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“We Will Change You, Doctor Jones”: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and a Unified Theory of Indiana Jones…

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a movie with very real and very tangible problems.

Part of the problem is one of simple aesthetics. The original trilogy were products of a very particular moment in the history of American cinema, spanning the eighties. Raiders of the Lost Ark was very much a rollercoaster of a movie, a showcase for practical effects and impressive stunt work. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was built around impressive physical sets, model work and location work. Even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade took a great deal of pride in how tactile this world felt.

Crystal clear.

In contrast, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a product of a transitional decade for Hollywood. It is no coincidence that the film opened in the same summer as blockbusters like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which heralded a new future for crowdpleasing spectacle. While The Dark Knight made a conscious effort to ground its storytelling in practical effects, Iron Man signaled that the digital effects revolution was going to be the cornerstone of the superhero genre.

As such, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a deliberate and conscious step into the uncanny valley. Many of the movie’s most decried action sequences are driven by green screen and computer-generated special effects, standing in start contrast to the weight and mass that defined the earlier set pieces. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable. The chase sequence in the Amazon is perhaps the most egregious example, but this detachment from reality is obvious from the early scenes inside the warehouse, as pixels guide our hero and his captors to their destination.

Blowing the roof off.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull exists in another uncanny space, most obviously through the introduction of the character of Mutt Williams. Part of this problem is undoubtedly Shia LeBeouf himself, who has been candid about his work on the film to the point of alienating director Steven Spielberg. Much like it’s easier to recognise the “pre-sequel” of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a prequel with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easier now to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a rough draft of a “legacyquel”, like Creed or Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

Of course, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is too clumsy to really work in that way. The film’s closing moments dare to tease the idea of Mutt Williams succeeding Indiana Jones, the wind blowing Jones’ iconic hat into Williams’ clutches. However, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull lacks the courage of its commitment. Jones snatches the hat away at the last minute, prefiguring the way in which Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker would retreat from the idea of passing Star Wars to a new generation.

It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.

There are other ways in which Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like it is caught between two eras. The film’s structure arguably suffers from the production team’s famed attempts to preserve the secrecy of the plot, which even extended to a sting operation and a high-profile lawsuit. The publicity around the film reportedly considered keeping Karen Allen’s return a secret, and the film’s structure conceals the presence of Marion Ravenwood for an hour. It’s a choice that muddies the film’s handling of its themes, denying it the clarity of how Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade handled Henry Jones.

Still, accepting these issues as problems, there is a lot of interesting stuff happening beneath the surface of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In particular, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a very sincere and genuine effort on the part of everybody involved to figure out some grand unified theory of Indiana Jones, separated from the original three films by decades. What does it mean to look back on the trilogy? How has the world changed? How would the character wrap it all up?

It was admittedly a bit of a wash…

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New Escapist Video! On How “Aliens” Responds to “Alien”…

So, as I have mentioned before, I am launching a new video series as a companion piece to In the Frame at The Escapist. The video will typically launch with every second Monday’s article, and be released on the magazine’s YouTube channel the following week. This is kinda cool, because we’re helping relaunch the magazine’s film content – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

This month, with Aliens celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the film. In particular, how James Cameron designed one of the great sequels by refusing to simply repeat what worked about the original Alien. Instead, Aliens works in large part because it actively responds to and engages with Alien, in a way that enriches both films.

New Escapist Column! On James Cameron’s “Aliens” as a Challenge to Ridley Scott’s “Alien”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. James Cameron’s Aliens is thirty-five years old this July, so it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at one of the best sequels ever made.

Aliens works in large part because it’s smart enough to avoid directly challenging Alien, in that it avoids simply recycling the original formula with a shift in location or with a new cast. Instead, it offers a very different approach to the core material. More than that, James Cameron positions Aliens as a direct challenge to Alien, deliberately and pointedly inverting some of the core themes of the original film. This choice enriches both films, turning Alien and Aliens into a conversation.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Army of the Dead

Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead arrives with relatively few expectations.

There’s something very refreshing and very appealing in this, particularly given the way that Snyder has become a cultural flashpoint due to his work on films like Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, not to mention everything involving the production and release (and subsequent restoration) of Justice League. With all of that in the rear view mirror, it is exciting to sit down and watch as Zack Snyder movie that is… just a Zack Snyder movie.

Warding off evil.

Indeed, Army of the Dead is arguably something of a throwback for the director, marking a return to his earliest work. As a hyper-violent zombie action movie with a satirical edge, Army of the Dead invites comparisons to his first feature-length film, his remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. However, Army of the Dead is not a belated sequel or continuation. It is that rare modern big-budget genre film that stands as much on its own as it is possible for a high-concept zombie movie.

Army of the Dead is not a masterpiece by any stretch. It’s a little indulgent and overlong, suffering from the familiar pacing and tonal issues that affect many movies produced by Netflix. However, Army of the Dead is a fun and interesting genre if approached on its own terms. More than anything, freed from the constraints of established properties and shared universes and the ensuing scrutiny, Army of the Dead feels like Snyder is actually having fun. It is hard to begrudge it that.

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231. Mac and Me (-#83)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Niall Glynn and Richard Drumm, The 250 is a weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturdays at 6pm GMT.

So this week, Stewart Raffill’s Mac and Me.

Following a move to California, young Eric is feeling a little alienated and disconnected. However, the young boy’s life is quickly turned upside down following a chance encounter with a creature from another world that has a strange hunger for Coca-Cola and Skittles.

At time of recording, it was ranked 83rd on the list of the worst movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On the “Avatar” as a PG-13 “Aliens”…

I published a new column at The Escapist this evening. With the re-release of Avatar in China this weekend, it seemed like an opportunity to take a look at Jameson Cameron’s blockbuster.

Avatar is often discussed in terms of its relationship to nineties films like Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas and even Fern Gully. However, Avatar is also notable in its similarities to James Cameron’s first proper blockbuster. Avatar often feels like a reworking of Aliens, albeit one aimed at a much broader audience. This is interesting, positioning Avatar as part of a wave of similarly four-quadrant-pleasing reboots and remakes of classic R-rated eighties properties.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Podcast! The X-Cast – Fight the Future Minute #53 (“The Syndicate”)

So The X-Cast reached the end of the show’s fifth season, and approached The X-Files: Fight the Future. This naturally meant it was time for another breathtakingly ambitious project, so the podcast is going literally minute-by-minute through the first X-Files feature film. I’m joining the wonderful Kurt North for two brief stretches featuring the Well-Manicured Man.

In some ways, this section of the film is an illustration of how tightly structured Fight the Future is, in terms of communicating exposition and character dynamics to an audience that may not be entirely up to date with the grand mechanics of the X-Files universe. So Fight the Future spends almost exactly a minute with the Well-Manicured Man before throwing him into conflict with the Syndicate. In doing so, it draws a contrast between the two that serves to very clearly define what distinguishes the Well-Manicured Man from his colleagues and partners.

Again, it would be too much to describe the storytelling here as elegant, but it does communicate things like character motivation quite clearly without distracting too heavily from the emotional crux of Fight the Future. Carter and Bowman both understand that the key is to communicate all of this as clearly and as quickly as possible, in order to get back to what is the movie’s real attraction, the movie-star tension between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. However, even with that in mind, the storytelling here is commendably efficient.

You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

New Escapist Column! “Ad Astra” and What We Carry with Us…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine yesterday. This one has been kicking around for a little while, discussing James Gray’s Ad Astra.

In particular, it takes a look at a broader trend in modern space movies – what might be dubbed the “sad astronaut” genre. In contrast to the sixties utopian fantasies of shows like Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey, these films tend to offer a more introspective portrait of space travel. Films like Gravity or Interstellar or First Man are as much about the baggage that the protagonists bring with them on their journey as they are about what the character in question might find out there.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2018) #28!

Here we go again…

This week, I join Jay Coyle and Ronan Doyle for a discussion of the week in film. Topics of discussion include various seasons at the IFI, including both Aliens and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as seen during the IFI’s Dark Skies season and a discussion of their looming Orson Welles season. There’s also room to discuss Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash and bad MUBI advertisements. However, the real reason to give it a listen is to hear Jay and Ronan give Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again to podcast celebration that it deserves.

New releases include Teen Titans Go! to Movies and Ant Man and the Wasp.

Give it a listen at the link, or check it out below.

Doctor Who: Oxygen (Review)

Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits.

– the Doctor about sums it up

In space, EVERYONE can hear you scream…

Oxygen plays very much like a companion piece to Thin Ice earlier in the season. Both are essentially stories about monstrous capitalism, from nineteenth century London through to the depths of outer space.

Indeed, Oxygen pitches itself as something akin to a late seventies or early eighties science-fiction film, in terms of aesthetic and politics. The episode’s production design recalls the “used future” of films like Star Wars, while the heavy criticism of capitalism invites comparison to films like Alien or Outland. Indeed, Oxygen even borrows from a similar strain of horror movies, tapping into the fear of zombies as the monstrous face of capitalism that can be traced back to Dawn of the Dead.

Station keeping.

Jamie Mathiesen has been one of the most consistently impressive writers of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, turning in impressive scripts for both Mummy on the Orient Express and The Girl Who Died, along with a genuine masterpiece in Flatline. Indeed, Oxygen is the most impressive episode in the stretch of the season, a bold and ambitious piece of allegorical science-fiction, wedded to a genuinely scary concept, top-notch production design, and any number of clever ideas.

Oxygen is a brilliant piece of work, and a reminder of just how effectively Doctor Who can blend its disparate elements into a satisfying whole.

Give him space to work.

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