Review: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008)
Old Man Jones is whipping up a storm!
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) is the best Indy movie after the blessed original. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have taken the whip-snapping archaeologist out for a fourth time while retaining some of the most crucial elements from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) that without tarnished the past two sequels. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a perfect movie. Far from it. There are quibbles galore, but it didn’t stop me from grinning throughout this popcorn entertainment. The fourth exceeding the original is impossible. Raiders is perfect.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), after twenty-seven years is still the best example of a character-driven action motion picture. There are no wasted moments and the exposition is told briskly so the adrenaline rush isn’t tempered. More importantly, the characters were larger than life, capable of nuance, and worth caring about. Watching Raiders in a revival theater last year was an uplifting experience. Spielberg and Lucas made the movie, one they personally would have liked to have seen, with great zeal and, more importantly, selfishness. Like a hyper-imaginative kid, he invented one exhilarating sequence after another and clocked in five minutes shy of two hours. When initially released, Raiders saved Hollywood at a time when ticket sales ebbed to a devastating low.
I approached the fourth one with trepidation after recalling how the sequels treated the fedora man so shamefully. “Docta Jones” anyone? Thankfully the fourth adventure is a hardy throwback that mostly succeeds in integrating the dashing 1930s rouge into the 1950s. The Indiana Jones saga now explores that decades’ hang ups: conspiracy theories, commies, and the stuff science-fiction magazines reveled in. Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, now in his fifties, is at a point in his life one of colleagues, Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent, Hot Fuzz, 2007), refers to as “where (it) stops giving you things and starts taking them away.”
After being harangued by Soviet soldiers (re: evil Russians — “I hate those guys…”) in search of an artifact not of this world, the Crystal Skull (re: The McGuffin), that promises infinite knowledge for those who return it to its sacred place in Peru. Indiana must stop them before it is too late. God, I really like the outrageousness here! It is an amusing, if odd clothesline for inventive stunt work, deaf-defying escapes, merciless beatings, and booby-trapped ruins. Spielberg stages car chases like musical chairs, consistently having our hero jump from one moving motorcade into another. There’s also a game of keep away with the elongated glass skull during a high speed pursuit in the jungle.
Most of the action scenes are accomplished, aided by older techniques like back screen projection and actually having the actors and stunt people perform their feats on location. Spielberg shot on film while avoiding as much CGI work as possible with veteran cinematographer and collaborator since Schindler’s List (1993), Janusz Kaminski. To best replicate the visual style so the fourth seems easily with the series, Kaminski and Spielberg studied and worked off of how the previous Indy films looked when helmed by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, now retired.
The tension of these action sequence is tamed by our perception that Indiana Jones is never in real danger. Of course he’s not, he is invisible. Watching Indy in action is like hanging on the adventurer’s coattails; he makes us believe that we can punch out six goons, jump from a high scaffoldings, and deliver a punchline. The appeal of Indy after the fight is over, seeing him so exhausted by it all, is having an inkling to the man’s mortality.
Harrison Ford is still the man, despite this return to form being the best role he’s had since he has played Dr. Richard Kimble in the great Andrew Davis thriller The Fugitive (1993). Years older, all that’s changed about Ford is his hair being white and his facial features look more defined, not aged. Acting with ease and command, Ford is the action hero equivalent to stone faced Buster Keaton. Sure, being thrown miles across the desert inside a refrigerator would break his neck, but its so cool that Indy just shakes it off before being haloed by a mushroom cloud from a distance. Though, it would have been great to see him use that whip more often than he did. Even a nod to that Raiders moment with how he disposes of a sword-wielding nemesis with exasperated tact.
Where the film really suffers is a belabored exposition in the middle of the movie that should be much tighter, but drags the production down. Indy’s partner ‘Mac’ George McHale played by the versatile Ray Winstone (Last Orders, 2001) isn’t given enough screen time. The character McHale changes sides more often than he does his shirt and Indy just keeps trusting the guy — a charming snake. John Hurt (Love and Death on Long Island, 1998) plays the fool to Indy’s King Leer as a once distinguished, now brainwashed archaeologist Professor ‘Ox’ Oxley, but not enough of Hurt’s ability to show such proud vanity is exercised here. Though Hurt, sunburned and disheveled, looks like he came straight out of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (one of 2006′s best), which also starred Winstone.
One overlooked element from Raiders not present in Skull is the horror factor. The 1981 film wasn’t shy about depicting great visual violence and it earned its R rating. When the Nazis got their comeuppance in the original once the ark was open, the visceral gore on the The Evil Dead level left a real impact. The compromise of a PG-13 rating does to Indy what happened with John “Yippee Ki-Ya, mother(gunshot!)” McClane, which only distills naive parents’ pious belief that young teens can’t see for example Zack Snyder’s 300. There isn’t even a good sudden scare to get the heart jacked whereas Raiders delivered a half-dozen sudden jolts.
The young Steven Spielberg would’ve made the man-eating ant scene look more harrowing. The goons just get sucked into a vortex, which Spielberg does us the disservice of showing what’s on the other side – the same Spielberg who usually shows his audience everything. And Irina Spalko deserved the grisly comeuppance a great villain deserves. If only her head became elongated and warped once she received all that knowledge. Even losing her eyeballs would’ve been sweet!
What makes this film’s existence crucial; however, is the women. At long, Indy is reunited with his old flame Marion Ravenwood played by the long lost Karen Allen with the cathectic smile. Their long history — she swooned over him as a teenager — and the fight, rage, passion, betrayal, vulnerability, and tenderness bubbles up when they so much as look at one another. This is the rousing chemistry great romance demands. It’s Movie Movie Love! Rick and Ilsa had it, so too do Indy and Marion. With years behind them, they have mellowed some, even calling each other “dear” with just a hint of snark. After never seeing one another for years due to another betrayal in commitment, they still want each other. The return of Marion makes the existence of the fourth movie vital and rectifies the great wrong of separating Indy and her.
The other woman in Indy’s life is his arch nemesis Soviet leader Irina Spalko played by the immaculate Cate Blanchett. This villain is iconic. She wears a Hitchcockian gray suit, shades, and a Louise Brooks hairdo; expect to see Spalko get ups this Halloween. It’s so refreshing watching a woman be evil and actually kick ass. She is everything Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy should have been. She fences! She throws punches! She drives ferociously! She fires a machine gun like The Joker did in that Harleyquinade episode! She even plays mind games! A pity she didn’t say “I’m a bit psychic!” Daphne Moon-style. Boy, what I’d give to be that man-eating ant crawling up Irina’s leg. That’s the way I want to go!
I have written in the past week about my displeasure seeing an action hero saddled with a kid. I am happy to report this is not the case with the appearance of leather-jacketed, motorcycle-driving Mutt (a dog’s name) Williams. Shia LaBeouf is spirited and colorful enough to be a good foil to Indiana Jones. There is welcome comic relief how Indy’s tune changes toward the youthful renegade after finding out it’s his own youthful renegade. Mutt even gets to pay homage to another 1930 adventure serial: Tarzan. I like Mutt, but I’m not at all keen to see Mutt Williams And The Key To Diablo’s Inferno.
Despite its flaws and the raised bar of Raiders, The Crystal Skull is still a good, (not great!) action-adventure film. If you can crack a smile when Indiana Jones warns his partner that “those tarts are poisoned!” when natives attack, you’re in the right frame of mind so get out of the library. Now that the rice has been thrown, it is time for Indy to enjoy a well-deserved retirement.
Kudos to the filmmakers for recognizing Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott, A Room With A View, 1985).
INDIANA JONES 4 Trailer 1
INDIANA JONES 4 Trailer 2
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK Trailer
UPDATE: June 6, 2008
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fridge…
(A moooooovvvviinng picture!)
UPDATE: October 8, 2008
A Must See! The South Park Boys witnessed what Speilberg and Lucus did to Indy…
Illustrated by Drew Struzan
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