Archive for Garden of Evil

Indiana Jones and the Garden of Evil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2008 by dcairns

(We need shorthand ways to refer to the titles of the four INDIANA JONES movies. I suggest RAIDARK, TEMPOOM, LASTADE and CRYSKULL.)

Top of the World

Watching Henry Hathaway’s Mexican-western adventure GARDEN OF EVIL (in glorious Technicolor and Cinemascope) not so very long after seeing Spielberg and Lucas’ INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST TEMPLE OF THE LAST CRYSTAL SKULL got me thinking about various things, including imaginary landscapes.

I don’t want to get all nostalgic and neophobic and bash the Spielberg for being modern — GARDEN OF EVIL isn’t actually a brilliant film either, and the slam-bang ethos of the Spielberg actually helps make it watchable. If you have no very interesting ideas, at least speed of delivery can be your friend.

She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain

It’s actually easier to bash CRYSKULL by comparing it with the first in the series. RAIDARK was an enjoyably SOLID film, using real locations and stunt men, not C.G. dreamscapes and flying synthespians. This had the effect of grounding it — there are very few truly unbelievable things in that film, and they’ve been discussed to death: “How does Indie hitch a ride on a U-boat?” etc. When a truck is overturned, the effects team made it happen by firing a dirty great log through it, hitting the ground beneath and tipping the vehicle over — and you can see the log in the finished film. On the one hand, it’s a technical flaw (no time for re-takes, for the first time Spielberg’s fee was tied to his bringing the movie in on budget and on schedule, so for the first time he TRIED), on the other hand it proves the stunt actually took place. It really happened, therefore it COULD happen.

Where would you even start with TEMPOOM or CRYSKULL? The sequels are catalogues of impossibilities, cartoony assaults on the laws of physics, with miniatures and matte paintings giving way to digital jiggery-pokery, as everyone labours under that terrible misapprehension of modern action cinema: we can do “ANYTHING.” The fact is, just because modern computer graphics allow an expensive filmmaker like Spielberg to represent whatever he chooses in a slick, photo-realist fashion, does NOT mean the audience has to believe it. We don’t for instance, believe that archaeological relic Harrison Ford can survive sailing over three gigantic waterfalls in an amphibious vehicle. We certainly don’t believe John Hurt can. Early on, Ford shields himself from an H-bomb blast by hiding in a refrigerator. “Could you survive an atomic explosion by climbing into a fridge?” asked Fiona. “Let me put it this way,” I replied, all Mr. Science and everything, “You couldn’t survive climbing into a fridge.”

Obviously, a film like CRYSKULL, and far worse stuff like Lucas’ appalling STAR WARS prequels (at least the JONES has some nice lines and appealing performers in sometimes amusing situations) will make hangars full of money by appealing to the public’s fondness for the originals, but the reliance on C.G. strikes me as odd. The public doesn’t actually LIKE C.G.I. Ask anybody. Obviously, what people mean is they don’t like tacky, obvious C.G.I. But what do they mean by THAT?

The hills are alive

Spielberg said something quite interesting once, something about the public ALWAYS knowing when something is C.G. It’s very nearly true. We know something is a special effect when we know it HAS to be. The most convincing effects in that piece of junk JURASSIC PARK II, for instance, are the vehicles. I didn’t realise, watching it, that many of the jeeps and trucks in many shots, are C.G. creations: far easier to make them interact with C.G. dinosaurs that way. So C.G.I. might be most effective when it’s used to present something we can believe in. Trusting the audience to be smart enough to actually question the reality of the images placed before them would be a good first step in fooling them successfully, with entertainment as the ultimate goal.

Think of the dinosaur stampede in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG. Ignoring the rather glaring flaw that the characters running about amid the brontosaurs’ feet are all perfectly illuminated by bright sunlight in three-quarter backlighting, necessitating the assumption that these dinosaurs are somehow TRANSPARENT, does anybody actually believe any of those characters would have survived five seconds in that situation? Scaling back the ambition to wow us with spectacular visuals would be a useful step in actually wowing us with dramatic situations possessing some modicum of convincing risk.

The Hills Have Eyes

Looking at the nice special effect landscapes in GARDEN OF EVIL’s mountain scenes, I was partly moved by an admittedly nostalgic fondness for matte paintings, but I also reflected that what matters just as much as the paintings on the right of the screen is the authentic landscapes on the left, photographed with skill and at some expense of time, effort and money. Doing the whole thing in the studio has always been a mark of cheapness in adventure cinema, with 1933’s KING KONG the honorable exception. We want to believe the filmmakers went on an adventure to get genuinely dangerous footage.

If filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas followed the same logic in C.G. landscapes that they apply to action sequences, the artificial jungles and mountains of CRYSKULL would teeter on spindles like the Cloud City of Bespin in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, they would be stretching and distorted melting cheeselands like the worlds of Dr. Seuss, and be polka-dotted and patterned in ludicrous hues like the musical numbers in THE GANG’S ALL HERE. But they’re not. Because the filmmakers are smart enough to know that such silly antics wouldn’t fly with an audience. Why can’t they apply the same logic to their action scenes?

I Shot an Arrow in the Air

(There’s a moral question here — should Spielberg have stuntmen do dangerous stuff when he could fake it all up? Recently there have been serious accidents on the new Bond and BATMAN films. Personally, I can’t look in real life if somebody does something dangerous, so I’d be rubbish at this kind of cinema. And yet I love Keaton and admire classic Jackie Chan and quite a few older action films. I think doing it for real is aesthetically preferable in every way, but perhaps not morally. We remember what happened on Spielberg’s production of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, after all. How common are serious accidents? I don’t know, but when Paul Verhoeven needed amputee stuntmen for STARSHIP TROOPERS, he had no trouble finding them. Lots of them.)