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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 Column! On the Appeal of Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Mortal Kombat”…

I published a new column at The Escapist yesterday. With the new trailer for the rebooted Mortal Kombat, it felt like the perfect opportunity to take a look back at Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 original.

Recent years have seen a reassessment of Anderson as a director, frequently celebrating his understanding of the field in which he operates. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat is unapologetic pulp, and pitches itself perfectly at that level. Anderson understands that the key to faithfully adapting Mortal Kombat is not fidelity to continuity, but instead an appreciation of what audience and players actually love about the series. It exists in marked contrast to the version that Mortal Kombat suggested by the new trailer.

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

Non-Review Review: The Accountant

If the default summer blockbuster is a “comic book” movie, then The Accountant is an “airport paperback” movie.

Although The Accountant is based upon an original idea by screenwriter Bill Dubuque, it feels very much like something adapted from some pulpy thriller. It has all the ingredients. Like so many John Gresham best sellers, it has a title comprised of a noun used as the definitive article. It has a pithy high concept that can be summarised in a nice tagline. It is packed full of ridiculous twists. It has a plot that is largely just something on which it can hang all manner of goofy ideas. It even has a fondness for absurd (and contrived) exposition delivered via monologue.

Unaccountable variables.

Unaccountable variables.

This is both the best and the worst thing about The Accountant. By just about any measure, The Accountant is a ridiculous film with a fairly thin concept and with a variety of twists that will seem inevitable to any genre-savvy observer. However, there is something quite enjoyable in watching The Accountant bounce between these crazy twists. The Accountant works best when it embraces its pulpier attributes, rolling with each crazy development after the last and never stopping to catch its breath.

The Accountant is a very weird and dysfunctional film, but that dysfunction becomes part of the charm. Much like those page-turners picked up to help pass long flights, it is unlikely that much of The Accountant will remain with audiences after the credits roll. However, there is still some fun to be had.

You can make a killing in this field.

You can make a killing in this field.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Storm Front, Part II (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II arrive at a transitory time for Star Trek: Enterprise.

The fourth season was almost certain to be the end of the show, with Brannon Braga stepping back from the writers’ room to allow Manny Coto the chance to the take the reins. Coto would use the opportunity to more firmly connect the show to its franchise roots, constructing a final season that would serve as something of a bridge between this prequel series and the rest of the canon. However, there was just one problem. Coto inherited a cliffhanger from Zero Hour, the third season finale that stranded Archer in the past with some evil!alien!space!Nazis.

Into the sunset...

Into the sunset…

Although the fourth season of Enterprise is widely praised by the few fans who remained watching until the bitter end, Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II are often overlooked in discussions of the season. Much like These Are the Voyages… at the very end of the season, the opening two-parter is largely treated as a story foisted upon an incoming executive producer that does not reflect his own plans or desires for the season ahead. There is typically a sense of obligation to discussions of the two-parter as little more than a speed bump into the season.

This is a shame. Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II were both written by Manny Coto. Although the producer inherited the basic premise and the brief from his direct predecessors, how Coto chose to approach the material is quite insightful and informative. In that respect, Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II might be seen as an introduction to the Manny Coto era before it properly begins in Home.

"It's been a long road, gettin' from there to here... It's been a long time, but my time is finally near..."

“It’s been a long road, gettin’ from there to here…
It’s been a long time, but my time is finally near…”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Countdown (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Star Trek: Enterprise spent a lot of the final stretch of the third season playing at being Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There are a number of episodes that provide a direct parallel with stories from that earlier underrated Star Trek show. Damage riffs on In the Pale Moonlight. is very much Children of Time. More than that, the moral ambiguity and the long-form storytelling that define the third season of Enterprise also owe a very conscious debt to the work done on Deep Space Nine.

However, the final two episodes of the third season drift away from the ethical uncertainties and moral quagmires that defined a lot of the year’s stories. The Council effective resolved the big thematic questions hanging over the third season, allowing Archer the chance to propose a diplomatic solution to the Xindi crisis. This allows Countdown and Zero Hour to go about the task of providing a suitably impressive action climax to this twenty-four-episode season-long arc. There is precious little soul-searching here; instead, there is one big race against time.

The life aquatic...

The life aquatic…

In that respect, the last two episodes of the third season hark back to a more traditional form of Star Trek storytelling. In particular, Countdown and Zero Hour feel like an old-school blockbuster two-parter, in the style of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. In fact, with Archer’s fate in question and a hostile unstoppable force invading the solar system only to be destroyed in orbit of Earth, Countdown and Zero Hour play like an extended homage to The Best of Both Worlds.

While one of the most frequent criticisms of Enterprise is the sense that the writing staff are simply regurgitating classic Next Generation and Voyager plots, this feels almost earned. The third season has largely been about the show’s journey back to the heart of the Star Trek franchise, a trip that concluded with Archer embracing traditional Star Trek values in The Council. But what fun is that journey if you don’t get to celebrate it with an epic high-stakes world-ending rollercoaster ride?

"We cool?" "We cool."

“We cool?”
“We cool.”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Rajiin (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Rajiin is not as bad as Extinction. So there’s that.

Rajiin continues the pulpy theme that runs through the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise and into the fourth. There is a sense that the writing staff are cutting loose with a collection of decidedly retro science-fiction tropes that they found in the old storage cupboard. The third and fourth seasons have a gonzo energy to them, with elements like the reptile!Xindi and the evil!alien!space!Nazis feeling like ideas that escaped from the types of magazines where Benny Russell used to work.

"Captain, my scans report that she does have Bette Davis eyes."

“Captain, my scans report that she does have Bette Davis eyes.”

At its best, this new storytelling freedom allows the show to cut loose with ideas that would have made Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager blush. The show would never have attempted episodes like Impulse and North Star in its first or second season. Even if the episodes are not flawless, they have an energy and vitality that was sorely lacking in the first two years of the show. It feels like the writing staff are really having fun with the concept, playing with the sort of goofy ideas that they never would have attempted a year or so earlier.

Of course, there is a flip side to that coin. The biggest misfires of the third season are generally rooted in that pulpy storytelling style. Extinction was effectively a “lost race” story that felt like a throwback to colonial narratives about explorers in exotic parts of the world. Rajiin is the story of an alien seductress who our hero rescues from slavery, only to use her womanly wiles to seduce the crew for a sinister purpose.

"Hey, Kirk got to do this all the time!"

“Hey, Kirk got to do this all the time!”

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The X-Files – Kitsunegari (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Kitsunegari hits on a lot of fifth season anxieties for The X-Files.

The episode is rather clearly a sequel to a beloved third season installment, featuring a returning monster of the week for the first time since Tooms brought back Victor Eugene Tooms. In this case, Kitsunegari is built around Robert Patrick Modell, the mind-controlling psychopath from Vince Gilligan’s first script as a staff writer. Given the level of Gilligan’s skill, the affection for the episode, and the charm of actor Robert Wisden, Kitsunegari really should be a “can’t miss” script for the series.

Painting the town...

Painting the town…

However, Kitsunegari proves to be a surprisingly joyless experience. The script hinges on incredibly coincidence and contrivance, everything feels a little too familiar, and even Robert Wisden seems relegated to a small supporting role. (It is telling he earns an “and” credit instead of heading the guest cast.) Kitsunegari has a host of memorable set-pieces and effective visuals, but it feels curiously hollow. It feels like a script going through the motions, rather than trying to say something new or intriguing.

Then again, there is a sense that this is the point. Kitsunegari plays beautifully as a self-aware critique of soulless sequels, of half-hearted follow-ups and cash-ins on popular monsters and villains. Kitsunegari is almost an ingenious parody of these conventions, teasing the viewer with what it might look like if The X-Files began to eat itself. It teases the audience with a trashy sequel to a classic episode, and then delivers exactly that. Kitsunegari does not just demonstrate the law of diminishing returns, it practically revels in it.

Pushing the Pusher...

Pushing the Pusher…

After all, Pusher was an episode about a man with complete control of his own story. Robert Patrick Modell was able to change the world using nothing more than mere words, crafting a new identity and persona for himself, casting himself in role of a criminal mastermind pursued by dogged investigators. It is no wonder that Kitsunegari portrays Modell as exhausted and strung out. Kitsunegari is essentially a story about how Modell has lost control of the narrative, how it has begun to control him. In a way, he gives voice to the same concerns that haunt The Post-Modern Prometheus.

Of course, all this postmodern self-awareness is ingenious, but it still leaves one sizable problem with Kitsunegari. Kitsunegari is so effective at mimicking a soulless sequel that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. The result is a well-constructed and clever little episode, but one that is not particularly enjoyable or fun.

"I'm blue, dabba-dee-dabba-di."

“I’m blue, dabba-dee-dabba-di.”

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Millennium – The Hand of St. Sebastian (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

The Hand of St. Sebastian closes out the first third of the second season of Millennium. It also marks the half-way point in the episodes credited to Morgan and Wong as writers over the course of the season – it is the sixth of a phenomenal twelve scripts credited to the showrunners, even outside their responsibilities as executive producers. In many ways, The Hand of St. Sebastian represents the point at which the stage has been completely set. It establishes the last of the basic ideas that the team will play with across the rest of the season.

The Curse of Frank Black and 19:19 had affirmed that Christian eschatology would be a driving force for the show, as if that had ever been in doubt. After all, the first season’s big two-part epic had been Lamentation and Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions, an epic story about demons and angels. More than that, Morgan and Wong had revised the opening credits sequence of the show so that it ended with the promise that “the time is near”, an obvious textual reference to Revelation.

Circle of trust...

Circle of trust…

The Hand of St. Sebastian confirms what was inferred in Beware of the Dog when Frank pointed out that the ouroboros was “used as a secret symbol on early Christian graves.” Here, the Millennium Group itself is identified as an ancient Christian organisation, one interested in ancient Christian relics for their spiritual and magical uses. There is a decidedly pulpy feel to the second season; one that is particularly evident in The Hand of St. Sebastian, as Frank and Peter go abroad to do a modern day Raiders of the Lost Ark on a nineties television budget. Ambition is not the worst vice.

However, The Hand of St. Sebastian is perhaps most notable for putting the focuse squarely on the character of Peter Watts. Naturally, Frank plays a pretty vital role in The Hand of St. Sebastian, but the episode does a lot to develop Peter as a character. It builds off his powerful speech in The Beginning and the End to portray a man of faith searching for validation and meaning in the world. The second season really capitalised on the presence of Terry O’Quinn, recognising the actor’s immense talent and helping to establish him as a televisual talent to watch.

This is who we were...

This is who we were…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Precious Cargo (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Precious Cargo is a disaster. It is a spectacularly terrible piece of television. It is the kind of episode that fans point towards when they want to belittle or diminish Star Trek: Enterprise.

To be fair, it isn’t as if the show has the monopoly on bad episodes of the franchise. After all, the original Star Trek gave us And The Children Shall Lead, The Way to Eden and The Apple. Star Trek: The Next Generation gave us Code of Honour, Angel One, The Child and Up the Long Ladder. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine produced Let He Who Is Without Sin, Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak. Star Trek: Voyager is responsible for Fair Haven and Spirit Folk. When you produce twenty-something episodes of television a year, terrible episodes happen.

We are Trip, of Bored...

We are Trip, of Bored…

Indeed, they will keep happening. Precious Cargo cannot even make an indisputable claim to being the weakest story of the troubled second season. There are fans who will argue that A Night in Sickbay or Bounty deserve that accolade. Nevertheless, it seems like everyone is agreed that Precious Cargo is a disaster from start to finish. It is a collection of pulpy science-fiction clichés that feels overly familiar, a lazy comedy without any solid jokes and a complete lack of chemistry between the two leads.

Precious Cargo is a spectacular misfire, an ill-judged and poorly-constructed addition to the franchise.

"Wait, another Trip comedy episode?"

“Wait, another Trip comedy episode?”

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Star Trek – The Gamesters of Triskelion (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Gamesters of Triskelion is not a great episode of Star Trek. Although filmed after Obsession, even if the production order lists it before that episode, The Gamesters of Triskelion feels like we’re watching producer John Meredyth Lucas finding his feet. It’s an episode that feels light and looks relatively cheap, formed from a collection of clichés that would already be familiar to Star Trek fans or fans of pulp science-fiction.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about The Gamesters of Triskelion is that it has a decidedly pulpy charm to it. The entire episode looks like it was lifted from the cover to some trashy paperback, and the plot is recycled from stock science-fiction concepts and themes. While this isn’t enough to sustain an entire fifty minutes of television, it does allow the episode to feel a little distinctive and memorable… if not necessarily in a good way.

Shat happens...

Shat happens…

It is amazing how much of the franchise’s memorable iconography and imagery comes from weaker episodes of the classic Star Trek. It’s a testament to the show’s production design team, that could always find a way to make Star Trek look impressive, even on a tight budget and a short schedule. There’s also something enduring about the bizarre images that Star Trek could throw up on screen, even when the scripts were lacking; from space!Lincoln in The Savage Curtain to half-black/half-white racism in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

Of course, there are episodes that are both great and iconic at at the same time, like Mirror, Mirror. Still, rewatching the show, it is hard to believe just how much of the popular perception of Star Trek comes from episodes that are of… questionable quality. After all, The Gamesters of Triskelion seems to have made an impression. It seems to be a go-to reference for Matt Groening’s television shows.

Throwing a bit of stick about...

Throwing a bit of stick about…

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