Indiana Jones: Is Spielberg Too Rich and Famous to Be Good Anymore?

The first couple of scenes in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are good. I mean, really good. I was never more shocked than when I was sitting there in the theater having to revise all my expectations at a moment's notice: "Oh my gosh, Spielberg might've actually made a good film again! It's happening, right here, right now, after all these years!"

It was too wonderful to be true, of course, and the movie soon turned into just what you'd expect: a big-budget, corny, by-the-numbers sequel designed to please legions of nostalgic fans. But those first scenes, I'm telling you, presuming I wasn't having some sort of fantastic dream, were reminiscent of those long-ago Steven Spielberg genre films that made him famous in the first place.

This fourth Indiana Jones film, let's call it Indy IV, opens with a flat-out exhilarating drag-race scene in the harsh American desert between a carload of 1950s teenagers and the lead vehicle in a long, formidable U.S. Army caravan. So beautifully and unerringly shot, lit, cast and edited that it looks like a collective American fever dream of our insane post-World War II past, this bizarre race makes your heart thump with uncertainty. Is it going to end in comedy or tragedy, or split the difference? Will the soldiers and teenagers have one of those populist joyrides together and then amicably go their separate ways, or will the speeding teens wind up dead in a ditch, or will the soldiers open fire for sinister reasons yet to be revealed, or what? Spielberg plays so many complicated chords you can't be sure. David Lynch himself wouldn't be ashamed to claim a few of those chords.

But wait, there's more. Soon after that, there's a sequence I won't ruin for you that involves Area 51 and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) surviving a nuclear blast, mushroom cloud and all. Hot damn, here we go, I thought. I've had the basic training in American film noir, and when the postwar hero survives a version of his own death, look out -- you're in for something. For one brief, shining moment I really believed that Spielberg had finally decided to damn all commercial certainties to hell and realize his vast talents in one risky late-career enterprise.


What happens instead is that Indiana Jones gets embroiled in the whipsawing global forces of the Cold War 1950s and winds up having a typical Indiana Jones adventure as a result. He leaves his teaching job (booted out by anti-Communist witch-hunters) and goes questing for a treasure (the ancient crystal skull, one of 13 that supposedly have supernatural powers), while chased by bad guys (humorless Boris-and-Natasha-type Russian Reds led by Cate Blanchett, who's very fetching in her blue uniform and evil-woman black bob). Along the way he interacts with cronies who may or not be on his side, all played by the best actors money can buy (Jim Broadbent, John Hurt, Ray Winstone). The young sidekick, considered a necessity now that Ford is an old actor, is motorcycle-riding '50s greaser Mutt Williams, played by Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf is in loads of movies lately (Disturbia, Transformers) and is some sort of star, I'm told. You'd never know it to look at him. Every mall in America could disgorge a hundred guys just as unexciting as he is. But then, the boring star -- an oxymoron, but a flourishing species nevertheless -- is something of a Hollywood specialty these days.

The nostalgic capper of Indy IV is the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. Not seen in the franchise since the first and best Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Allen still has the knack of looking like a real human being. It's a testimony to her refreshing qualities that Indy's replacement love interest in the sequel, Indy II: The Temple of Doom (1984), was bound to be regarded as a hated interloper, even if she'd been a lot better than the highly untalented Kate Capshaw (now Mrs. Spielberg). Dumping Allen amounted to an early warning sign that Spielberg was losing it. Because Allen, idiosyncratically lovely and oddly tough for such a slender, big-eyed girl, was proof of Spielberg's sure hand in those early years when it came to casting. Back then, he could really pick 'em. Unknown or obscure actors were given their first important film roles (Allen, Roy Scheider, Drew Barrymore); well-known actors were given some of their greatest roles (Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Dennis Weaver); and small or bit-part actors, or even extras, did the most consistently memorable work since Frank Capra used to direct crowd scenes like a maestro.

Just think about Jaws. (As a general rule, when you're depressed about movies, or America, or life, just think about Jaws. It really helps.) Every actor in that film is perfectly cast, from Scheider as Martin Brody down to the fat man on the beach. Remember the mother of the boy killed by the shark, wearing her black mourning veil that flutters in the breeze as she walks up to Brody and slaps him in the face? Of course you do. It's a great performance in a great film. Jaws is a masterpiece that can stand up to cinephile scrutiny, every frame of it.

Which leads us to the burning question: What happened to Steven Spielberg?

Nobody ever had a surer sense of camera movement, a more extensive arsenal of shots, better control over the editing process, fiercer dedication to Hollywood filmmaking practices. He was born to make great genre films. He's enjoyed total creative control for decades. And he can still knock out a scene or a sequence that'll rock you, usually at the beginning of his films, only to dash your hopes and break your heart when the whole thing runs aground. He'll power up the supersonic engine of the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, then hitch it to the creaking, lumbering, 10-ton wagonload of lugubrious cliches that make up the rest of the film. He'll take on a fabulous project like A.I. or Minority Report, and make it seem as if this time he's really, really going to go for it ... and then we're back to the stultifying sellout triteness, fake emotionalism and CGI bloat that have come to characterize all Spielberg movies, as well as all Spielbergish movies by directors who've been imitating him for a generation. The monstrously synthetic Tom Cruise is now the perfect star for every Spielberg or Spielbergish film, and it's impossible to make a more damning statement than that.

At the very end of Indy IV, Spielberg pays tribute to the 1963 Roger Corman sci-fi thriller, The Man with the X-ray Eyes. (In general, Spielberg seems to be in a tribute-paying mood in Indy IV -- lots of showy film references throughout.) It's a painful comparison, because that film was made on a tiny budget and is a powerhouse of Cold War terror, whereas Spielberg's re-creation of the X-ray Eyes sequence has no impact at all, other than providing the idle amusement of watching a river of money flow by in celluloid form. In general, that is the one consistent quality that Spielberg maintains in his films over the decades: Even when all his inventiveness fails, which it generally does a half-hour into each film, he's still got zillion-dollar budgets to coast on.

And I guess we can assume that's what happened to Steven Spielberg. He's too rich and famous to be good.

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