Watching Movies: Steven Spielberg’s 1941

1941 is a six year old’s idea of a movie, all punchlines and no setups, a gargantuan Three Stooges skit that goes on for two hours of houses collapsing, things falling on people, people punching someone and accidentally punching someone else, vehicles ramming into each other and comic actors mugging for the camera for three seconds before the camera cuts to the next bang and swoosh.

Characters and story are left behind. Even the jokes rarely have setups. Most things just begin exploding, falling, collapsing or 1941_movieburning. The few setups for the gags involve girls and they’re just there to get the ball rolling on the Three Stooges routines. It’s too many gags and not enough story even for a cartoon. It’s way too much for a live action movie, especially one set around WWII.

1941 was a bad idea and in bad taste, beautifully photographed, framed and timed, but with no script to go with all that effort. There is the occasional funny moment during the extended dance sequence, but that, like the entire movie, goes on much too long and there is nothing to follow it up with.

Too adult for kids and too immature even for teenagers, 1941 is stuck just being dumb. It’s a manic sequence of gags, where every second another one is being thrown at the screen tiring you out in the first ten minutes. And there’s another 108 minutes to go. By the time an exhausted General Stillwell says “It’s going to be a long war”; it feels like it’s already been the longest movie ever.

1941 is repetitive. Its small repertoire of gags rolls on, getting bigger, but not any better. Things just happen because they’re supposed to. Bullets always hit gas tanks or live wires. A trip always leads to a dozen people falling over each other. A fight always leads to punches being thrown at the wrong people. Cars and planes always begin crashing into each or through buildings. Fires always start when you aren’t looking at them. A movie can get away with one or two of these but not the same few gags rolled out so many times that they’re stale 10 minutes in.

The story about a Japanese sub looking to redeem its honor by blowing up Hollywood colliding with domestic panic over a Japanese invasion has as much substance as the latest adventure of the Alfalfa Gang or the Three Stooges. It’s just there so that the insane machine can begin bopping people over the head or splattering them with paint or setting them on fire. Everyone is an idiot. Wally’s quest to dance with his girlfriend at the USO is the closest thing to a main story, but by the end he’s rattling on in a tank to the end of a pier to shoot at a sub, while leaving her behind for no other reason than that the next gag demands it. Just as his crew are throwing things at each other for no other reason.

Imagine a pie thrown in the face for 118 minutes and that’s 1941. Sometimes the pie is a little bigger. Sometimes it’s got motor oil inside. Sometimes it’s on fire. Sometimes there’s a naked girl in it. But it’s still the same pie for 118 minutes.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull movie review

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull movie posterTwenty-seven years ago Indiana Jones first arrived on the screen in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Since then he’s made three sequels and been subject to endless novelizations, games and parodies. We’ve gotten to know Indy pretty well over this last generation, well enough to recognize Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for what it is, a pastiche of the first three movies mixed together with heaps of nostalgia and George Lucas’ own derivative brand of mythology and alternative archeology.

When Indiana Jones makes his appearance after 19 years in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it’s clear that he’s gotten a lot older and softer, but it’s also clear that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have gotten a lot older and softer too. Like its lead, its director and its visionary, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull still has some energy, but it’s bloated, slow and guilty of repeating itself.

The adventurous hero is gone replaced by a tired old man, a former government agent who worries about his job, defends his war record and clings nervously to the back of Shia LeBeouf’s motorcycle. A silly character who flails panicked in the swamp at the thought of grabbing onto a snake until Shia LeBeouf calms his fears by telling him it’s a rope. Lucas and Spielberg leave in just enough heroics for us to recognize the old Indiana Jones, but it’s a disappointed recognition like meeting a favorite uncle only to realize that he’s grown senile and can barely go to the bathroom on his own.

Much of the blame goes to George Lucas, the man behind the rewrite of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, who doesn’t spare Indiana Jones from the same ravages he inflicted on Star Wars. Not only is the old Indiana Jones gone but he’s virtually a supporting character in his own movie which teams him up with Shia LeBeouf as his bratty long lost son, Mutt Williams, Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, Ray Winstone as Mac and finally John Hurt as a mentally challenged Professor Oxley who speaks in riddles. Indiana Jones always had his sidekicks but in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it’s more like he’s another member of the Indy gang, which is exactly what Lucas likely intended.

Where Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom began in foreign locales, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull begins in exotic Nevada and then heads off to an even more exotic Ivy League college campus. Over a third of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull goes by before Indiana Jones even leaves American soil. Once he does there’s a single plane trip and then it’s a generic South American locale, complete with generic tribesmen with painted faces. Indiana Jones movies were always journey movies, but even that is lost as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull focuses its attention on two sprawling complexes, the Area 51 complex and the lost city and the area around it. There’s no real adventure because there’s hardly any room for adventure.

So what’s left? Steven Spielberg seemed terribly worried that spoilers would leak out to the audience, but every single plot twist and revelation in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can be easily seen coming. Is there anyone in the audience who really doesn’t know well beforehand that Mutt Williams will turn out to be Indiana Jones’ son. Or that Mac is really working for the Russians even when he pretends not to be. Or that the crystal skulls belong to aliens or even that the pyramid will likely be a spaceship or that in the tradition of Indiana Jones villains, Irina Spalko will get exactly what she wants and it will destroy her. But Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s script is too determined to spoil it for you in case you can’t figure it out for yourself by actually having Indiana Jones come right out and tell her that early on in the movie.

Where the classic Indiana Jones films had the edge of the politically incorrect serials combined with the best scares, twists and action scenes that Spielberg could pull off, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is safely toned down and kid friendly. The creatures that pop up in the movie, from monkeys to red ants to a giant snake are safely CGI and look as unreal as anything in the Mummy films. To make Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fully family friendly, Lucas and Spielberg even make sure that there’s a family on screen having actual adventures. It’s as if Terminator got remade by the director of Lassie.

By the time Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ends with an on screen wedding and Indiana Jones and Mutt Williams tussling for his signature hat, a not too subtle symbolic suggestion that Shia LeBeouf will be the star of the Indiana Jones movies pretty soon, it’s clear that while Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t quite another Phantom Menace, it’s so watered down and weak that it barely connects not only as an action movie or an adventure, but as anything beyond a diffuse nostalgia trip and a merchandising opportunity. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is Indiana Jones on life support, not so much because Harrison Ford got old, but because George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did, and seeing it reminds us that while Indiana Jones is still capable of cracking the whip, the men who made the gutsy movies and created the modern blockbuster are the ones who have lost their edge.

A.I. Journey to the Cybernetic Realm of the Spirit

A.I. or Artificial Intelligence, based on the Brian Aldiss Science Fiction short story, “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” is an attempt to create a cybernetic fairy tale with a space age android Pinocchio in a world as real as human strivings and as remote as myth.

Originally developed by visionary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and filmed by Steven Spielberg after his death, A.I. takes place in a world where the ice caps have melted, much of the world is underwater and the first world nations have dramatically reduced their populations creating a United States whose great cities are no more, whose families are small and childless and whose people look desperately for hollow amusements as the extinction of humanity approaches.

The essential questions A.I. asks are less about technology and more about emotion. What are real love and hope. Do they define humanity or are they fundamentally irrational? Is a machine that strives to love hopelessly and hope for love, merely following a pre-programmed course or showing genuine signs of a soul? And if it is a pre-programmed course, does that truly make the machine any different than its human creators?

Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg are both renowned directors who have produced movies that nearly everyone is familiar with. Their movies however are divided by fundamentally different perspectives. Spielberg is familiar to everyone for realizing movies driven by a child’s eye view of the world. Able to capture the magic of the child’s perspective, Spielberg dives us into a world where magic is real, filled with children’s jokes and a child’s dreamscape. Stanley Kubrick by contrast is the eternal adult, whose vision rigidly operates in a precisely linear and painfully serious world where the chaotic malaise of human emotions often gives way to random brutality and senseless acts of destruction. Where humanity’s vision vastly outstrips its grasp and though those dreams are beautiful, they are generally out of our reach.

These two perspectives create a fundamental mismatch that has a serious affect on A.I. A.I. was one of Spielberg’s transition films, with which he was attempting to make the move to a serious filmmaker. Unfortunately having sold his birthright, Spielberg has never been quite able to embrace the adult vision. A.I. is a movie that takes place in a child’s world by adult rules. David (Haley Joel Osment), the mecha, the artificial boy, sees the world as a child. But it is an adult world, a mortal world slipping into the abyss of dissolution. A world sinking underwater, doomed to be covered with ice and its human residents replaced by their own creations.

A.I. gives us the journey of a child who believes in magic and love. Does he believe it merely because he is programmed to? His creator suggests otherwise claiming that this achievement makes David unique in penetrating to the realm of dreams which adjoins the human potential. But after this reunion, he immediately sets to creating other models of David himself. Can an industrial process create the soul? In his desire to be a human boy, to be loved, David refuses the technological course and pursues a the story of Pinocchio, seeking out the blue fairy.

Originally created as a substitute child for parents whose own boy was in a coma, David lacks the complete range of human instincts to fit in and interact properly with his parents. When their own child returns, he helps create situations that insure they will reject and expel David. David wanders through the world on his quest, falls in among other outcast illegal Mecha and is captured and sent to a Flesh Fair. The Flesh Fair specializes in the destruction of Mechas for public entertainment, but the crowd draws the line at the destruction of David who refuses to admit he is a machine and insists instead that he is a little boy. The crowd’s uprising feels less Kubrick and more classic Spielberg with its optimistic naive faith in humanity and their willingness to do the right thing on cinematic cue.

In the process David meets a cybernetic gigolo, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) who like David was created to fill the emotional and physical needs of humans. The difference between him and David is that he knows this fact too well to allow himself to be emotionally vulnerable or confuse himself with humanity, as David does. Nevertheless Gigolo Joe helps David on his quest which finally takes them to the sunken city of Manhattan at the End of the World.

But David’s meeting with his creator fails to fulfill his desire. Instead David hurls himself into the ocean and finding a statue resembling the Blue Fairy, he waits there for two thousand years while the oceans freeze and humanity becomes extinct, still wishing to be a real boy.

He wakes into a frozen world where the descendants of the mechas rule and humanity is gone. To the new masters of earth, David is a valuable link to humanity, but what David wants most is to be loved by the mother who rejected him because of his artificiality. Though with Teddy’s help, David finds a lock of his mother’s hair, his hosts tell him that she can exist for only one day. Still firmed by a belief in magical thinking, David insists that she will be different.

In what may have been a vision or reality, David spends a wonderful loving day with his mother. When the day ends, they both die, going to the place beyond dreams. In the real world David’s wish to be a real boy could never be fulfilled. Whether even his wish to be with his mother again was ever fulfilled is itself debatable. But David’s persistence in magical thinking allowed him to experience the transcendence of human love and to supersede even dreams.

While A.I.’s movie poster insisted that David’s role was real, that can only remain a matter of debate. In a technological world doomed by its own folly, David insisted on magical thinking. Whether that magical thinking was the same kind of thinking that doomed humanity as well as himself is a matter of debate. In the struggle between beauty and truth, A.I. gives us a world governed by truth still seeking beauty. The machine is the truth, the linear practical nuts and bolts of programming, structure and physics. Beauty is the attempt to transcend truth with magic, with art, with faith. David, a machine, seeks the beauty of humanity and love, and the hopeless irrationality of his quest, is what makes it one of transcended.

In true fairy tales, beauty and art can transcend the limits of reality. In a cybernetic fairy tale, they must still be governed by what can be. Fairy tales that are delineated by reality are tragedies and A.I. wavers between the tragedy and triumph of David’s quest which fails in reality, but succeeds in the spirit.