Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 23, 2008

Directed by Steven Spielberg/screenplay by David Koepp, story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson/starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Shia LaBoeuf/Paramount Pictures – Lucasfilm Ltd.

Archaeologist Henry Jones Jr. battles Communists and is reunited with an old flame while searching for an alien skull.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the one film that is the most responsible for my lifelong love of (and obsession with) movies. I still vividly remember seeing it for the first time at the age of 12 in September 1981 (two months after it was released) at a second-run theater that no longer exists. At that point, I really hadn’t seen that many films – I had seen Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back, and a lot of Disney films (you have to remember, back then kids that age weren’t as immersed in pop culture as they are now). So Raiders was almost literally a mind-blowing experience. I had never seen anything like it – that opening scene with the gigantic ball chasing Han Solo and Alfred Molina getting brutally killed (a bit of karmic payback, but I didn’t quite get that then) and then the bad guy steals the Idol after all that work Han Solo did! This is the 12-year-old me trying to grasp the enormity of what I’d just seen, and… wow. It was truly amazing, and what I didn’t realize then was that an entire generation felt the exact same way. Raiders showed us all what the possibilities of cinema could be, and I still maintain to this day that it was even more influential than Star Wars. Don’t get me started on that, because we’ll be here all day.

Throughout my teens and young adulthood, Indiana Jones was there. I re-visited Raiders several times on TV and eventually VHS, saw Temple of Doom and Last Crusade opening day and watched them many times as well. Even at a relatively young age, I was able to recognize that these movies were a cut above the usual stuff. There was a level of craft to them that I wasn’t seeing anywhere else. Given that the 80’s were basically the decade of trendy, manipulative cheese (at least as far as mainstream Hollywood was concerned), the Indy films were an oasis of timelessness and skill and class (yes, even Temple of Doom) in a sea of mostly sloppy nonsense. They opened us up to a world that was much, much bigger than ours, a world full of adventure and mystery and conspiracy and intrigue. These movies had it all – action, adventure, comedy, romance, mystery, horror, even science fiction in a way. And Indiana Jones was not just a hero, he was our hero – America’s James Bond, if you will. He was more than a simple tough guy; he possessed an intelligence and passion for history that was genuinely admirable. He took the dry, stodgy subject of the distant past and made it cool. I’ve always thought that the 3 Indy films represent Spielberg at his absolute popcorn-movie best. Even if George Lucas came up with the character originally, it was Spielberg and Harrison Ford that brought him to life, and I consider it to be the pinnacle of both of their careers. No kidding.

So now we have Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, almost two decades after the last Indy adventure (not counting the Young Indiana Jones TV series, which I found to be a mixed bag). The anticipation is naturally extremely high, and I know that some people will be disappointed by it, because no movie could possibly live up to the kind of hype created by 19 years of speculation and rumors and everyone wishing Lucas, Spielberg and Ford would agree on a script and just make the goddamn thing already!!! So I’m thrilled to report that, if you keep your expectations in check (it’s not going to pull your dick out of your pants and blow you in the theater or anything), Crystal Skull delivers the goods, big time. Now, it’s not a cure for cancer. It’s a movie. But it’s an Indiana Jones movie, and a damn good one. It may not be Raiders, but it’s definitely no Phantom Menace either.

The year is 1957, and our man Jones is still working as a college professor while apparently spending his free time helping the government spy on the Russians. He’s shanghaied by Commie agent Irina Spalko (Blanchett) to help find an alien artifact in a government warehouse that looks awfully familiar. Against his will, of course, but his involvement in the incident is enough to get him fired in the McCarthy witch-hunting era. It’s then that he’s enlisted by young greaser Mutt Williams (LaBeouf) to help rescue an old acquaintance of Indy’s, Professor Oxley (Hurt) who is looking for the Crystal Skull, which Spalko and her comrades are also searching for. What is the Crystal Skull, you ask? Dude, I’m not gonna tell you that! See the movie!

It’s in the middle of the resulting chaos in Peru that Indy runs into Marion Ravenwood (Allen), the original “Indy girl” from Raiders (who doesn’t know this?), who has been kidnapped by Spalko and company. I won’t give away her connection to the rest of the story here, but it’s been heavily speculated on, and in this case the obvious answer is the correct one. Indy has had a rough year at this point, having lost both his father and pal Marcus Brody, and seeing Marion again after all these years sparks an instant reaction. The movie goes into what happened between them after the events of Raiders, and I guess some people aren’t going to want to know the details (although if you’ve seen Last Crusade, which takes place 2 years after Raiders, you know they didn’t wind up together, so what’s the big deal). This is the reunion that Indy fans have been waiting 27 years for, and while it’s not the most complex love story ever put on screen, it’s still a lot of fun and even a bit of a thrill to see Indy and Marion together again. Even if Karen Allen can’t seem to wipe that goofy grin off her face (hey, I’d have a goofy grin too if I was in this movie), she still seems like good ol’ Marion, who can throw a punch and drink you under the table with the best of them. If there is any good reason to make another Indy movie, bringing Marion back and resolving the relationship between them is definitely it. I know some people would rather they just left it as it was, but… you know what, screw that. I think we’d all be royally pissed if they had left her out of this one. Come on, it’s Marion! Whatever you think of the movie, you can’t possibly bitch about that.

But I’m sure some people will. You know, if you’re a fan of these movies and you don’t enjoy this on some level… I don’t know what to tell you. I can say that no one should possibly feel ripped off by Crystal Skull. Again, I think Spielberg’s still got it when it comes to rip-roaring action scenes. I have to tell you, it’s so nice to finally see an action movie that’s shot and edited in such a way that you can tell what the hell is going on! I don’t think I’ve seen that since the last Indy movie in 1989. Seriously, when did complete incoherence become the norm? I think there are movies where the quick cutting and fragmented style actually works (particularly the Bourne films), but it seems like it’s been forever since a major action film actually showed us what we came to see – action! And Spielberg proves once again that he is the master when it comes to shooting large-scale, legitimate, real (or at least real-looking) action. I know it’s hip to rag on Spielberg these days, with even the pitiful likes of Uwe Boll daring to take shots at him, but dude… you want to know why he’s been the biggest director in Hollywood for 30-odd years? Because the guy is that fucking good. Because he’s got talent to burn and knows what the hell he’s doing with a camera, neither of which Boll can claim. If Crystal Skull has any impact at all on Hollywood filmmaking, I sincerely hope it brings back the kind of creative, kinetic action that America used to be the best at (before John Woo and Jackie Chan came along and shamed us into doing everything MTV style). The Indy films have always been models of inventiveness and ingenuity, and this one’s no exception.

I know some people have criticized the use of CGI in the film. To my way of thinking, this is a non-issue unless you’re actually looking for it, in which case you are not “into” the movie and not enjoying it anyway. I know there is CGI in the film because I’ve read that there is, but I could not tell you where. I was too busy enjoying the film to care. The truth of the matter is, this isn’t like the Star Wars prequels where literally everything looks fake and computerized, like a video game. It all looks and feels like an Indiana Jones movie, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay the effects people. Let’s face it, CGI is just a tool at this point – you know they’re going to use it, it’s how it is used that matters. I’m absolutely sure that some of this stuff could not be pulled off without the use of computer-generated effects. I’m also sure that audiences expect these movies to contain things they can’t see anywhere else, and would be disappointed otherwise. I know some people will pick it apart and point out shots that were obviously CGI and say, “oh, that looked so fake” but again, I don’t really care. What matters isn’t just how it looks, it’s how it feels. I know that’s hardly a technical term, but as an audience member, that’s the important thing. I don’t go into an Indiana Jones movie in 2008 expecting nothing but practical effects and 100% realism. That’s ridiculous. I only care about that sort of thing if there’s too much of it, if it takes me out of the movie and keeps me from enjoying it. That didn’t happen.

I actually love the way the movie opens, completely defying any expectations. I love that Spielberg and Koepp make full use of the Fifties setting and don’t explain everything about the era to the cultural illiterates. The Indy films have always demanded that the audience keep up, and that’s as it should be. If you don’t have at least a vague awareness of the McCarthy era and “the red scare” and nuclear testing, then you’re probably either very young or a complete idiot, and you’re probably going to be lost by some of the set pieces here. That’s your problem, not the movie’s. The previous films never dumbed down the ‘30’s, nor did they make a point of explaining archaeology to the morons in the audience. And why should they? The Indy films demand that you have some understanding of the world you live in, whether you got that from other movies or from studying history (or at the very least, having paid attention during history classes) and that’s one of the things I’ve always loved about them. I’m sure that a Michael Bay or a Simon West would go out of their way to explain the subtleties of the era to the 12-year-olds in the crowd (well, they probably wouldn’t have made this movie in the first place); instead, Spielberg revels in it and assumes you know what he knows. I absolutely adore that, and wish more mainstream movies assumed the audience was as smart as the filmmakers.

I also like the way the character of Indiana Jones has been updated to fit the era in which the film is set, while basically remaining the same guy we all know and love. I know some critics have protested the idea of Indy fighting Communists – but what else would he be doing in 1957? This was the height of the red scare, when most Americans were afraid that “the Commies” were going to drop the bomb. It would be extremely dishonest to practice revisionist history and pretend otherwise. It may seem overblown in hindsight, but back then the Russians were unequivocally “the enemy” to America as a whole, rightly or wrongly, and it only makes sense that a guy like Jones would be enlisted (or volunteer) to fight “the Red Menace”. One can argue the merits of the Cold War ad nauseum, but it seems only fitting that he would play a part in it. Just as, if the character were alive today, I have no doubt he’d be doing his part to fight Islamic terrorism. And he’d probably do a better job of it than the people currently in charge. That’s just who the guy is. I’m not surprised by the idea of Jones working as a spy against the Communists, any more than I’d be surprised by anyone else of the time choosing to do that job. On the other hand, I doubt he’d be one of the McCarthy guys accusing innocent people of being Communists or sympathizers – that’s definitely not Indiana Jones. And nowhere does the film say he did that or would do that so… I don’t see a problem here.

The bottom line is, everything Spielberg and his creative team have done here makes perfect sense given the history of the character. Indy has always been a guy looking for “fortune and glory” but in the end, doing the right thing always takes precedent for him. His thirst for adventure takes a back seat to his quest for knowledge. And at heart, he is primarily a scholar, albeit one who “gets out of the library” from time to time. But the essence of the character is basically a guy trying to do good things, trying to do right by history and his country and the people he loves. And Ford is, once again, absolutely terrific in the role. This Indy is naturally older, a bit crankier and a little slower, but he’s still essentially the same man. Does he survive things that no 60-year-old man could? Of course – he’s Indiana Jones! It wouldn’t be any fun if he didn’t. But the film does acknowledge the passage of time, and is relatively realistic about it within the context of the character. I’m not kidding or being facetious when I say that Indy is the pinnacle of Ford’s acting career, that’s just how iconic the character has become. And a lot of that has to do with the way Ford plays him – a bit of the sly, charming rogue, but also a guy who knows his shit, a man you can count on in a crisis. As ever, Harrison Ford is Indy, and there is simply no substitute.

And I certainly hope they don’t try to give us one with Shia LaBoeuf, who is actually quite likable and funny as Mutt Williams. He’s a goofy Hollywood fantasy version of a ‘50’s rebel kid, a wanna-be Brando who’s not nearly as tough or street-smart as he thinks he is. He’s more than adequate as a sidekick for Indy – and that’s where he should stay, quite frankly. Lucas has talked about giving “Mutt” his own series, basically taking over the franchise with Ford’s Indy playing the mentor role, and I can’t stress hard enough what an awful decision that would be. It’s not that I hate LaBoeuf or anything – I just don’t think anyone wants to see an Indiana Jones movie that’s not really an Indiana Jones movie. And Mutt doesn’t really have what it takes to take over – he’s not as worldly or knowledgeable as Indy, and he’s certainly not an archaeologist. He’s a punk kid who doesn’t know anything, basically. That works fine for a sidekick – I just don’t think it works for a lead character. It’s like giving Short Round his own movie. I like Short Round, but seriously, who wants to see that?

Blanchett may be a touch overqualified to play the stock evil-Commie lead villain, but she’s a blast rockin’ the Louise Brooks hairdo and Natascha Badenov accent. I actually found her a little sexy here… is that wrong? Winstone, Hurt and Jim Broadbent all do fine supporting work as well, and Karen Allen is just fun to see again. But this is Harrison Ford’s movie, and he proves he’s still got the chops to lead this franchise if it continues. I only hope Spielberg and Lucas are smart enough to let him do it, or else just end it right here.

All in all, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is exactly what it should be – an immensely fun, rip-roaring adventure with a touch of nostalgia, crafted with exquisite skill and heart. This is the way summer blockbusters used to be, not so long ago, and could still be again. Seriously, what more do you want? It would be a real shame if people let their expectations prevent them from enjoying this. Forget all that, and just sit back and enjoy. You’d be a fool not to.

And if this turns out to be the last Indy adventure… may I say, on behalf of audiences everywhere, it’s been a pleasure. It’s easy to be cynical about movies these days, but Steven, George, Harrison, everyone involved with all 4 of the films… thank you. And if you choose to give us more, I’ll be there opening day again.

**** 5/23/08

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