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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen and Shia LaBeouf
written by David Koepp, George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson & directed by Steven Spielberg
Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.
92%

Nearly 20 years after his last adventure (in both real and narrative time) Indiana Jones (Ford) finds himself matching wits with Soviet Communists in a search for a mysterious artifact with unspecified paranormal powers. The quest leads Indy from the deserts of Nevada to the jungles of South America, with the usual mad chases and death-defying stunts along the way, and yields results that even the world’s most famous archaeologist would never have expected.

At first blush, Indiana Jones in full costume looks a bit out of place in late-1950s America, where the Red Scare is in full cry. The consummate acquirer of priceless relics has become a bit of a relic himself, with distinguished service in the Second World War and a few dozen missions as a secret agent under his belt. As young upstart Mutt Williams (LaBeouf) points out, Indy isn’t as young as he used to be. Rather than try to pretend that he is, or tire us with an endless array of “old” jokes, the film makes Indy’s (and Ford’s) age an organic part of the script.

Along almost as a sort of corrective (at least at first) to Indy’s advancing age is the Mutt Williams character, who definitely does belong in the ’50s. LaBeouf is top-notch in the role, and the character is a likable addition to the franchise (Lucas has hinted that he might even assume a more central role in it, though we’ll leave that possibility alone for the time being). Speaking of Lucas, it is sometimes difficult to sniff out the contribution of any one person in a collaborative effort like this, but if I had to guess, I would say he is likely the one to blame for the excessive use of CG in the film. The new technology is marvelous, yes, but should always be used with restraint (a concept that appears to be quite beyond Lucas). In an Indiana Jones movie, it just contributes to lazy filmmaking. Did we really need the computer-animated gophers, for instance? And along the lines of goofy critter appearances, I suspect that the man who came up with Ewoks is also responsible for the ridiculous monkey interlude during the film’s spectacular jungle chase sequence, which adds nothing to the scene but an excellent reason for a collective groan from the audience.

The action in Crystal Skull is, let’s face it, a bit silly in general. Indy’s exploits have always inspired exclamations of “I can’t believe he just did that!” But more than once, the shenanigans on this outing will inspire a more skeptical, “I can’t believe he just did that.” It is a subtle, but important, difference. (Walking away from an atomic blast? Seriously? Side note: Close observers of the current president’s verbal foibles will be interested to know that he and Indiana Jones share their pronunciation of “nuclear.”) Really, though, each of the films has its moments that stretch suspension of disbelief to the breaking point (consider the leap from an airplane aboard a life raft in Temple of Doom). The action sequences in the Indiana Jones films have always been a little silly.

Harrison Ford and Karen Allen step comfortably back into their old roles, and the Lucas/Spielberg team is in top form bringing their latest adventure to life. I confess that I actually got chills when the “Lucasfilm” logo first appeared on the screen, and the feeling stayed with me more often than not. Having explored the possibilities offered by three of the oldest surviving world religions, the writers have turned in the only direction they logically could have (and one that will be familiar to any fan of “Stargate,” though perhaps I’ve said too much).

The historicity of this particular plot may prove to be a sticking point for some (hokey religions, indeed . . . it certainly doesn’t have the appeal, to me at least, of the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail), but they really make it work. One of the greatest thing about Indy is that he is truly a pan-academic; an equal-opportunity scholar. He seems to know something about every period and culture in history, and is conversant in every language, dialect, and dead tongue under the sun. It’s all just part of the fun. And, just as The Last Crusade isn’t really about the search for the Holy Grail, this movie has much more to do with the continuing life of the Indiana Jones character than the surface action that drives the plot. After all, Lucas himself refers to the artifacts in all of the Indy films as “MacGuffins.”

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the film that Temple of Doom should have been (in many ways, one might almost say it is the same film conceptually). Thematically, this is the perfect third chapter, bringing character arcs that have been dangling for 20+ years to a satisfactory resolution. And, in addition to the other Indiana Jones movies, there are moments that are reminiscent of Lucas’s American Graffiti and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind . . . even a nod in the direction of Star Wars. While both Lucas and Spielberg have made better films, this one is in some ways the apotheosis of everything they’ve been doing cinematically for the past 30 years and more. At its heart, that simply means that once the lights go down, we’re in for a grand time.

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~ by Jared on May 23, 2008.

4 Responses to “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”

  1. 92%?! Good heavens, no! This film was unqualifiably awful and an incredible disgrace to the legacy of the first three films. I’d warrent it between 25% and 35%, depending on how generous I’m feeling. Last Crusade remains the greatest Indiana Jones film (great pacing, wonderfully dry humor, thrilling action scenes), with Temple of Doom (a mesmerizingly dark-humored roller-coaster ride) just ahead of Raiders of the Lost Ark (suffers from pacing that is far too quick but is otherwise a classic in every sense) for second place. All three of the original films were based around the supernatural, the legendary, the mythical… NOT ALIENS. Heck, even the alien bit might’ve worked had David Koepp’s screenplay not been so atrociously inept at telling any semblence of a comprehensible story (and had Spielberg learned his lesson by now to STOP showing the aliens), much less Harrison’s stiff, non-existent performance as some guy named “Indiana Jones.” Cate Blanchett and Shia LeBeouf were the only remotely interesting aspects of the movie (besides John Williams’ excellent score); both turned in great performances and made the most of the awful material they were forced to act out. Marion Ravenwood’s part in the story felt as though Lucas and Koepp stuck her in at the last minute just to get a love interest in there for Indy; none of the re-romance between the two of them felt at ALL genuine as it did in the original film and the “family” scenes were as trite as they were awkward.

    The one-liners and “humor” in the film were forced, uneven, and just plain unfunny. The action scenes ranged from almost getting it right (the motorcycle chase) to just plain preposterous (the nuclear explosion scene… good grief, that was stupid; also, the truck chase, featuring LeBeouf goofing it up as Tarzan). Not ONCE did this film truly feel like an Indiana Jones movie so much as it exemplified the very characteristics of “Sci-Fi-original-movie-meets-X-Files” gone terribly wrong. Spielberg threw any and all sense of danger out the window, something which made the first three films so intense and enjoyable. Crystal Skull merely featured an over-abundance of CGI usage, replacing the live-action grittiness of the original films that made them look so believable and feel so breathtaking; it’s the only one of the four films to have been filmed entirely in the U.S. and good grief does it show.

    An emberassing film and a truly depressing way for Harrison Ford to close out his career as the fedora-donning hero we all know and love. I had to watch The Last Crusade shortly after getting home from Crystal Skull just to wash the incredibly bad taste left in my mouth by this joke of a movie. This film can never be a part of the official Indiana Jones canon, and the original film series stands today as just that: a truly magnificent TRILOGY of films.

  2. It seems that so far about 1/3 to 1/2 of Indiana Jones fans agree that Indy 4 is a blight upon the franchise, while the rest range from reserved enthusiasm to full acceptance. I’m not totally unsympathetic with those who loathed the film. There were certainly moments where it just didn’t work, and I think most of your specific criticism is valid . . . we’ve both pointed out the awfulness of themonkey/Tarzan scene, for example. However, none of the Indy films is perfect, and there is a wide variety of opinion even within the fan community as to the relative quality of each film. You’re actually the first person I’ve encountered who would class Raiders as the least of the original trilogy.

    Last Crusade remains my personal favorite, as well. Fantastic characters, locations, plot, action, humor . . . just all-around great. But I’d classify Raiders as the best film of the bunch, and a very close 2nd. It is, to my mind, the one that is a truly great movie on top of being a truly great Indiana Jones movie.

    Temple of Doom (which I just watched last week before the new film came out) is, to me, not even in the same league. There are some fantastic moments in it (the introductory sequence may well be my favorite), but they just draw more attention to the unevenness of the material. Willie Scott in particular is annoying during virtually every moment she is on screen. It almost plays like a war of moods, with Spielberg constantly inserting goofball humor (i.e. the ridiculous banquet scene) to off-set Lucas’s overwhelmingly oppressive story. And speaking of the basis for the Indy stories, the Sankara Stones surely remain the least of Lucas’s MacGuffins. They have a sort of basis in Hindu mythology, but it doesn’t remotely resemble their presentation in the movie. They simply do not work.

    All that to say, I think one’s opinion of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its place in the series is largely a factor of how willing one is to accept it on its own terms, and those terms are (of necessity, in my opinion) very different from the earlier Indiana Jones movies. There is such a grand sense of resolution and finality at the end of Last Crusade that the very idea of making another sequel is rather dubious at best. But they did, and here’s why I think it deserves equal footing with the other Indy sequels:

    20 years have passed since the last Indy film was made. You can’t go back, and Spielberg and Lucas were wise not to try. However, more importantly, they have moved Indiana Jones into a very different world from the one he inhabited. Gone are the adventure serials and westerns of the 1930s which the original trilogy emulates and pays homage to so well.

    The character is now in the midst of the so-called Atomic Age, an era dominated by fears of nuclear holocaust (a subject which played itself out in virtually every genre of film during those decades, from comedy to romance to thriller, both on television and in the movies). If there is one image that can be said to dominate the American psyche of the times, it is the mushroom cloud.

    It was also a time when the heroes of Saturday serials traded cowboy hats and six-shooters for space helmets and ray guns. One proposed title for Indy 4 was Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars (a concept that is still referenced in the film itself). It is certainly much more evocative of the 1950s, and might have better prepared audiences for the change in tone of the new film.

    Most importantly of all, speaking in terms of the series, it brings the character (as I mentioned above) in a logical character arc from Raiders through Last Crusade to a point of resolution. It was, in some ways, a resolution that would not have been missed if the movie had not been made, but it was appropriate and satisfying nonetheless. Everything else is just window-dressing.

    So, in my opinion, the new Indiana Jones film is what it needs to be, and it works. Should they have stopped at three films and left well enough alone? I can definitely see that argument being made. What if they’d gone a different way? What if, having made their trilogy of ’30s-style adventure serials in the 1980s, they had begun a new trilogy of ’50s-style sci-fi serials starring a totally new hero; a hero unburdened by the expectations that the Indiana Jones character has? Maybe they should have made Spaceman Spiff and the Saucer Men from Mars . . . but in the world of summer blockbuster franchises and an industry that bets only on sure things (a landscape that Spielberg and Lucas helped create 30 years ago), would it ever have gotten off the ground?

  3. Jared, your reference to “Stargate” is quite appropriate. Apart from the general thematic connections between the two, there were several visuals in the movie that looked like they could have been lifted straight out of the TV series. For that matter, “Stargate” did an episode about a crystal skull (one of my favorites) in one of its earlier seasons.

  4. Hardly 92%, although much better than Kung Fu Panda. It is hard to visualize a 60+ year old Indiana Jones doing what he does.

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