Welcome to Part 4 of my look at Spielberg through the decades. Following on from my previous blogs of Spielberg through the 1970s the 1980s and the 1990s we now enter what could be Spielberg’s most misunderstood decade. I personally see it as his most creative, showcasing brave ideas and taking risks that now the critical acclaim matched the audience love, he was willing to take. The one thing to say about the naughties as I refer to them is that the fluffiness has definitely gone, to paraphrase the opening crawl of the Empire Strikes Back, these are indeed dark times. The line up of posters at the top of the blog with the two obvious exceptions are a paradigm of murkiness. There are some issues, Spielberg doesn’t fully remove the crowd pleasing shackles, he can’t resist a couple of “see it’s all ok in the end” type endings, one in particular is very punchable but overall the impression I get is that finally Spielberg feels he has the freedom to make the films that he wants to make. This is certainly the case with the first of his 2st Century films.
A.I Artificial Intelligence (2001)
“Why do you wanna leave me? Why do you wanna leave me? I’m sorry I’m not real. If you let me, I’ll be so real for you.”
There are some who claim that Spielberg has not made a truly great film since Saving Private Ryan in 1998. However from 2000 onwards we have a collection of films that, whilst maybe not as commercially accessible or appealing as what has gone before, reward those willing to be challenged and open to new directions from Spielberg. This is no more apparent than A.I Artificial Intelligence, a film that requires patience and repeat viewings before a true and fair opinion can be formed.
The origins of the film date back to the 1970s when Stanley Kubrick bought the rights and attempted to adapt the short story “Supertoys last all Summer Long” written by Brian Aldiss in 1969. Concerned that the main role was too much emotionally for a young child to play, Kubrick delayed the production until he felt the technology was available to create the character of David digitally. As the decades went by Kubrick passed over the project to Spielberg as he thought it matched more of his sensibilities, but Spielberg worked with the majority of Kubrick’s ideas to form the film. Kubrick, who died in 1999 never saw the finished piece.
A.I is the story of David a Mecha that resembles a human child who is sent to Henry and Monica Swinton as a “replacement” for their son Martin who is suffering from an incurable disease and is currently being held in isolation. Monica, played by Frances O’Connor, is wary of David at first but slowly begins to grow towards him until she activates his imprinting protocol which means David now recognises her as his mother and will provide a child like love to her. All is going well until Martin, now out of suspended isolation, returns home and develops a sibling rivalry with David which culminates in David almost drowning Martin in an act of self-defence. Henry asks that Monica takes David back to his creator where he will be destroyed. However Monica abandons David in a forest in a hope that he will be able to defend for himself. David then embarks on a 2000 year quest to be reunited with his “mother” seeking out the fabled Blue Fairy who he believes will turn him into a real life boy.
I mentioned at the top of this segment that A.I requires patience. I remember being left dumbfounded on first viewing at the cinema, confused about what I had just witnessed, its ultimately a matriarchal love story, but it can also be an allegory for social distrust and prejudice, witness the gladiatorial baiting audience at the flesh fair or David’s treatment at the hands of Martin and his friends. David is looking for love but the larger picture here is the acceptance of the Mecha community as equals, which of course is a well trodden Cinematic story arc. Here’s the thing, A.I makes no secret of its influences and it takes repeat viewings to fully embrace this. The most obvious is Pinocchio, a film that Spielberg has referenced on occasions before most notably in Close Encounters, but there are clear nods to Blade Runner, and even touches of Cronenberg particularly in the aforementioned Flesh Fair.
However the biggest influence is clearly Kubrick. The opening hour, whilst not quite horror, has a spooky, eerie feel to it. The introduction of David is an unnerving experience not just for Monica but the audience as well. Played with eye-piercing perfection by Hayley Joel Osment, the young robot boy appears with an unblinking porcelain stare, he follows Monica around the apartment, appearing silently, always watching, he is more a robotic stalker than a loving child. Spielberg’s chooses to initially leave David ambiguous, he is often shot with angelic shapes around him. At the dinner table he is shot from above through the circular light fitting. The calming, blue and whites of Davids eyes and clothing give him an ethereal, robotic but angelic presence. His appearance states there is nothing to fear here, his actions and mannerisms suggest otherwise. The character of Monica follows the time honoured tradition of struggling parentage, this time the mother is the parent that the main protagonists desperately wants to engage and be with, when this isn’t possible David, similar to Jim in Empire of the Sun, settles for two surrogate fathers to guide him. Firstly we have an animatronic teddy bear, a childs toy (voiced brilliantly by Jack Angel) who scowls at the initial suggestion that he is a toy who like Jiminy Cricket in the much referenced Pinochhio is David’s conscious, exercising caution at every turn. Whereas Jude Law’s robotic Gigolo Joe is more interested in opening David’s eyes to the world, Empires Basie to Teddy’s Dr Rawlings if you will.
I don’t think Spielberg has ever made a more beautiful film, every frame glistens. Dismissed on its release, it was classed as an oddity in Spielberg’s filmography as audiences found the over emotional David too sentimental a character to fully invest time in, but this is a dark film. The first hour is a psychological, uncomfortable, in an intriguing way, watch, but the final half hour is second only to Close Encounters for sheer spectacle when viewed again. This is Spielberg’s second chance film, from its taut thriller opening act to the visually stunning 2nd I implore all readers who had previously dismissed A.I as sentimental hogwash to revisit and take in every inch of the screen.
Why should you watch it?
Because more than any other Spielberg film, A.I rewards repeat viewings. If you have only seen A.I once and found it difficult and cold, watch again, take it all in, there has never been so much beauty in a Spielberg film. This could be his most misunderstood masterpiece.
Minority Report (2002)
“You don’t have to chase me.”
You could argue that with the exception of casting Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg up until this point has never gone for the most obvious marquee name to star in his film, Spielberg himself was always the main draw. Even Saving Private Ryan was sold more on the subject matter in hand as opposed to the fact that Tom Hanks took the lead role. Dreyfuss was a big star in the days of Close Encounters but not really the same box office draw as the likes of Burt Reynolds, Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson all who were considered for Neary. This was to change with Minority Report a film set in 2054 where pre-crime cognitives work alongside the Washington D.C. Police force to prevent murders before they happen. The twist here is that the Chief of Pre-crime himself John Anderton is accused of murder of a man that he has never met, forcing Anderton to go on the run.
Cast as Anderton, Spielberg worked for the first time with bona-fide Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise. The pair had been friends for some time and had waited for the right project to collaborate. The fast action, science fiction setting ticked both of their wish lists, the character back story of Anderton would also give Cruise the opportunity to stretch his often underrated emotional range as he deals with the impact of being a grieving parent, the first of many similarities between Minority Report and the previous A.I. A facial disfigurement half way through the film would also prove that this was no vanity project for the often gleaming grin wearing Cruise.
Opening with a terrific prologue that fully demonstrates Pre-Crime in all its finery, the films tone is set by the prevention of Howard Marks murdering his adulterous wife and her lover. This scene sets the pace for the entire film, there is very little standing around, it really is the quintessential chase movie. The colours of the film follow on from the more desperate parts of A.I with lots of blues and silvers dominating the landscape of a city where it appears to be almost always raining. This is a grim look at a not too distant future.
Since Schindler’s List Janusz Kaminski has been Spielberg’s go to cinematographer, the opening three Spielbergs films of the 21st Century show a Director and Cinematographer in perfect sync with each other. After the glistening beauty of A.I, we have a damp, grubby world, perfectly summed up by the interior of the apartment of the black market doctor who performs an illegal eye transplant on Anderton to help him escape detection whilst moving through the city.
The warmness is only really achieved at the films conclusion, a conclusion that left some audiences frustrated, by its neatness and optimism, something that is glaringly absent in the preceding 2 hours.
The film itself balances film noir with modern day thriller, it raises questions about free will versus determinism, if an individual is aware of their own future, can they change it or is it set in stone. Does governmental interference, in this case to prevent murder, actually lead to a more harmonious society? The evidence on display in Minority Report is no. People still have extra marital affairs, people are still dependent on illegal substances, Anderton scores drugs to help deal with the loss of his son. The general public still rush around barely noticing each other whilst being bombarded with adverts in a perpetual world of unstoppable traffic that now slides down the side of buildings as there is no further road space available. This is a grim vision of a possible future world.
Cruise is excellent as Chief Anderton and he is ably supported by a slimy “is he good or is he bad” turn from Colin Farrell. The shining light for me though is Samantha Morton as Pre-Cog Agatha, who displays vulnerability and strength in equal measure.
The film has some stunning set pieces, the aforementioned prevention of Marks murdering his wife is one, the scene where Anderton confronts his own future is Spielberg demonstrating that he doesn’t need a T-Rex or Shark to get the edge of the audience’s seat get ever nearer to their bottoms. The crowning moment however is a single take shot just over a minute long where the camera follows the robotic Spyders as they go from apartment to apartment to carry out retinal identification on the residents. The camera offers a birds eye view of the crumbling, filthy apartment block, bobbing between apartments, it is a masterful moment in what is a brilliant yet astonishingly downbeat film. The 2000s had started with two films that had less than a sanguine view of the future packed full of edginess and tension. It was time to head back into the near past to lighten the mood.
Why should you watch it?
You should watch it because it is fantastic. Spielberg demonstrates all his artistic flair whilst never compromising on thrills and spills. The ending may seem a little bit of a cop-out but overall this is top end action sci-fi
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
“Dear Dad, you always told me that an honest man has nothing to fear, so I’m trying my best not to be afraid”
The opening three films of the 21st Century for Spielberg have a multitude of cross over themes which have led some Spielberg devotees to unofficially dub the three as the “chase/on the run/running man” trilogy. In A.I mecha David, abandoned by his “mother” goes on the run to find her again, in Minority Report Chief John Anderton is on the run to prove his innocence from a crime he is yet to commit, and finally we have the third part, Catch Me If You Can, the story of a 19 year old fraudster being chased across continents by the FBI. Catch Me If You Can is a classic caper based on a true story and is easily the lightest in tone and possibly the most accessible to a wider audience of this unofficial trilogy.
Based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jnr, who over a 5 year period executed a number of elaborate cons including impersonating a Pan-AM pilot, a French teacher and a doctor. However he became most adept at check fraud, in fact he became so good at it that the FBI hired him after his prison sentence to help ensnare and capture other forgers. Leonardo DiCaprio at the start of his impressive post-Titanic career plays Frank with a youthful exuberance that demonstrates that he was more than just a poster boy for thousands of youngsters world wide after his tragic turn in Titanic. There are hints here of what’s to come for DiCaprio, leading the hedonistic lifestyle similar to Jordan Belford in The Wolf of Wall Street and holding his own against more seasoned actors such as working alongside Jack Nicholson in The Departed.
There is a wonderfully rounded supporting cast, headed up by a marvelously goofy performance from Tom Hanks as FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who leads the chase to apprehend Frank. Hanks is quite happy here to stay in the background and until his second appearance almost 40 mins in you forget that he is in the film at all. Hanks appears to be having a great time and it is refreshing to see him play a lighter role after such a tortured turn in Saving Private Ryan. Witness the scene where Carl discovers a red garment has been mixed with his washing at the launderette to see Hanks at his most playful. The film is also noted for an early scene stealing performance from Amy Adams as the naive fiancee. However it’s Christopher Walken who leaves the audience heartbroken, playing the outwardly over confident but ultimate failure that is Frank Snr. A father who is a failure in a Spielberg film, now where have we seen that before. Walken, who in my mind has always had an unusual screen presence, provides Frank Snr with edgy ticks that manages to convey a man who knows that everything is unravelling around him whilst lending a reassuring presence to Frank Jnr that all is well. Its at equal parts a powerhouse performance mixed with a sentimental subtlety from Walken. A particular stand out lunch scene between Franks Snr and Jnr is beautifully played by Walken and DiCaprio respectively. When the cast is on such form, as is evident throughout the movie, then Spielberg doesn’t have an awful lot to do. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but one thing I feel Spielberg has developed more in the 21st Century, is knowing when to just let the camera roll and allow the actors to get on with it. Catch Me If You Can was the first time I properly noticed this and is evident in future works such as Lincoln and The Post.
However, this is without doubt the most fun he has had since the turn of the century and this is reflected in his relaxed process to his direction, he finally gets to realise one of his long held ambitions, albeit fleetingly, with a brief homage to James Bond, Aston Martin DB5 et al. The film is shot mainly in a bright orange hew to demonstrate the overall lightness of tone, but the darkness that has followed Spielberg around since the year 2000 is never too far away. Frank Snr’s demise is one thing, the film also touches on abortion and infidelity but overall this is the sort of Spielberg film that you would quite happily recommend to your parents to watch. Spielberg would continue to go with a lighter shade of pale with his next offering.
Why should you watch it?
It demonstrates that Spielberg still had a fun side. It showcased that he was still the master of being able to pace a film without ever going too far in one direction. It also has the best opening credits sequence of any Spielberg film.
The Terminal (2004)
You say you are waiting for something. And I say to you, “Yes, yes. We all wait”.
So we reach that point in my blog where we talk about the film in each decade that is often ignored when discussing Spielberg films. Here in the Naughties we move onto The Terminal, a bittersweet tale about a man named Viktor Navorski played by Tom Hanks who’s home country of (the fictional) Krakhozia falls to a military coup whilst Viktor is somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean meaning that he is now a resident of nowhere and therefore cannot enter the United States of America or return to the now non-existent Krakhozia. Therefore Viktor is stuck at JFK airport………indefinitely. This sounds like a rather dour premise for a film but what follows is a rather charming tale about humanity and acceptance, strong recurring themes in the Spielberg cannon.
The Terminal slapstick style of humour is a joy to watch, not least Kumar Pallana’s sneaky airport caretaker who takes great pleasure on watching people slip on his deliberately soaked floors. Further to this, Hanks himself channeling some of his earlier physical comedy that hadn’t really been seen since the late 1980s. There is a Chaplin-esq quality to Hanks throughout in what is a hugely underrated performance from a man who always seems to be at the top of his game.
I suppose the question remains however whether Hanks should have been cast at all. I’m not sure if The Terminal was made now that he would have been (forget his age for a moment). As good as Hanks is in this film and that is undeniable, it seems the safe, quick and easy casting decision. I am the biggest Tom Hanks fan on my street, I host an annual Hanksgiving event each November where we* celebrate the brilliance of the man but even I would be intrigued to see a European actor in the lead role here and I think if made today that would have happened.
The other stand out in this film is Stanley Tucci as the uptight airport immigration official Frank Dixon, his resentment growing with each passing scene. Catherine Zeta Jones is very pretty but little else as the air hostess who catches Viktor’s eye in an unnecessary romantic subplot that ends just as it would in reality, which I suppose is something. Of far more interest is the romantic subplot between Diego Luna’s immigrant airport worker and a young Zoe Saldana who plays an immigration officer.
The Terminal is loosely based on the true life case of an Iranian, Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who still lived in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport at the time of filming and became a tired, frail and lonely individual. The Terminal doesn’t go there but it may have been interesting to see how Viktor’s mental health would have been effected over time, he was after all stuck at the airport for 9 months which surely would have tested anyone’s sanity. Spielberg plays it safe and bearing in mind his other output in the 2000s that’s probably not a bad idea.
The fact that The Terminal is not mentioned more positively among fans is actually a great shame as this is Spielberg at his most crowd pleasing and there is lots to be enjoyed here. This is his equivalent to playing an easy listening album on a Sunday afternoon. You are able to allow The Terminal to largely wash over you and makes few demands of the audience other than to not take yourself too seriously for the next couple of hours. There are issues with the film and it has no danger of ever troubling my Spielberg top 10 but this is as inoffensive as Spielberg gets and I laughed throughout and occasionally even had to remove that annoying dust that one sometimes gets in their eyes. Its also worth noting that if any readers are watching Spielberg films chronologically as I am (of course you all are ha ha) then enjoy The Terminal whilst it lasts as the rest of this decade is not pretty and the darkness on the horizon will have you longing for Viktor’s charm and warmth.
* Its basically just me sat watching Forrest Gump on repeat for 24 hours on the last Friday of November.
Why should you watch it?
At time of writing this is the closest Spielberg has got to really nailing a romantic comedy. Its a vastly underrated piece and was largely overlooked on release. Whilst never attempting to change the World, it deserves to find a wider audience.
War of the Worlds (2005)
“This… This machine it just started… torching everyone… killing everything.”
Spielberg was back to his old tricks in 2005 with a double cinematic release, one aimed at the Blockbuster audience, War of the Worlds and another more serious, award baiting affair the upcoming Munich. However the main difference here is that there are no smooth edges, no crowd pleasing triumphs and quite frankly a lack of humour. This is Spielberg’s darkest hour. War of the Worlds is a fascinating entry in the Spielberg cannon, its quite possibly his bleakest film, the sense of loss and impending doom is quite startling. I remember watching at the cinema thinking being a Spielberg film starring Tom Cruise it will all be alright in the end, and frustratingly it kind of is (more on the ending later) but this is no happy shiny summer blockbuster with wise cracking buddies exchanging quips and uploading computer viruses into Alien spacecraft, this is an intense and at times disturbing experience for all involved.
Unusually for a Spielberg adventure tale, there is very little preamble or prologue, the aliens are introduced within the first 20 minutes, this is a tale about survival and the audience are thrown straight into the action of highways exploding and vehicles plummeting through the air as the alien crafts destroy everything in its path. There is no cosy suburban build up to this, Ray (Cruise) lives in a dull, grey street surrounded by downtrodden folk in a house that is bland and in dire need of a clean. We feel the apprehension of Robbie and Rachel, Ray’s estranged children, as they visit for a weekend submitting to the impending boredom and frustration. Ray is a poor father and role model (hmm we’ve been here before) but will redeem himself somewhat by the end.
Away from the spectacle it is some of the quieter moments where the tension and fear is raised up a notch in War of the Worlds. Notice in particular a quick scene in Robbie and Rachel’s mums kitchen where Ray aggressively attempts to make peanut butter sandwiches for their on-going journey. Here Cruise walks the fine line between attempting to remain calm and not totally losing his mind as he struggles to comprehend what has just happened to him. Food related panic is a Spielberg trait often overlooked see Roy building his mash potato mountain in Close Encounters and the effect that has on the others at the dining table, Elliot announcing to all that his dad is in Mexico with Sally, or Lex’s lime jelly wobble uncontrollably as the silhouette of the Raptor is seen behind the curtain in Jurassic Park, or David’s shocking unprovoked laugh at the dinner table in A.I.
The sandwich making scene is just the start of the quieter psychological scramblers on display here. The whole basement sequence with a menacingly sinister Tim Robbins almost stealing the show as the self proclaimed preacher Ogilvy, is right up there in the tension stakes alongside the Raptor attack in Jurassic Park or even the slow ascent up the hill of David Mann in his fuel sapped car in Duel whilst the truck closes in. The difference here is that there is no escape. The basement is grim, damp, and dark, the set wouldn’t look out of place in an Eli Roth film. Together with scenes of car jacking, capsizing ferry’s and a river filled with dead bodies, a sunny disposition filled blockbuster this certainly isn’t.
It is not a pleasurable experience watching War of the Worlds but it is a fascinating one. Some of the visuals on show are mind boggling and people should not underestimate Tom Cruise here. He has this film in the palm of his hand from the very opening and is on top form throughout. Dakota Fanning who plays the young Rachel is also fantastic. Yet again another non-annoying child performance showing a level of acting maturity. without you ever forgetting that she is a young child.
What prevents War of the Worlds from joining the pantheons of Spielbergs truly great films is a last 5 minutes which is as disappointing an ending as Spielberg has ever submitted. Maybe he too found the previous 100 minutes too dark and desired to leave the audience with a more optimistic conclusion. My problem is that I had invested time in these characters, I had bought into and accepted the choices they had made during the intensity of the battle in the film, I assumed they were a done deal so it was disappointing to have the rug somewhat pulled out from beneath me in what still feels an unnecessary epilogue.
Why should you watch it?
War of the Worlds is the grimmest of grimness in a very grim decade from Spielberg. For those who doubt Spielberg still had the capacity to be edgy and subversive, they need to watch this. There is nothing happy about this film, apart from a brief unnecessary post script. I watched again recently and was unnerved by its darkness. I think this film has got better with age and like a lot of Spielberg’s early Millenium output requires retrospective reviews. This is gripping stuff
We have 11 Palestinian names. Each had a hand in planning Munich. You’re going to kill them, 11 men, one by one
Once again in 2005 Spielberg graced cinema with two releases, however where you usually find a crowd pleasing mainstream blockbuster alongside a hard hitting drama, in 2005 you could be forgiven for thinking that Spielberg was on somewhat of a downer. The less than optimistic War of the Worlds was followed up by Munich, a film that rejects lightness of tone like no other Spielberg film. It’s an uncompromising piece of fiction based loosely on real events and is far removed from the crowd pleasing Spielberg as is thought possible. This is unflinching stuff and its flippin’ brilliant.
Controversial from inception to release, critics rounded on the moralistic message of the film, this is “eye for an eye” storytelling, we know as an audience who we are rooting for as long as we don’t focus to centrally on what they are actually doing. What we have here is on the face of it an espionage thriller, as Avner ,played with piercing realism by Eric Bana works alongside his team consisting of driver, a slightly out of place pre-Bond Daniel Craig, bomb makers, a wonderful Mathieu Kassovitz who really should be in more films, and clean up man played imperiously by the ever dependable Ciaran Hinds.
What sets this aside from your John Le Carre’s and Ian Flemings of this World, is that this is no slick operation, its hardly a glamorous existence, there is not a Milk Tray man insight. We are left in no doubt from the start of that the team are not cold bloodied assassins, they are there to do a job and they display all the signs of individuals who know that they are undertaking a horrific task. The set pieces are as taut as a snare drum in particular a booby trap phone that nearly takes out the young daughter of the named target and a bed bomb that takes out more than the team bargained for in more ways than one.
Going against the Spielberg grain somewhat there is plenty of focus on the human side of the story. Avner is not an absent father, more due to circumstance he’s an absent husband. Avner’s main focus throughout the film is his family and with each “successful” mission he seems to be further away from home, a call back to Tom Hank’s Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan.
Munich is exhilarating stuff and wrongly gets overlooked when discussing Spielberg’s top end dramatic films. Its possibly his most unsentimental film, it starts bleak and never rises above greasy grime. There is no triumphant walk off into the sunset for our protagonists here, instead a hot and sweaty descent into paranoia and regret. Spielberg has rarely been this pessimistic in his denouement and Munich is all the more authentic as a result. It really is Spielberg at his most fascinating and is perfectly in line with the more darker, dare I say it interesting films that have characterized his work up to this point in the 21st Century.
After the double hitter of 2005, his 6th since 2001, Spielberg would now go on to only make one film in the next six years and that would be a somewhat surprising return to an old trusted friend.
Why should you watch it?
Tense, claustrophobic, depressing, dark and gloomy. Spielberg’s output in 2005 was in stark contrast to his popcorn days of the 70s and 80s. Here we have a more intimate story set on a backdrop of paranoia. Munich’s moral see-saw adds a new dimension to Spielberg, who up until this point in his career had largely stayed clear of controversy. Munich enthralls and grips from the start, and is challenge for the viewer. Its essential Spielberg.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
It’s not the years, it’s the mileage
Talking about triumphant rides off into the sunset, the last time we saw Indiana Jones in the cinemas, he was riding off with his father and two of his closest friends in perfect silhouette in one of Spielberg’s most satisfying closing shots. That was 19 years previous and following on from a Millenial desire to nostalgically revisit former glories that included the divisive yet phenomenally successful Star Wars prequels, the announcement in 2006 that a new Indiana Jones film was to be made was met with delight and excitement possibly never felt for a Spielberg film, particularly in the internet age.
The delight and excitement of course led to one word, expectation. Artistically it could be argued that Spielberg had never been in as rich a vein of form as he had enjoyed in the preceding 10 years. Executive Producer and Indiana Jones originator George Lucas also had had enormous financial success with the aforementioned Star Wars prequels so it seemed to make perfect sense to revisit the crowd favourite. If anything it was the third part of the essential Indiana Jones triumvirate that perhaps needed to revisit the character the most. Without a recognised box office success since 2000s What Lies Beneath, Harrison Ford was probably in greater need than Spielberg and Lucas to make this delayed 4th installment a success.
Lucas had allayed fears of an older Indiana Jones by stating that there was nothing to stop the character continuing to have adventures in his later years and so the decision was made to keep with the Indiana Jones timeline by setting the film in the Cold War paranoia of the 1950s. The themes of paranoia had dominated the majority of Spielberg films of the 2000s, whether this was a response to 9/11 or a genuine desire to tell these tales is unclear.
By moving Indy to the 1950s the film makers were able to use the anxiety of post war America. Gone were the Nazis and the Religious artifacts, replaced by robotic Russians and Roswell inspired Alien creatures. The film plays on the ageing process as Dr Jones is plunged head first into the birth of rock n roll, with nods to Laslo Benedeks’s The Wild One, and Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog making it clear that time has moved on since we last spent time with him. This is a promising set up and its nice to see one of Cinema’s most familiar characters in this rather unfamiliar setting.
There are touches of the old magic on show as well. A fantastic motor cycle chase through the grounds of Harvard University would have not felt out of place in the any of the original three films and its clear to see that Ford has slipped effortlessly into the old leather jacket with ease. Its the second half of the film where it sadly loses its way, with misjudged set pieces and an over reliance on CGI which is made worse by the fact that in a number of shots, it doesn’t look quite finished, exhibit 1, Mutt sword fighting in between two jeeps in the jungle with extending legs.
Spielberg and Lucas were understandably able to attract a fine cast to work alongside Ford but the names on the call sheet appear to have added to the weight of expectation that was tightening around the productions neck. Oscar winner Cate Blanchett is amazing in everything but here feels miscast as a Russian villain who is neither Molaram scary or Belloq intimidating. The legendary John Hurt shows up as Indy’s old mentor Oxley but he’s given so little to do it looks like he thinks he’s in a completely different film to everyone else. These two however pale into insignificance when compared to a truly dreadful performance from perennially dreadful Ray Winstone, who plays a cockney double or triple agent who is annoying from the moment he is on screen with his cheeky “Oi Jonesy” schtick. The biggest disappointment for me is that by the end of the film he is still around.
Then of course there is the much maligned Shia LaBeouf, an actor who has suffered more than anyone at the internet keyboard warriors over the years. Yes he has not helped himself with a personal life that seems to bounce from indiscretion to indiscretion, however I think he is not that bad in this film. Yes his cockiness makes you long for the naive innocence of Short Round, or the comforting presence of Salah but the characters flaws can’t be pointed solely at LaBeouf.
Despite the casting/character problems it is a joy when Karen Allen makes her first appearance on screen as the returning Marion. She may have lost some of the confident spark but she certainly hasn’t lost her undoubted sassyness. Indy’s reaction on their reunion is pure delight and it is a feeling felt among the audience. There is also a touching cameo from Jim Broadbent who partially fills the gap left by long departed Denholm Elliot and the unable to be persuaded out of retirement Sean Connery.
So onto the Aliens and the nuclear protecting fridge. To be fair neither bothered me too much, Indiana Jones has always been a series of films where otherworldly treasures and unlikely situations arise, that has always been part of the fun. Is surviving a nuclear blast in a lead lined fridge anymore unlikely than falling 20000 feet from a plane with just a rubber dingy to land on, or for that matter, aliens visiting and storing treasures on Earth more fantastically bonkers than a cup that gives everlasting life?
Through the unrealistic expectations prior to release it was at times for some people difficult to remember that these were adventure tales not set in reality. Whilst never reaching the dizzying heights of the original three films there was still plenty to enjoy. It definitely demands a second watch if one hasn’t already taken place. For those who dismissed it on release it might be time to revisit and you never know you may be surprised.
Why should you watch it?
Because its not as bad as you think, the first half in particular is terrific. Yes there are missteps and it never sits snuggly with the rest of the series, but the weight of expectation that burdened it should be put to one side now and the film judged on its own merits. Like all of Spielberg’s 2000 decade output, it deserves a second chance.
So overall a rather inauspicious end to what I believe to be from a creative point of view, Spielberg’s most intriguing decade. It is a decade that is full of films that audiences have been known to approach with suspicion and dismiss on initial release. They all warrant and deserve repeat viewings. The first half of the decade in particular has some of the most impressive, off the leash, artistic works of his career.
He has now moved onto the current decade where film making has returned in part to a more classical approach, whilst still demonstrating that he is willing to experiment and challenge himself in areas of new exploration.
All images courtesy of http://www.imdb.com