Monday, May 26, 2008

Welcome Back Dr. Jones

It's finally here. After almost two decades of anticipation, we finally got a new Indiana Jones movie. As a major fan (who isn't?), I've spent years hoping that this would happen, and it was almost surreal to see that it's finally a reality. After it all sank in though, and the initial euphoria wore off, I began to wonder if Phantom Menace Syndrome (PMS) would strike this sequel as well. In my case, I have a clean bill of health, but unfortunately for some people, it seems it has.

For those not in the know, PMS is a condition where the victim spends years, perhaps even decades building up their expectations of what the next installment of their favorite movie series will be like, until they reach a level so unattainable that nothing possibly put to print could ever satisfy them. The syndrome gets its name from the insane amount of anticipation and hype generated for the first new Star Wars film in over two decades, a film which while bad, could never have sated the hunger for that mind-shattering, wet pants-inducing experience the audience had been waiting so long for, no matter how good it was.

See, PMS is vicious in that it attacks the part of the mind that deals with nostalgia and all those warm and fuzzy memories of days gone by. Recent victims of the disease include Transformers and Live Free or Die Hard. Neither lived up to what a lot of people wanted, even though they were both solid films. They say you can't go home again, and this seems to ring most true when it comes to childhood memories.

I do like the term "Phantom Menace Syndrome" though. I like it because its initials are the same as that other condition that induces unwarranted bitchiness and anger. In fact, I like the term so much that I'm going to trademark it.

Phantom Menace Syndrome™

There. Feel free to use it if you like, but please be sure to credit the author!

I guess you could say that I had mixed emotions going into the fourth chapter of the Indiana Jones saga. The build up and electricity this movie has generated is more than enough to make even the most fervent fan a little nervous about its quality. Still, I always wanted another chance to see one of these films on the big screen, so off I went. After finally pushing my way through massive theater lines and sitting through the worst selection of trailers one could imagine being tied to such a major release, I was finally able to partake in Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Quite a long title, to be sure, and I was apprehensive that it was symbolic of what this movie was doing: needlessly stretching things out.

I've heard a lot of people talk about how this film wasn't needed, and that the title of The Last Crusade referred to the curtain being drawn on the major film use of the Jones character, as well as the hunt for the Holy Grail (despite Ford, Lucas, and Spielberg saying the opposite for years after the third film was released). They say Kingdom shouldn't have been made, and that the famous trio should have left well enough alone. Needless to say, it got my mind working as I stood in line for my ticket. Almost twenty years had passed since Last Crusade, and as someone who grew up with Indy, would this new movie stomp all over my childhood memories? Was I making a mistake? Would my image of the character be shattered if this film stunk? By then, it was too late. I was already approaching the box office window.
Two hours later I emerged from the theater a relieved man, but let me say this straight off. Kingdom isn't as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade, though I'd put it about on the same level as Temple of Doom. Now, some people hate Temple, but that's their loss. I like it a lot and consider it a nice change of pace from the "stop the Nazis from taking yet another supernatural artifact" storyline of the other two films. Kingdom, with its extra terrestrial-centered plot, fits in there nicely, and it serves as a fitting bookend to Indy's film and TV adventures.

And perhaps the term "bookend" is the best way to describe this movie. Sure, it didn't have to be made, but it's nice that it was. I loved the way they tied it in to the other installments, giving it its proper place in the Indy timeline. All the films offer a year at the beginning, but none of them affect the others chronologically. Kingdom changes this by obviously connecting itself into Raiders of the Lost Ark by re-introducing Marion Ravenwood, Indy's old flame and the daughter of his mentor. Abner. However, it goes further into the other parts of the Indy mythos by explaining why Sir Sean Connery and Denholm Elliot aren't present, as well linking itself to the Young Indiana Chronicles by referencing the episode Curse of the Jackal and Indy's adventure with Pancho Villa. It was a nice touch, and it helps bring the old man's life full circle. Furthermore, it sets up Mutt Williams (Shai LeBeouf's character) for future adventures. For example, when Mutt asks Indy how old he was when he rode with Villa, the old archeologist replies "about your age." Very cool.

Characterization aside, many people have expressed disappointment with the acting in the film. In this regard, I'm forced to agree. Ford doesn't seem to be on his best day, which is odd considering how eager he'd always said he was to get another shot at playing Indy. Karen Allen is pretty rusty as well, and LeBeouf is the only one who comes across as generally sincere. The others seem to just be going through the motions most of the time. That's not to say that vintage Indy doesn't rear his head. He does and quite well at that. The warehouse scene is great, albeit too short, and Ford looks and moves incredibly well for a man who's just reached Social Security age.
That has to be my only gripe with the movie, aside from a Tarzan-like vine-swinging display from Williams in Peru. I liked the special effects - a hallmark of the series - and never found the use of CG to be excessive, though I'm sure that there are those out there who cringe every time it's used. For them, I have no pity, as they walked into a LucasFilm product knowing full well what to expect. It seems that they need to touch the hot stove with each and every one of his movies before they realize the burn danger is real. The fact that just about every action and adventure movie today uses CG means that its detractors have a dwindling amount of options for their viewing pleasures. Get used to it folks, CG is here to stay.

I'm thankful to say that PMS didn't afflict me, and I'm feeling fine in regards to the condition of the elderly Dr. Jones. I liked the plot. I liked old Indy. I liked Mutt Williams. Dare I say I'd be eager to see him wear the Fedora and continue in Ford's footsteps? Yes, yes I would.

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