Friday, May 23, 2008

'Indiana Jones' review: How scary is it?

My 8-year-old is intrigued but scared by Indiana Jones. She is away on a school trip this week, and helpfully suggested that I go see it by myself while she's gone, and report back on how scary it is. Being a longtime Harrison Ford fan myself, I did just that last night.

I have to say I was left cold by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It wasn't awful, like Temple of Doom, but it wasn't great. The actors were in fine form--yes, Harrison Ford still has "it" as Indy, it was great to see Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, and I even liked Shia LaBeouf. But the plot was an absolute mess. 1950's Russians, crystal skulls in Peru, aliens. It was like a Mad-Lib combination of Indiana Jones mashed up with Chris Carter's X-Files.

The complicated plot is all an excuse for action and chases, I get that. But the overuse of CGI special effects takes the human element out of it. Many of the great moments in Raiders of the Lost Ark were low-tech: Indy taking the gold idol and replacing it with a bag of sand--that set off a chase, but the first suspenseful moment was seeing whether he could get away with it. Marion saying "Indiana Jones! I always knew some day you'd come walking back through my door."

If your favorite part of Raiders was the Nazi villain's head melting, then this one will blow your mind.

One of my pet peeves about movie reviews is that they rarely spell out the scary elements of a film so that parents can decide whether it's appropriate for their kids, so I'm going to try to fill in the blanks for you.

Crystal Skull is a solid PG-13, medium-to-spicy haunted house scary, but I predict it will affect individual kids very differently. Like many summer blockbusters today, Crystal Skull often feels like watching someone else play a video game, which I find extremely boring. Kids who have seen a lot of intense movies and video games will probably think it's cool. My sensitive 8-year-old would not like the movie. Man-eating ants, scorpions, shadowy figures who follow Indy in Peru--it's all a bit too much. There is relatively little blood shown, though in the beginning of the film, people open machine gun fire and kill several soldiers.

One scene was cinematically effective but really creepy. Indy is escaping from a military base in New Mexico and he walks into what looks like an idyllic suburb with TVs blaring, but finds it's populated by mannequins. Then he realizes it's a nuclear test site that is about to be graphically blown up into a mushroom cloud. Indy survives by climbing into a lead-lined refrigerator, which is a dangerous action to model for kids. (Yes, I know the whole movie is one big danger-fest but this example stood out to me as a strange dramatic choice involving something kids might encounter in real life.)

One final observation, I happened to hear an NPR interview with children's author Mo Willems yesterday, and he was asked what he'd learned about writing by working for Sesame Street. He said kids are smart but the one difference is that they don't yet understand cultural references. He gave the example of the Eiffel Tower--to communicate to kids you have to be more literal and say "big thing." In Crystal Skull it's clear who the "good" and "bad" guys are, but the story also has a level of cultural abstraction that will go over the heads of younger kids: do they know about Area 51, the Cold War, the 1950's, aliens, etc? I kept thinking that if I were a kid I'd be pretty confused by the story.

So you'll have to integrate these factors and decide what's best for your family. For me personally, it was good to see the old gang together again but in the final analysis the movie came off as sound and fury signifying very little, indeed.

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Blogger Moondance said...

Thanks for the review. This is exactly what I was looking for today to determine if I can let me 6 year old see the movie. (That would be no.)

I hate that it's promoted to little kids (Lego, BK), but really too violent for them. I love this kind of stuff, but need my little guy to have a better base before he's ready to differentiate between violence as part of a story, and violence just because it "cool."

6:29 PM  
Blogger dasht said...

Oh, man. I only rarely check in on this blog but my last contribution (thanks for passing it through) was pretty heavy. Here is something perhaps fun.

Haven't you folks already or might you not feel so ridiculous splurging on a really fancy, really big screen video output? Here's my thought, for a town with a small-town feel:

I draw on experience from the town of Andover, MA and its remarkable public library (at least back in the day). They had a modest auditorium complete with screen and projector. They served the public by summer programs going over a cannon of classics: Chaplin, Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire, Thin Man films. and up through the decades. Sophisticated enough for adults yet truly family fair. A total blast for wide eyed entering / in / barely-beyond adolescents. Very orienting, culturally.

Got a big room? You can make popcorn, right? Eh? Eh? See where I'm going with this?

Geeze, otherwise the kids won't even get many of the references in, for example, the Indiana Jones series. Throw in some Warner Brother's shorts to run while everyone settles in....

Of course, I mean, host every kid in the neighborhood and hopefully some of their parents for film nights....

Just a thought. It's what I might do.

Any enjoyment the adults, should there be any, might get out of it -- well, that's purely coincidental.


8:03 PM  

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