So this post is a week later than is probably relevant, but a full and busy week it's been. Shot a bunch on the RED last weekend, and shooting some more starting tomorrow. I've been cutting this and keying that and sitting down to talk about Descendants with several folks who took the time to read and review the latest draft. Busy busy.
This is actually a re-post of a post I made over at the fxphd forums, when asked what my "likes and dislikes" were with the film. I wound up covering everything I wanted to say, so while it's less of a structured "movie review" (which is why I didn't call this post a review), I think it's pretty much all there.
Oh man, where to begin. Well, I'll start with likes:
Some of the FX were really top-notch. The mushroom cloud (despite its logistical problems that I'll get into below) was phenomenal, as was the climactic shot of the UFO lifting off and the rocks whirling around it. The water filling the canyon looked great too.
Unlike a lot of others, I actually liked the concept of an alien movie. Look, if I can accept God as a McGuffin -- twice! -- and another movie where people are pulling other peoples' hearts out of their chests, I can accept aliens.
And I even like the reasoning Lucas had for it -- the movies set in the 40s were made like movies from the 40s, so a movie set in the 50s should be like a movie from the 50s. The 40s were action-adventure serials, the 50s were science-gone-wrong and alien invasion tales.
The skulls looked really cool and the room of the crystal skeletons was like something out of classical mythology -- powerful stuff.
Now the dislikes:
As an FX artist and a filmmaker, I have a lot of friends who are filmmakers but not so savvy on FX, and they tend to want to do a lot of stuff with FX that isn't necessary. One of my favorite stories to tell them is that Spielberg always appreciated the fact that the limitations on Jaws ultimately made it a better movie, forced him to be more creative, and he kept that lesson with him even as he became STEVEN SPIELBERG. Even though he could get any budget to do anything he wanted, for a long time he would limit himself to 400 VFX shots in a film. If there was a shot that put him over the limit, he had to either figure out a way to do it without VFX, or figure out how to do another moment without relying on FX. In keeping himself limited he ultimately kept his creativity strong by thinking around "we can do it with CG."
As I said, I've told all my filmmaking friends about this, so sitting in the theatre and watching CG gopher shot after Tarzan Shia shot made me feel like an asshole, because obviously that's gone totally out the window.
Spielberg made a big deal about how he and the DP swallowed their pride and watched all three movies, so SS could go back to his early style, and the DP could duplicate the previous DP's style. I didn't see any of that. It felt like a modern movie trying too hard -- is it so much to ask not to throw a diffusion filter on the camera, Kaminski? The original films are very simply shot, straightforward but powerful, the lighting naturalistic. This one had cuts where there would have been camera moves, and heavy heavy HEAVY filtering where there should have been none at all. As far as matching the originals stylistically, I give it an F.
Now one of my biggest issues. These days your MOVIE heroes are always total badasses who know how to handle any situation you throw at them. Your Vin Diesel characters, your Angelina Jolie characters. They're always calm, cool, collected, and there's never a question that they're going to come out on top of any situation.
In pitching the direction I want to take Descendants, I've always said that I don't want Charlie, the main character, to be That Guy. I want him to be Indiana Jones.
Indiana Jones has a tendency to get in over his head, in situations for which he's not wholly prepared. When he gets into a situation where he's pretty much fucked, you can see on his face that he knows he's pretty much fucked, and only by sheer luck or cleverness does he manage to escape. When the hero clearly thinks that he might be about to die, the audience thinks that maybe he's about to die. We're there with him and when he gets out by the skin of his teeth, we cheer our fool heads off.
So imagine my disappointment when Indiana Jones turned out to be That Guy this time around.
First off, the fridge. There's so much logistically wrong with it my head might explode. I mean:
-Even generously assuming that the lead lining is enough to protect him from the radiation, it protects him from the shockwave AND the heat as well?
-Even generously assuming that the lead lining saves him from all three, he would have been killed multiple times bouncing about the desert on landing.
-Even generously assuming he survives that, the lead lining only protects him while he's in the fridge. If he got out as close to the blast as he would have to in order to get the iconic mushroom cloud shot that they did, he's dying of radiation poisoning. I don't care how hard they scrubbed him down at FBI HQ.
-Where's the hail of all the other fridges that were also thrown clear totally intact? He happened to be in the only one?
-You could have totally removed that scene and it would have changed nothing in the story.
There's a movement starting to make the term Nuking the Fridge the film franchise equivalent of Jumping the Shark. I think that's appropriate. That's shit you pull in a Jason Statham vehicle, it's not something that happens to Indiana Jones.
Indiana Jones doesn't survive the plunge over three waterfalls. The bad guys die going over the waterfall, and Indy uses his cleverness and luck to avoid going over the falls at all.
I never once felt like Indy was in any genuine danger. You have him survive a nuclear blast in the first ten minutes of the film, and then you expect me to worry about him in a fistfight? Sorry, no.
None of the actors felt like they had anything to do. I really like Shia in general but a big part of that is the wit and personality he brings to his characters, very little of which was present here. Great to have Karen Allen back, but so little was actually done with her character that it felt superfluous and fanwanky.
Then there were all the great ideas that were brought up and then dropped just as quickly, almost every scene. It seriously felt like they'd just taken one scene from each draft they'd done over the last 20 years and grafted them together in semi-chronological order.
For example, Cate Blanchette's character is supposed to be a freaking psychic. That's established in the very first scene where she tries to read Indy's mind. There's even implications that maybe she's telekinetic. That disappears totally after the opening scene. Sure, she mentions mind control later when infodumping about the importance of the skulls, but her own psychic abilities are nonexistent. It makes her seem more like that weird emo girl at your high school that no one wanted to eat lunch with, than a genuinely threatening villainess. And her first-year acting school Soviet accent didn't help, either. I love Cate, I would think she could do no wrong, but man.
Or how about the next scene, where Indy finds the crate by throwing gunpowder in the air? Where's the moment where they all point their guns at him only to realize that he's destroyed all their ammo, enabling his escape? And if not ALL their ammo, at least make them have to reload.
Or how about the interrogation scene, where Indy is subjected to McCarthyist paranoia? Sure, he loses his job, but come on. You could build a whole subplot around the idea that Indiana Jones is declared an Enemy of the State, and have the Russians AND the Americans trying to stop him from doing what he's gotta do. But no, Janitor gives him a few of his favorite Scrubs lines and that plotline is dropped entirely.
On and on and on.
I think what upset me most, though, is how little Spielberg seemed to trust the audience. Damn near every scene was an expository infodump that just screamed "Look how much research we did on the subject!" and advanced the story very, very little.
But the most egregious examples are when Indy spoon fed us exactly what we were supposed to understand.
"Damn, I thought that was closer." Come on. That same moment in Raiders would have been totally silent. Indy crashes into the truck. He and the two bad guys sit in stunned silence for a second, then he grins sheepishly at the driver before elbowing them both in the face and shoving them out. Nothing need be said.
"Those darts are poison!" Okay, seriously, blowdarts are always poisoned. That's what blowdarts are for. I think it's safe to assume that we get it.
"Their treasure wasn't gold, it was knowledge. Knowledge was their treasure." He seriously said the same thing twice, phrased in reverse, just to make sure we didn't miss it.
And of course, one of the most shocking dialogue choices to me: "What am I being accused of -- besides surviving a nuclear blast?" The script has the audacity to remind us of how ludicrous the preceding scene was.
Overall I could do a DVD commentary, scene-by-scene regarding how absurd it all is, and that's not the case with the other Indy pictures. Okay, maybe Temple of Doom. But you'd think after almost twenty years they could do better than that. It had all the elements of an Indy movie, all the characters -- again, almost to the extent of fanwankery with all the nods to Raiders -- but it never actually felt to me like I was watching an Indy movie. It was just another of the long list of movies trying to capture the Indy magic, but failing. The tragedy is that this time, it was official.