Thursday, May 22, 2008
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Review
Note: I should mention up front that at times in this review I'm going to go into detail that will certainly ruin the surprises the film as to offer. The first section of the review will be basically spoiler free.
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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
While rewatching the prior Indiana Jones films in the days leading up to the release of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it dawned on me that I fell in love with the movies watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Released when I was four years old, Last Crusade is probably my earliest theater going memory. It's funny for me to watch it today and remember my feelings from when I was actually in the theater - the Princeton Garden Theater on Nassau Street in Princeton, NJ - so many years ago. I remember Indy cracking open the library floor timed perfectly with the librarian's book stamping, the flood of the rats running from the grail knights' fire, "I love Venice" and, most of all, when, in the film's climax, Indy is seemingly thrown over the edge of a cliff on a Nazi tank. In fact I'm pretty sure the elderly couple seated behind me remembers too as I'm quite certain they'd have happily seen me drawn and quartered for my histrionic outburst. There's a magic in this series that is far greater than each film's objective quality.
Is there a more emblematic visage than Dr. Jones in a fedora? A more loved, or fitting, film theme than John Williams' rousing Raiders March? A more perfect casting that Harrison Ford as Indiana? Hell even the lettering of the logo has become symbolic. It goes without saying that nineteen years is one hell of a long layoff for a film franchise. Actors age, tastes evolve and moments so effective decades ago come off poorly now (melting faces in Raiders I'm talking to you). I was somewhat bolstered by the relative creative success of resurrections Rocky Balboa (a 16 year layoff for the series) and Live Free or Die Hard (12 years away). Still neither Rocky nor John McClane hold a place in my heart quite like Henry Jones Jr. and a hell of a lot can go wrong with nineteen years off (not to mention numerous ill internet rumors that cropped up over the years of production). So it was with a mix of glee and trepidation (though certainly more glee) that I approached Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
I am overjoyed to be able to say I genuinely enjoyed the movie. Is it perfect? No. Is a worthy addition to the Indiana Jones canon? Absolutely.
Spielberg's first great decision here is that the first real shot of Indy isn't of Ford but rather of the emblematic silhouette of the jacket and fedora. I know I wasn’t alone in the audience when I felt a stirring in my chest at the image. And from there we’re off on another true Indy adventure. Harrison Ford effortlessly steps back into the role of Indiana Jones. The character has been allowed to age and just enough ‘old man’ humor is injected that it really doesn’t feel all that ridiculous for Dr. Jones to take up the whip again. The interplay between Karen Allen and Ford has every bit the life it did in 1981 and hers is a welcome return to the series. The film’s new setting, 1957, works far better than I would have expected. Shia LaBeouf is quite good and comes off convincingly as a 50s greaser and Cate Blanchett is very solid as the heavy. My biggest criticism is the use of digital effects, but they’re prevalence is nowhere near enough to hinder my enjoyment of the whole affair. All of this will be addressed more thoroughly below, but I definitely recommend taking another adventure with Indiana Jones.
*Massive Spoilers Below*
Now I’d like to get into a bit of analysis on what I think really hits and misses in Crystal Skull. Perhaps it would be wise to get the things I didn’t like out of the way first.
My first, and biggest, issue with the film is the ending segment. Not only is the film’s climax somewhat nonsensical but it’s horribly made. Though I wasn’t too keen on the idea of aliens in an Indiana Jones movie, when you think about it they really aren’t all that ridiculous compared to a 700 year old grail knight, the wrath of God melting the Nazis and Mola Rom tearing people’s hearts out, so I’m willing to give them a pass on the general concept. However, the film’s final scene is horribly made, not only is it confusing and preposterous but the visual effects are horrific (not to mention the fact that the whole scene feels rather derivate of the conclusion to the putrid Predator 2). The actual alien – who, strangely, seems to be the result of the thirteen crystal skeletons melding together? – is one of the worst CGI creations I’ve ever seen. I sort of felt like crying during the last scene, it felt as though all my enjoyment of the prior hundred minutes or so was being ripped away like so much scenery. Thank God for the final wedding scene and the Junior scene on the ruins afterwards which reminded what a good time I had been having. I’m appalled that the director of two of the greatest extra terrestrial movies ever, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the creator of the most beloved science fiction series ever, Star Wars, were incapable of creating a competent alien scene.
This, of course, leads into my other biggest problem with the film: the prevalence of far too much CGI. There are numerous moments where the CGI detracts from the overall experience: chiefly among them Mutt swinging through the trees (a concept misbegotten in every way), the treble waterfalls, the ants, Mutt’s balancing act between the two jeeps, and anything to do with the aliens. What didn’t help the effects either was Janusz Kaminski’s overly washed out coloration and lighting of the film. I’m also somewhat disturbed by how derivative of The Mummy’s scarab beetles Indy’s killer ants feel. Much in the way that Star Wars: A New Hope looks more ‘real’ today than it’s twenty-two year younger successor, The Phantom Menace, I worry that Last Crusade’s action may actually hold up better than Crystal Skull’s into the future. For as much progress as CGI has made, it’s still nowhere near the point where I’m ever entirely unaware I’m watching it.
My last complaint is that the film’s last act seems a bit overstuffed with characters with Indy, Mutt, Marion, Oxley and Mac all in the adventuring party. With so many actors and only two hours to tell a story it feels like some of the characters are rather underdeveloped (Ray Winstone’s Mac) or unnecessary (John Hurt’s Oxley). Also I’m, at least on only one viewing, somewhat disappointed by John Williams’ score. As one of my favorite composers I expect great things, especially considering his spectacular recent work in the Star Wars prequel trilogy – Duel of the Fates from Phantom Menace, the gorgeous Across the Stars from Attack of the Clones and the exciting Battle of the Heroes from Revenge of the Sith all stand out as spectacular new additions to the series’ musical library. Nothing in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull so far stands out like that.
Ok, no more negativity, I want to talk about the many things that worked in this. For me the most satisfying moment of the entire film came from Indiana Jones facial expression when he first lays eyes on Marion Ravenwood again. It’s such an impressive display of genuine emotion and glee that it felt like everyone in the theater experience it. Having suffered through a traitorous Nazi and ::shudder:: Kate Capshaw since we last saw Marion, her presence is magical. Ford and Allen pick up their great repartee from their first moment on screen and the chemistry between the two remains twenty seven years later. It’s nice that the still pretty Allen, now 56, has aged normally. I shudder to think of Marion Ravenwood losing her great smile to the devastating effect of facelifts on her ability to properly emote (ala Meg Ryan). The film’s wedding ending was tremendously satisfying as well, Indy was always meant to be with Marion.
As far as I’m concerned Harrison Ford is as great an action star as will ever walk the planet. His resume speaks for itself in regard to action. He brings a great swagger to his roles and always looks believably tough, as a spy, an adventurer or even a gritty president. Also important is his physical ability in these roles, I’ve seen it said before that no actor takes a punch better than Harrison Ford and I certainly think that’s the case, even at the age of 65. Indiana Jones is one of the iconic characters in film history thanks to Ford.
Cate Blanchett plays a pretty great villain here. I was terrified of Blanchett playing a somewhat ridiculous character with an accent here after her putrid work in Soderbergh’s God-awful The Good German, but I’m glad I was wrong. Her Irina Spalko would not feel out of place in a Bond movie and I don’t think that’s a bad thing for an Indiana Jones in the 50s. It’s a fun role and Blanchett makes the best of it. Her predictable demise is made silly by the construction of the film’s final scene but it doesn’t take away from what a solid job she’s done.
I feel that Shia LaBeouf is getting a bad rep lately and I’m not sure why. He was the target of rampant internet criticism for his role in Crystal Skull – before anyone had seen even a single minute of the film, mind you – as Indy’s Jar Jar Binks (et al similar criticism). People, guys at least, just don’t seem to like him very much. Perhaps it’s because he is something of a dorky everyman looking type who is playing very cool characters or, perhaps, it’s because people choose to prejudge his talent by his Even Stevens and I, Robot performances. All I can say is that Spielberg believes in him and so do I. I liked his work in mediocre films Bobby, Constantine and The Greatest Game Ever Played. Disturbia was impressive work as he was tasked to single-handedly carry a pretty silly concept, which he did to such an effective level that it made the movie not only a surprise hit, but also a success with critics. I really enjoyed Transformers and I thought LaBeouf’s tremendous comedic timing really helped make the movie click. Here LaBeouf plays a really solid action hero in training. His great comedic timing is on display again – “what’re you 80?” – and he did nice work with the action scenes. His sword fight with Spalko between two moving jeeps is one of the best parts of the movie. LaBeouf really looks the part as well, from his hairdo down to his facial features he makes for a great greaser. Having put on 15-20 pounds of muscle for the role, LaBeouf seems tougher and manlier than in earlier roles which helps sell him as Indy’s son. The current buzz is that the Indiana Jones series may continue with Ford gradually giving way to LaBeouf over the next movie or two (so gradually, be it in one movie or more, Ford will move more into the role occupied by Sean Connery in Last Crusade and cede the primary role to LaBeouf). Alas Mutt Williams or Mutt Jones doesn’t have quite the same feel as Indiana Jones…
Something else the film did exceptionally well is capture the 1950s. The meticulous makeover of New Haven, Connecticut into the 1950s (Yale was the filming locating for Indy’s fictional Marshall College) is absolutely superb. During the motorcycle escape scene, one of the film’s simplest yet most exciting action sequences, I found myself looking around the background and I came away consistently impressed by how well the film fits the image of the 50s. Though the scene was somewhat silly, I got a kick out of Indy surviving the nuclear test as well. What’s especially scary is that it isn’t all that ridiculous for Indy to be that close to a detonation (might I recommend tracking down the superb 1982 documentary The Atomic Café for terrifying vintage footage of American troops on training missions beneath mushroom clouds). Even the casting fit well for the 50s, Neil Flynn, Janitor on Scrubs, in horn-rimmed glasses is perfectly cast as a McCarthy era fear monger. The quick and funny jocks versus greasers fight in the town café was a small touch of genius as well.
I could keep going ad nauseum about things I liked in the film so I’ll go with a quick list of moments that stood out to me (aside from the ones mentioned already).
- I loved the idea that Indy was an OSS agent during World War II; it fits perfectly with the character.
- The fact that LaBeouf’s character is named Mutt, a great play on the Indiana was the dog’s name joke from Last Crusade.
- The small tributes to Marcus Brody (the actor who played him, Denholm Elliot, has passed away) and Henry Jones Sr. (Connery is retired).
- “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!” prior to the aliens appearing was the perfect way to throw in a small Star Wars joke.
- The great moment at the end of the wedding when LaBeouf is about to put on the fedora only to have Indy snag it on the way out.
I’m grateful to have Indiana Jones back in my life. My love of film is, in large part, inspired by the series. If they make more, so be it, but I’m glad to have Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my favorite moment in the whole movie – I nearly cried I was laughing so hard – was when Indy is forced to use the snake as a rope to escape from the sand pit. What a great character. Time again with Indy and Marion was worth the wait.
Overall Score: 8/10
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Teaser
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Trailer
Raiders of the Lost Ark Trailer
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Trailer
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Trailer