Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 05/21/08 12:40:53

"Does this mean David Keith will reprise his role as Tennessee Buck?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It’s hard to review “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” without getting carried away with the nostalgia that inevitably attaches itself to such projects. Too many questions get raised: Do we like it because it brings us back to our youth? Or do we dislike it because it feels like a desperate attempt to go back to the well and cash in before it’s too late? Does the showmanship and naiveté of its time translate well with the more hardened cynics and instant backlashers of today? Will teenagers really care about a new Indiana Jones movie, or will it only cater to those of us who grew up with the franchise, can quote it endlessly and who can spot all 17,000 inside jokes lurking within this latest installment?

Who can say? You know where you fall into these categories. I myself am an Indiana Jones nostalgia geek. I still have a few artifacts from my childhood and I did walk into this film with an anticipation almost equal to that of a teenage girl in the ‘60s waiting for a new Beatles album. I can’t help it. I fell for it. I can be just as jaded and cynical as the next blogger, but Spielberg, Ford and Karen Allen lured me in without much of a struggle, in spite of the fact that it’s been 20 years since Ford donned the Fedora and cracked the bullwhip.

So, is Harrison Ford too old? It doesn’t appear so, although I wouldn’t exactly suggest using this film as a starting off point for another trilogy. He still wears it well, still has his edge and can still throw a damn good punch. He still owns Indiana Jones, grey hair and all and no one can take it away from him. Likewise, Karen Allen is still Marion, although a little inconsistent from the first film. Her tough-as-nails demeanor seems to have dissipated a little. Still, she proves that Marion helped make the first Indiana Jones outing the classic it has become (and still the best in the series). She never whined or just stepped aside. Always a part of the solution and never a part of the problem. The same holds true here.

But does the rest of the film remain respectful to its roots? For the most part, yes. Indy has aged 20 years and still works as a professor. The screenplay hints at him working for the government, but doesn’t elaborate much. The film opens with a typically non-sequetor action sequence that doubles as an intro to our central villains, particularly the uniformed, Russian moll Irina Spalko (a sexy, sinister Cate Blanchette). Joining Indy is ‘Mac’ George McHale (Ray Winstone), an agent whose primary allegiance remains in question. In true nostalgic form, the movie opens in a warehouse where (you guessed it) thousands and thousands of crates have been stored. Somewhere in here lies… Never mind.

The bigger story kicks in later as teenager Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, and no I did not mis-spell his character’s name) tracks Indy down and informs him of a missing colleague of his, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who went missing while searching for the mysterious Crystal Skull (and the less I say about that part of the story the better). Why is Mutt telling this to Indy? Because his mother told him to. Indy is obviously the most resourceful person Mutt’s mother can think of to help in this predicament. Have you guessed who Mutt’s mother is yet? You got it. Marion…Williams.

All of this leads to Indy, Mutt, Marion, Oxley and sometimes Mac on a series of cliffhangers, car chases and booby traps, all while laws of physics get broken more than the properties on which these action scenes take place. We get taken deep into dark graveyards, gigantic waterfalls and even into a nuclear testing facility, where the movie seems to have the most fun. Of course, as with the first three films, there has to be a creepy-crawly element to the action at some point. Raiders had snakes. Temple of Doom had bugs. Last Crusade had rats. Crystal Skull has… what, you think I’m going to spoil it for you?

Although, there doesn’t seem to be much time for Indy and Marion to rekindle the chemistry they had in the first film, it’s still a worthwhile homecoming. When watching the first three films, it becomes evident that the women in the Indiana Jones movies carry just as much importance as Indy himself. In this day and age when youthfulness seems to trump everything else, Spielberg and company deserve credit for bringing back the only woman in the series who was Indy’s equal (and at times, his superior). When Marion asks Indy why he never settled down with any of the other women, the audience knows the answer before he even says it: “They weren’t you, babe.”

While the movie delivers ten-fold on the action, nostalgia and humor fronts, it’s not without its problems. A couple sequences seem to fizzle out before they have a chance to really get going. A scene in a graveyard involving poisonous darts could have gone on longer. The cutesy CGI critters at the film’s opening gave me the impression that George Lucas stepped in to direct while Spielberg wasn’t looking. But the film’s main problem comes in the third act. I will not give anything away. In theory, though, this idea of the Crystal Skull’s origin could work well within the film’s chosen time period (late ‘50s), but once visualized on the screen and in such grand fashion, it becomes the biggest canker sore the series has had since the casting of Kate Capshaw. It simply does not work, nor does the film’s coda, which feels a little forced and unnecessary.

Most of the rest of the film, however, works quite well. Spielberg proves he’s still got it and that nobody (save for Peter Jackson) can do it quite as well. The rhythm of the movie feels right, the youthful element works and I did find myself ducking during what is so far the action sequence of the year (it involves cars, swords and vines). It’s especially refreshing to see some of these sequences played out on actual sets instead of CGI renderings. With Spielberg’s cinematographer Janusz Kaminski taking the reigns for the first time in the series, the film definitely looks different from the rest, especially in the film’s opening where Kaminski makes some of the most unusual lighting choices in recent memory. Still, it’s clear that Spielberg has as much invested in this as a director as we do as viewers and fans who don’t want to see our heroes’ journeys spoiled. Nobody wants that.

For some, though, this journey has been spoiled, judging from a few of the early reviews I’ve read. Film critics often hear from defensive filmgoers that “hey, it doesn’t have to be Citizen Kane. It’s just supposed to be fun.” Now, I find myself saying that. I understand that argument for big budget action films such as these and I’ll be the first to admit I’m being pretty forgiving of this film out of pure love and bias. I try to go into an Indy-wannabe (such as National Treasure 1 & 2) with the same mindset, but more often than not, they end up being joyless, plastic and condescending. When Spielberg makes an Indiana Jones movie, you can tell he loves it. I guess I do, too. For the most part, anyway.

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