A film review by Craig J. Koban
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF
THE CRYSTAL SKULL ½
2008, PG-13, 123 mins.
2008, PG-13, 123 mins.
Indiana Jones: Harrison Ford / Irina Spalko: Cate Blanchett / Marion
Ravenwood: Karen Allen / Mutt Williams: Shia LeBeouf / "Mac"
McHale: Ray Winstone / Prof. Oxley: John Hurt / Dean Stanforth:
So grumbles the aging,
wiser, more world weary - but still rough 'n rugged - 65-year-old
archeologist, Indiana Jones, at the beginning of the fourth film in the
Indy Quadrilogy, THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL.
The opening sequence of the film does a pitch perfect job of firmly
encapsulating and harkening back to the legendary iconography and
mischievous tone of the previous Indy adventures.
films, which were set ostensibly in the 1930’s and pitted Indy against
damn, dirty Nazi scum (he hated those guys) has now been shifted to
1957, an appropriate move considering the advancing years of SKULL’s
title hero. Now that the
Nazis are caput, Indy faces an even more deadly and ravenous enemy against
God and country: Deplorable commies that want to wash away America in a wave of
the Red Scare. I mean,
Nazis are easily the most secure villains in terms of our simplistic
hatred of them, but bringing Russians to the mix reflects the paranoid
mindset – and passionately heated Cold War milieu – of the period.
It’s kind of a trip to see Ruskies – once very disposable
villains in movies 20-plus years ago – back into the fold as
protagonists that are easy to despise.
to the opening sequence of CRYSTAL SKULL, which left a really wide
smile on my face. Indy, of
course, is still played by Harrison Ford with the requisite combination of
guts, perseverance, and stubborn grit.
He’s aged a lot and is certainly not quite the man of limited
years he was before, but the physical mileage he’s clocked on over the
last few decades has not made him any less determined and intrepid. Ford, kind of like Clint Eastwood in his latter westerns,
continues to have a face that has matured so timelessly: With sullen eyes,
that roguish half-grin, and a fedora-clad profile, he is an actor that
director John Ford would have yearned to shoot.
Watching Ford here is a nostalgic treat and there is that spark in
his eyes that has been regrettably vacant in his last few performances.
to that opening sequence!
Our first image of Indy is, very appropriately, enigmatic.
He has been stowed away in the truck of a Russian military vehicle,
is taken out, and hurled to the ground.
His fedora lays a few feet away.
We see Indy walk over, pick it up, put it on his head, all done in
as a noirish shadow on the vehicle.
He then turns around in a reveal worthy of a classic western to
confront his Red enemies.
learn that the Russian military caravan is in Nevada and have snuck into a
very, very top secret US government location called “Hanger
51”. Also kidnapped
with our hero is his sidekick of many years and adventures, Mac (Ray
Winstone). All of the
Russian’s firepower are set on the pair, and Indy hilariously dead pans
to his partner, “Put your hands down, yer embarrassing me.”
The Ruskies are led by a femme fetale, Colonel Irina Spalko (the
wonderful Cate Blanchett, sinking her teeth into a full-on villainess
role). She wants Indy to help
her comrades find a mysterious object of enormous power that, we learn,
Indy and the US government unearthed over a decade ago. This, of course, is that same warehouse back in
1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
where the Ark of the Covenant was left to collect dust (it makes a brief
cameo). Once Indy does lead
the Russians to the box and reveals the contents to be literally
out of this world, the scene then swings into classic Indy adventure mode.
a dreaded double cross, Indy then has to secure himself away from the
Russians in a virtuoso action sequence that involves guns, swords, head on
collisions with military vehicles, a secret missile silo that is
accidentally turned on during Indy’s fisticuffs with a unstoppable
Russian brute, and eventually culminates with the hero accidentally
stumbling on to an Atomic Bomb testing site (it’s a mock up of a
suburban neighborhood with mannequins).
When warning sirens turn on and the countdown begins, Indy
nonchalantly mutters, “That can’t be good.”
whole sequence reveals why I adore the Indy films.
It’s clear that the first 20 minutes of CRYSTAL SKULL seem
entrenched in the aesthetic of the cliffhanger adventure serials of the
30’s where the hero is placed in one life-threatening sequence after
another, narrowly escaping death. This
time there is the element of the B-science fiction film, complete with
three widely utilized testaments of the genre:
The Red Scare, aliens, and the A-bomb.
When George Lucas created Indy nearly 30 years ago his modus
operandi was to relive that sort of wide-eyed sense of innocent
jubilation, spunk, and adrenaline induced fun that those serials and
50’s sci-fi flicks had. CRYSTAL
SKULL’s opening sequence is such an unapologetic kick of unbridled,
giddy fun that you start to think that this fourth Indy adventure will be
on par with the other perilous entries.
as the film progressed, I was left with a nagging thought: Why
couldn’t the rest of the film be as good and thrilling as the
introduction? It is with
great reluctance and regret that I have to say that the remaining film is
a decidedly disappointing hodgepodge.
Whereas the first 20 minutes are sensationally enjoyable, the rest
of CRYSTAL SKULL suffers from a lumbering pacing, an overly plotted
and convoluted story, a preponderance of goofy and hooky action set pieces
and gags, and – I thought I would be the last to say this – direction
by the usually masterful Steven Spielberg that feels really flat and
lifeless. The result is a
film that is both (a) not worth the 19 year wait since the last episode and
(b) does not destroy the legacy of the previous Indy adventures, but does
not do them adequate justice either.
SKULL has been in development hell for nearly two decades.
It should be noted, though, that this is the fifth, not fourth,
appearance by Ford as the legendary character (many forget his cameo,
playing a 50-year-old Indy in a 1993 episode of the short lived TV series,
THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES).
The main problem was that Ford, Lucas, and Spielberg could not
settle on a decent script. Several
writers were brought on board over the years, from
M. Night Shyamalan, Jeff Nathanson, to even Frank Darabont, but the
trio settled on David Koepp’s draft based on Lucas’ story treatment. Koepp’s
previous credits included the lackluster Spielberg entries, WAR
OF THE WORLDS
and the JURASSIC PARK sequel, THE LOST WORLD, the latter
arguably being one of the director’s lesser films.
I think the main problem with CRYSTAL SKULL is the screenplay,
which is all over the map in terms of tone and never really does much
justice to the unique premise of a Cold War Indy Adventure that Lucas
what occurs after the sensational opening sequence:
After narrowly escaping the A-bomb test site, Indy is taken to a
secure facility by FBI stooges in horn-rimed glasses and debriefed, seeing
as his former ally, Mac, has turned Commie (granted, by his own admission,
because they “pay” better). The
FBI then tells Indy that he is now a “man of interest”, a euphemistic
set of terms meaning “We think you’re a commie, so we’ll be watching
you.” Indy, we learn,
became a decorated soldier in WWII (he was a Colonel), but even his war
exploits – not to mention his discoveries of artifacts for Uncle Sam -
don't help him at all here. McCarthyism
is a foe that even Indy has troubling fighting.
angle to the film is fascinating: A whole story could have been
drummed up about Indy trying to fight the Red Scare, clear his name as a
fiercely American patriot, and take it to those Commie bastards, all while
searching for the prized MacGuffin (that item that everyone wants in the
Indy films, but is so difficult to obtain).
But the script here drops the ball and does nothing with it.
The FBI agents are never seen again and, after Indy is
unceremoniously suspended by his University because of his alleged
Communist ties, it’s never really dealt with any further.
the story does progress it at least introduces one of the film’s
pleasant side characters. Just
as Indy is about to leave his University he is cornered by a
twenty-something greaser named “Mutt” (played with a lot of spunk and
gumption by Shia LeBeouf). His
entrance in the film will remind viewers of Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE
and an altercation he has with some jocks in a malt shop has the breezy
period detail that reminded me of Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI.
It seems that Mutt needs Indy to help him find Professor Oxley
(John Hurt, looking as wily eyed as ever), who has gotten involved with
Mutt’s mother in looking for the sacred crystal skulls and – yes –
the Lost City of Gold. Mutt’s
mother is Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the same Marion that ran
the Himalayan saloon in RAIDERS that used to be Indy’s main squeeze when
they were younger. When
Mutt’s true parental heritage is revealed late in the film, it is
arguably the least-best kept secret in the film.
Mutt, Marion, and eventually Oxley find themselves in South America where
they pit themselves against the Russians and that sneering Spalko, who is
a villain appropriately out of 50’s pulp sci-fi fiction for her yearning
to get the Skulls because of their supposed abilities to give people
psychic powers. Of course, we
get the obligatory Indy elements, like dark caverns, desolate,
corpse-laden tombs, and mysterious puzzles and clues (all good stuff), but
the script is filled with too much exposition and too much explaining.
At times, I felt like I was attending one of Dr. Jones’ boring
are, however, a small handful of sequences I truly admired, such as a
motorcycle chase involving Indy and Mutt.
There is also a fantastically grisly and spin-tingling cliffhanger
sequence involving Indy fighting a Russian brute with giant, man-eating
ants surrounding them (one pleasure of all the Indy film’s is the way
they tap into our phobias about creepy-crawly-slimy insects to create
suspense). Mutt is also a
nice addition to the proceedings. He’s
extremely good with a knife, even more talented with his comb (a running
gag regarding his greaser-inspired narcissism over him constantly combing
his hair gets solid laughs) and LeBeouf's chemistry with Ford is inspired.
there are too many would-be thrilling set pieces that fail to...well...thrill.
A lavishly mounted chase sequence through the South American jungle
which pits Indy’s car versus Spalko’s – with Mutt straddling between
both vehicles and getting hit in the privates with foliage and tree limbs
– elicits bad groans. Even
more cringe worthy is a moment where Mutt swings through the jungle, ala
Tarzan, to catch up the speeding vehicles.
Another sequence involving not one, not two, but three
waterfalls in a row – with the heroes’ boat going down all of them,
injury free – reveals the film’s reliance of special effects fakery
first and generating good, visceral scares second.
The Indy films all have a goofy, carefree exuberance to their
action scenes, but too many in CRYSTAL SKULL seem to jump from sublimely
silly to utterly preposterous.
Even worse is the script's handling of supporting characters. Ray Winstone, normally charismatic, has a lackluster, one-note greedy treasure hunter role that changes allegiances at will. Even more criminally wasted is Karen Allen and her interplay with Ford. The two were dynamite together in RAIDERS and Allen played well above her damsel in distress capacity, but her scenes with Ford in CRYSTAL SKULL try to sustain themselves on manufactured chemistry. We fondly remember their previous appearance together, appreciate seeing them opposite of each other again, and this, furthermore, is expected to generate our investment. Allen is given so little to do in the film, other than to have a lot of lame dialogue exchanges and arguments with Indy on one hand and then swoon over him when he tells her that – gosh darn it – she’s irreplaceable. There is no spark here between the two, and their banter lacks the subtle, sexual flirtation that Gweneth Paltro and Robert Downey Jr. had in abundance in IRON MAN. The lack of dramatic and comic punch to Ford and Allen's on-screen duo makes their scenes free fall quickly.
has been considerable concern over the film’s usage of CGI effects, not
to mention Lucas’ insistence of an alien themed last crusade for
Jones and company. True, some
of the computer effects get too cutesy at times (a small moment with
prairie dogs, for example), but the previous Indy flicks were effects
heavy and, if they existed today, would have utilized pixelized trickery.
The CGI here is not the red herring people think it is.
I think people will appreciate how Spielberg and his long time
Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski attempted to replicate the gritty
style of Douglas Slocombe, who filmed the previous Indy films.
The results are noble bit of copy-catting Spielberg's own younger
style, if not with a bit too much polish and sheen.
for the MacGuffin? There
will be some that will despise the film’s focus on searching for
extraterrestrial artifacts, but I think Lucas’ premise is congruent with
the film’s time period and intended genre.
Yes, the previous Indy adventures heavily focused on religious
artifacts, but if you can swallow Arks that can burn Nazis to bits, cups
that Biblical saviors drank out of that can give you eternal life, and sacred
stones with Voodoo like powers, then aliens certainly do not seem as out
of place as it would appear. Again,
Lucas' underlining premise is not SKULL's problem; it's just the execution at
Koepp's script stage that is surely lacking.
CrAiGeR's other reviews of
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the INDY JONES QUADRILOGY:
1. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
2. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)
3. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989) 1/2
4. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) 1/2