There have been many films about aliens made by Steven Spielberg (E.T., Close Encounters, Men in Black, War of the Worlds) and George Lucas (Howard The Duck, Captain EO, The Ewok Adventure) but never have they made a film about aliens TOGETHER… until now. Of course the trailer misleadingly doesn’t tell us it’s about aliens, and it isn’t really, until it goes all M. Night on us towards the end, thanks to a story by Jeff Nathanson (Speed 2: Cruise Control) and screenplay by David Koepp (Death Becomes Her, Zathura).

Solid cinematography by Spielberg’s usual guy Janusz Kaminski (who also shot Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Cool As Ice). Editing by Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s main man for the last thirty years. These two along with S.S. give the movie its only interesting quality, the occasional feeling that this is good ol’ classic filmmaking, not a 2008 Hollywood blockbuster but something produced back when complicated shots couldn’t be corrected digitally in post, and when scenes were edited for clarity and not for “energy”. Of course, the scene of Shia The Beouf swinging on jungle vines with commie-hatin’ digital monkeys spoils that, but it’s a nice feeling while it lasts.

The story is a bunch of silliness… Indiana is kidnapped by commies and forced to lead ’em to the titular skull, which is an actual alien skull, one of thirteen from the peruvian lost city of gold. Skull is returned, lost city turns into a spaceship and flies off. Oh and Shia The Beouf is Indy’s son, which I saw coming as far back as the trailer.

Better than following the story is to follow the touchstones… the pointed references to history and past Indy movies. I haven’t seen a movie more desperate to establish its setting (1950’s America! 1950’s America!) since the Spielberg-produced Back to the Future. From little things like college-town diner gang rumbles between The Wild One-attired Beouf and some preppie kids, and comments on how large and thick refrigerators used to be (also done in BTTF 3) to big boys like nuclear bomb testing and anti-communist blacklists. Then we’ve got the presence (and child and climactic marriage) of Marion from Raiders and loving tributes to dead former collaborators Dr. Brody (Denholm Elliott, actually dead) and Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery, alive but retired), that theme music, Wilhelm screams, references to Indy hating snakes, nazi-like villains (hot chick-in-uniform Cate Blanchett) getting their faces melted Raiders-style by supernaturally powerful artifacts, the actual Ark of the Covenant in a comic cameo, and so much more. This, not the story, is the true reason the movie was made… to make us remember how much we loved Raiders in an attempt to make us love this one by association. Too much association!

H. Ford lacks some of his former charm and either his speech is slowing or he’s overplaying the old-man angle. The Beouf, a decent leading man, is really going places after this and Transformers. Nice to see Cate B., Ray Winstone from Sexy Beast, and Karen Allen who was apparently in In The Bedroom. Ringers Jim Broadbent and John Hurt (best of the bunch) round out a cast overqualified for an action flick, but not for a Spielberg action flick.

“You’re out there sellin’ love you don’t have.”

Modern black-and-white movies with awesome photography (Man Who Wasn’t There) or at least very good photography (Good Night and Good Luck) are great to watch (though it might be greater to see a non-period piece for a change, to watch modern people in modern clothes doing modern things shot in nice b/w [but not crappy and worthless people/things, as in Woody Allen’s Celebrity]), but that’s not what this is. The filmmaking is capable of course (it’s Soderbergh) but he’s using the b/w to attempt to recreate a movie from that period; not to shoot a modern film set in the 40’s but to shoot a 40’s film set in the 40’s.

Some part of Bloodshot Records’ company manifesto (or maybe I read it in the liners of one of their tribute compilations) says that they don’t choose artists who wish to pay “tribute” to an older artist by treating the songs as sacred, precious and remote objects, but rather artists who feel the joy and heartache of the originals and then play the songs as if they wrote ’em. Artists who practice the former method, who play “sacred cover songs”, may see the latter artists (“Bloodshot artists”, if I may generalize) as disrespectful, but actually it’s the sacred ones who are being disrespectful by acting as though a classic song is a historical artifact to be reverently studied rather than a still-relevant piece of music, as though adding their own passion into the mix might somehow damage the original. The Bloodshot artists realize that the original recordings of this song still exist and won’t somehow be injured by one more cover version. A Bloodshot artist isn’t playing the song to pay his (or more often “her”) dues to songwriters of olden days who paved the way for the new guys to achieve his current success… instead he’s admitting that he’s found a song with a better tune and better lyrics than he could hope to write, and so he plays it as wish fulfillment, working and sweating to assure that he can convey the passion he feels from the original, to prove to the listener that this was a song worth revisiting.

If Bloodshot was a film distributor rather than a record label, Steven Soderbergh would not be on their roster. As much as the man seems to love movies, his idea of “covering” a 40’s movie is dry and dull, accurately rendered but with no life or spirit to it. He’s the anti-Guy-Maddin. Here Soderbergh recreates historical cinema in such a way that makes you want to never see the original (“old movies are boooring”). Maddin sees more than was even there, glorifies, even fetishizes old movies, wants to crawl up inside them and wishes he could cast stars of the 20’s and 30’s in his modern movies as they were back then. Soderbergh, just happy to use George Clooney for the umpteenth time, tries to capture that film-noir feeling that he must consider lost from today’s cinema, meticulously recreating his idea of a 40’s film, draining it of all fun in the process. Someone needs to watch Confessions of a Dangerous Mind again.

Clooney (One Fine Day) is some kind of military investigator who falls for Blanchett (Charlotte Gray), who is the ex-girl of Tobey (Duke of Groove). Tobey gets killed, and I think maybe Cate kills him? She’s protecting her ex husband, thought to be dead but alive and hiding in the sewers because he saw Welles do it in The Third Man. Everyone gets killed or implicated in the end. Katy didn’t watch it.