prime. Oh, wait. That’s because “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” stinks.

When Indiana Jones retrieved the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazi convoy in “Raiders,” we felt every bump and bruise along with him. That was an Indiana who knew how to take a beating and still emerge triumphant.

Now, when he should be cashing his Social Security checks, Indiana can emerge from even the most ridiculous danger without a scratch. Survive a nuclear explosion? No problem. Go toe-to-toe with the Red Army? Piece of cake. Plunge over a waterfall not once, not twice but three times? Hey, sign him up for a fourth.

That’s because the Indiana Jones of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is no longer an action hero. He’s a cartoon character. The movie never convinced me that he was in any danger. It didn’t even try.
It did convince me — as if I weren’t convinced already — that Lucas is more interested in special effects than storytelling, even when the effects aren’t that special anymore. After all, he’s the executive producer, and he shares the “story by” credit.

But don’t let that fool you. The film’s failings aren’t all Lucas’ fault. As director, Spielberg sets the tone, and he hits all the wrong notes.

I never felt that the stakes were high, even though the baddies — Soviet agents led by Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko — have a pretty ingenious plan. They hope to use the fabled crystal skull as a mind-control device to take over the United States from within. It’s a clever nod to the Red Scare movies of the 1950s and one of the film’s few good ideas.

Maybe the Soviets just don’t make for interesting villains the way the Nazis do, because Spalko and her bumbling crew are about as exciting as Soviet architecture.

If “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” were the latest entry in the “Mummy” series, its juvenile antics might be excusable. The “Mummy” films are as much about slapstick comedy as they are action. But “Kingdom” fails utterly as an Indiana Jones movie.

Please, guys, you’ve made your money. Now, put the hat and the bullwhip away for good this time.

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