Saturday, May 24, 2008

In Theaters: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Movie poster from
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is the sort of movie where you know what to expect. I don’t mean this in a bad way, since the same can be said of the Bond films, the Godzilla series, etc.; some franchises are built on a formula, and though that makes it difficult to keep things fresh, that challenge often produces interesting results. Of course, this is not only a sequel but the continuation of a saga that seemed to wrap up back in 1989; the idea for a fourth Indiana Jones movie apparently circulated between Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, and others for years before the project actually came together, making this a big movie geek event. I wasn’t anticipating this film quite as much as some, because although I like all the Indiana Jones films I didn’t really see any pressing need for more of the story. But it’s here, and it’s welcome, a pulp adventure that once more delivers the goods with skill and enthusiasm.

The film takes place in 1957, long past the age of pulp heroes and weekly serials, and our old friend Indy (how old is never quite specified) has gotten himself caught up in a plot by Russian agents to break into Area 51 and make off with... well, something. He escapes but finds himself under surveillance by the FBI, and temporarily suspended from his teaching job as a result. He’s flagged down by Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a greaser who’s related to an old colleague of Dr. Jones. It seems Professor Oxley (John Hurt) has gone missing, and Mutt wants Indy’s help finding him. Oxley was searching for the legendary crystal skull, a South American artifact with the theoretical power to control a strange kingdom hidden in the Amazon. In order to find Oxley, Indy and Mutt must find the skull itself, and wouldn’t you know it, but the Russians, led by the icy hot Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), are after it too, as part of Stalin’s program of expanding research into the psychic. At some point in all this, Indy’s old flame Marion (Karen Allen) shows up, as she happens to be Mutt’s mother. And she’s still feeling punchy.

The film actually does make one break with the past that’s sort of interesting, though it’s also the film’s most controversial aspect. In fact, it’s a bit of a spoiler, so you might want to skip this paragraph, but then again maybe it makes more sense if you’re expecting it as I was. Suffice it to say, the crystal skull is of alien origin, and though the specifics of it are left appropriately vague, it’s definitely science fiction as opposed to the supernatural material of previous movies. For some this will be (and has been) a rough transition, but it’s eased into well, and given the timeframe it’s quite appropriate. By the late 50s the popular imagination had moved on from mystic relics to flying saucers, and pulp is a genre that encompasses science fiction as much as fantasy. I didn’t have a problem with it, your mileage may vary.

In other respects this is a film that follows the Indiana Jones formula for better and for worse. The structure is familiar, again we have the good guys racing the bad guys to the important site and/or artifact, and there are numerous call backs to previous entries. You’ve got the red travel lines, ticking clocks, vehicle chases, villains dying in gruesome ways, Indy’s fear of snakes, none-too-subtle references to past films and general in-jokes, etc. Obviously this film is not going to win points for originality, but the series has lain dormant long enough that it all feels fresh when it’s dragged out again.

It helps that Steven Spielberg is definitely in his element. Though the film does use quite a bit of CGI, especially by comparison to the effective 0% of previous entries, he still manages to give things a rough-and-tumble feel. Indiana Jones has always been the kind of hero who takes a lot of blows and doesn’t execute his stunts flawlessly, and of course compounding that he’s now getting on in years. Things rarely go too smoothly for anyone in this film, and though a few moments stretch credulity more than others, it still stays firmly within the realm of cliffhanger logic.

The old serial feel is pretty strong with this movie overall, as a matter of fact. There’s a wonderfully spooky sequence in a graveyard, where you expect things to get a lot worse at any minute. The skull is treated with the same kind of mysterious reverence that attached to the Ark, the Shankara Stones, and the Holy Grail- we sense there is a power at work beyond what we can actually see. There are narrow escapes and spills and recaptures galore, and the film never loses its momentum.

Harrison Ford remains as firmly in the role as he’s ever been, with the possible exception of one or two lines. He has a very good rapport with LaBeouf, and it’s mostly the two of them for the first half of the picture. Marion is actually introduced unusually late in the proceedings, given that we all knew she was coming back, but Allen hasn’t lost any of her spark either. John Hurt isn’t used to his best advantage as Oxley, who for most of the picture has gone stark raving mad and speaks in cryptic directions, and Ray Winstone could have been more memorable as Mac, Indy’s not-entirely-trustworthy partner. That said, Cate Blanchett excuses many things. Many many things.

The one major problem I have with this film comes near the end. The climax is simply too abrupt, not having the full harrowing effect of earlier entries, and some subplots are closed off more quickly than they should be. The climax of an Indy movie should be as big as the rest of it, and though what happens is definitely at the right scale, it could stand to be longer. There is something to be said for leaving us wanting more, but given that this will probably be the last entry regardless of its box office gross, a little ponderousness would not have been entirely bad. The film feels a bit like a grace note on top of the trilogy, not quite as big or as substantial (as odd a word as that is in regards to any of the movies), but more a celebration.

Celebrations are a lot of fun, mind you, and I still wholeheartedly recommend this movie. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is, once again, classic adventure pulp made by people who know and love the genre, and whatever things could have been done better, all of it is done well. It’s not the most memorable entry in the series, but it’s definitely a good finish, and the actual ending is played just right- whether or not we see Indy again, he’s definitely sustained his own legend.

Story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson
Screenplay by David Koepp
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Grade: B+

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