Saturday, August 09, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (2008)

To paraphrase a famous political player of the 1990s, there's nothing wrong with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls that can't be fixed by what's right with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls.

The fourth, much-delayed installment in the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) franchise is a charming and thrilling throwback to the other entries in the long-lived adventure series. In fact, it serves up in almost identical proportion the same mix of dedicated swashbuckling and tongue-in-cheek silliness that made Raiders, Temple of Doom (1984) and The Last Crusade (1989) such pleasurable, care-free and memorable cinematic rides.
Our story commences in 1957 (twenty-two years after the adventure of Raiders) with a beautifully-mounted drag race on a stretch of isolated desert highway, as a caravan of vehicles heads to Hanger 51, the predecessor, of course, to legendary Area 51. To the viewer's surprise, this caravan is made of up not of U.S. military men, but rather of Russian soldiers, led by the diabolical Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). These foreign soldiers are on a quest for a specific artifact, one that could grant Stalin the power to control the minds of all Americans.

To help them locate this artifact in the vast Hanger 51 (a repository of such items, we see...), the Russkies have captured archaeologist and war hero Indiana Jones. When he first see him (after a splendid and highly cinematic build-up involving a fedora-ed shadow playing across a car door), Indy looks a little more white-haired than the last time we encountered him...but otherwise virtually the same. Yep, Dr. Jones is as rugged, as laconic, and as fast-on-the-draw as ever. Ready with either a snarky quip ("I Like Ike," he tells one Russian) or a whip, he's still got what it he quickly proves.

After this initial sequence -- one which leads the audience inside the mysterious warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was sealed away in the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark -- the film's action never lets up. There are motorcycle chases, atomic blasts, army ants, a few terse comments on McCarthyism and the Red Scare, and then a quest (involving Saucermen from Mars, or thereabouts...) for a mythical Golden Kingdom hidden in the jungles of Peru.

Along the way, Indy meets Mutt Williams, the son he never knew he had (the ubiquitous Shia Le Beouf) and encounters the love of his life, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), looking more radiant than ever. There's a great moment when Marion and Indy are captured, and she asks him if there have been "other women" over the years. In a retort worthy of any classic film romance starring Humphrey Bogart, Indy replies - with a gleam in his eyes - that yes, indeed there were other women...

But they all had one problem: "They weren't you."

If that moment doesn't melt your heart, then this just isn't the movie for you. The Dark Knight is showing in the next auditorium and may be more to your liking.

Because Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull genuflects to our past - and to our traditions - in a very deliberate and specific way. Not just the past in terms of American history; but in terms of American cinema and movie techniques too. For instance, I detected the deliberate homage to The Naked Jungle (1954) in a march of man-eating marabunta. In the film's central premise, and a bit of production design, I sensed resonances of Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) and Earth versus the Flying Saucers (1956). I n Mutt's "juvenile delinquent" world, and Indy's reaction to it, there were traces of teen films like Rebel without a Cause (1955), and motorcycle films like The Wild One (1953). The detonation of an atomic bomb, and Indy's much-too-easy survival of a nuclear blast (with no deleterious side-effects from fall-out) also alludes to such "educational" films as 1952's absurd Duck and Cover, which implored "You must learn to find shelter!" (like a refrigerator?) during a nuclear attack. So one way to enjoy this film is simply as a time capsule of 1950s influences.

But make no mistake, the movie is also made highly rousing by Spielberg's buoyant neo-classical direction. He's not working to deep artistic purpose here, but dammit if he doesn't know exactly how to shoot and assemble this sort of film with perfect pitch.

Watch, for instance, how Spielberg has mastered the art of the revelatory pull-back (deployed twice in the film). Look at the way he blocks actors Ford, Allen, Shia, John Hurt, and Ray Winstone (playing a double, possibly triple agent...) in one subterranean shot; so that they pop-up crisply across the frame, all at once -- a moment that (deliberately) becomes funny because of the staging. In a lesser hand, this opportunity would have been missed. Here, it's a visual joke that lightens the moment. The whole movie positively snaps like that; with a heightened air of self confidence that is, frankly, indomitable, and allows the movie to squeak over the occasional gap in logic or storytelling. Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls -- like the previous pictures in the franchise -- sucks you in with it's breezy good nature. It walks up to the line of camp, then retreats, almost like a recurring dance step. You'd have to be a real scrooge to deride a film so guileless, so pure of heart.

Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls has already proved a huge success (it's already in the top 25-grossing films of all time...), but there has indeed been much more vocal fan criticism of this Indiana Jones entry than the others; and I suggest that's simply a sign of these times (and the influence of the Internet) more than it is an accurate reflection on the quality of Crystal Skulls. You remember that saying from Thomas Wolfe, don't you? "You can't go home again?" What that means - literally - is that you can't go back to the past.

In other words, your home -- where you grew up -- may be exactly the same after you grow up; it's you that's changed. And I suggest strongly that this is the case for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls. Before I saw the film, for instance, I re-watched the earlier entries and I have to say, this one fits the rest of the series like a glove, despite a shift from the 1930s to the Cold War 1950s.

I know this isn't a popular theory to hold, but I learned that the same fact is pretty much true of the often-reviled Star Wars prequels. I watched all six films in that franchise (in series order, eps 1 - 6) in one weekend and found that all were of roughly the same quality and mood. The six films had the same distinctive strengths...and the same terrible flaws. Those who don't think that's the case...well, I respectfully suggest they undergo this exercise. Because the only true difference is in how you hold these movies in your memory...whether from your innocent and impressionable youth or from more cynical adulthood; whether experiencing the films as a knock-out surprise, or rather with twenty years of pent-up expectations. I'm not being superior here; I used to deride Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, but after watching all six Star Wars films together, virtually all of my comparative criticisms didn't really hold water. Return of the Jedi is just as stagey and superficial as Attack of the Clones; Revenge of the Sith is just as majestic and tragic as Empire Strikes Back. Seriously.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls? Ditto. It boasts the same strengths and the same weaknesses as other series entries. If you liked those, there's no legitimate reason not to like this one. All the Indiana Jones films are essentially non-stop roller coaster rides, enthusiastic entertaining machines that hop with cinematic dexterity from jaunty dialogue scenes to exaggerated, over-the-top action sequences.

That pretty much describes Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls too. So I'm baffled why people are picking nits this time around.

Example: I've heard people complain about the two-dimensional nature of the Russian villains in this film. Like the Nazis were really handled with three-dimensional maturity in Raiders and Last Crusade? No...Lucas and Spielberg aren't in the realism business today. Instead, they're playing the same stellar game they did in 1981, 1984 and 1989; but today's audiences and critics -- weaned on dark, angsty genre efforts like The Dark Knight -- have forgotten how to recognize the rules of that game. There's nothing dark, cynical, empty, ugly or de-humanizing about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls. It doesn't have a post-911 mind-set. The hero doesn't resort to the same nasty tactics as the villain. There's nothing gritty or realistic anywhere in the film. Instead, like the other entries in the franchises, this Indiana Jones harks back to the more theatrical, artificial approach of its source material. Naturalism isn't the point. At all. Never was.

Indeed, I've read critical and fan comments that note with derision, for instance, how here Indiana Jones survives a harrowing trip down three waterfalls virtually unscathed...and how his survival simply isn't very...realistic. I've read critics complain about how, in this film, Indiana Jones hides in a lead refrigerator and survives a nuclear blast, and how that isn't very realistic either. "Nuked the fridge" and all.

To such critics and complainers I offer this delicate reminder: Indiana Jones fell out of a plane in a rubber raft, rode that raft down a steep mountainside, plunged over a waterfall in it, and then survived roaring rapids to wash ashore in exactly the place he was Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom (1984). I would like to remind those critics that Indiana Jones strapped himself (by bullwhip!) to a submarine, and apparently held his breath for hours -- while said submarine was submerged -- during a journey to a secret island in Raiders of the Lost Ark. What on earth would lead you to this movie expecting realism? Once again this summer, it seems that the critics and fans are gazing at a movie with entirely the wrong set of expectations.

Don't get me wrong. Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn't the greatest adventure movie ever made or anything like that. I'm making no high-minded claims for the film as a brilliant work of art. On the contrary, what I'm saying is that Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fulfills, practically to a tee, the criteria of this sturdy and much-loved franchise. It engages Indiana Jones in a stirring, mysterious adventure. It pits him against hissable villains and reunites him with a romantic lead. It concerns the use and misuse of great "power" (a theme we see also with Belloq, Mola Ram and Donovan in the other series entries), and it pays homage -- as knowledgeable pastiche -- to a certain film brand of yesteryear (Cold War B movies of the 1950s). It also happens to be in the running, for me, anyway, as the most fun film of the summer (neck and neck with Iron Man). There are deeper, more intimate films that I loved (X-Files); and there are meaner, noisier ones more in tune with our times (The Dark Knight), but Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn't stale like a tomb, like you might expect of a third-sequel. It's a breath of fresh air. Take it all in with an open heart and you'll walk out feeling giddy, young, happy...and likely humming John Williams' stirring anthem.

Sometimes, they do make 'em like they used to...


  1. Anonymous2:18 PM

    General agreement with all your points -- I loved Crystal Skull myself and was luke-warm at best for the dour Dark Knight -- although the fridge scene went just a little too far for my tastes. (I hadn't considered the "duck and cover" angle, though -- viewed in that context, it's far less objectionable.)

    However, I have one tiny nit to pick, regarding your comment about Indy holding his breath for hours aboard a submerged Nazi sub in Raiders. That's a misconception that I hear a lot, but in fact we never actually see the sub submerge or surface in that sequence, and indeed the diesel-powered submarines of that era spent a lot of time running on the surface. They only submerged (and switched onto precious battery power) when they were attacking or hiding from attackers. For a simple point-to-point transit in the Mediterranean, it's perfectly realistic to assume the sub wouldn't have submerged at all.

    Personally, I maintain that the first film in the Indy series is more or less realistic (at least as realistic as any other action movie), and that the more over-the-top stunts didn't come along until the sequels... but that's just my opinion, I guess.

  2. Jason:

    Thanks for the point of clarification on Indy's submarine jaunt in Raiders. Perhaps it didn't submerge at all on the trip. In which case, I shouldn't have used it as an example...

    But I stand entirely by my comment on the raft in Temple of Doom, and it being no more ridiculous than surviving three waterfalls! :)

    I do think you have a good argument to make about Raiders being a bit more "grounded" than the sequels. I just don't see Crystal Skulls being overtly out-of-step with the franchise in those terms. (Which some people do, I guess.)

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. Anonymous6:27 PM

    Oh, yes, the Temple of Doom raft stunt and the triple waterfalls are indeed ridiculous! No argument between us there... :)

    I also agree that Crystal Skull fits in just fine with the rest of the series. Those who say it doesn't are, as you suggested, not paying attention.

    Until next time!

  4. Anonymous9:22 AM

    I think Indiana Jones was a fine movie, lots of classic and funny quotes but with the usual quirks of CGI gophers and Nuclear fridges

  5. Excellent read! You back your opinion up with convincing and coherent arguments. This film was met with disproportional cynicism. I only disagree with the last part - IMO, the film is one of the greatest cinematic adventures I've ever experienced!

  6. I have to say that I could not disagree with the review more. I'm not a purist and yes, I know that this franchise is not based on realism, but omg! you might as well as given IJ a cape and a blue and red suit and called it a day.
    Of course Spielberg is a technical master of the craft, noone is disputing that, but this is by far, FAR the worst installment of the franchise. Like comparing Godfather 3 to Godfather 2, G3 looked good, and Coppola knew the material better than anyone, but it was wrong, all wrong, and worst still..... completely unnecessary. Same here, this film was made at least 10 years too late. My suspension of disbelief was challenged by seeing a man, supposedly now in his 60's, mid 60's, in the action sequences he was in. Speaking of action sequences, they were technically sound, you expect that of a Spielberg directed film, but this movie was just...flat.

    If I recall, at the time of release, 'Temple of Doom' was lambasted as a dark and cynical film, child slavery and whatnot.

    It is hard to believe that JKW could watch 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and still think that this film "fit like a glove". Impossible to believe actually. This was an unbelievable cartoon of a film. And yes, it now ranks in the top 25, Spielberg and Indiana Jones and Lucasfilms, really? is that so surprising? That's like putting Jordan, Bird, and Magic Johnson on a team and being surprised that they won a championship. Name recognition alone can account for 250 million.
    Dark Knight in the next theater? I should have gone.


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