Film Reviews

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (ROY)

By • Jun 10th, 2008 •

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I’m weighing in because I imagine the fans would want to see as many positive reviews as possible. And I liked the film. A lot. As did our main film reviewer, Victoria.

Spielberg is an amazing visual storyteller, no question. But his sequels tend to be cold-hearted. I noticed it with the first two sequels to INDIANA JONES, and with the sequel to JURASSIC PARK as well. Can’t put my finger on exactly why they go that way. Same filmmaker, same star… But whatever the reasons, IJ&tKotCS has restored the warmth to the franchise. For me it’s the second best installment, coming in behind the original (which, incidentally, has dated quite a bit over the years, but that’s another review…).

The nostalgia element accounts for much of the film’s warmth. Ford returning at 64 and performing up to speed (at the press screening, he showed up and announced that any time you see his face, that’s him doing the stunts), carries very much the same sub-textural weight that Stallone’s work did in ROCKY BALBOA. And Karen Allen adds a few more pounds to it. I suspect that people who weren’t around for the original when it originally played will not feel this nostalgic pull (young fans who have been recently introduced to the series, much as they worship it, wouldn’t feel it, you see, because they’re just not old enough to). I know the filmmakers wanted Sean Connery back as well, which in their minds would have upped the quotient another notch, and again I may be in the minority, but I didn’t care for Connery that much in the third installment, so I’m just as happy not to see him return. (Though he might have been fun as the John Hurt character, feigning madness, but really a wily old coot?)

In the acting department, Ford is wonderful (and I didn’t much care for him in the STAR WARS films, so I’m not a pushover), Blanchett is excellent, Allen is adequate, Hurt is squandered, and Winstone lays an egg. Blanchett’s performance calls for the most print, because her Ruskie villain is right out of “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” and that’s tough stuff to layer with flesh and soul, but the actor, screenwriter and director combo managed to do it. Ms. Blanchett is a finely-tuned instrument, and it’s a pleasure watching her character come to life. Oh, and I forgot Shia LaBeouf. Which omission alone should say something… I’d been worried that Ford would spend the film handing the mantle over to his son, but such is not the case. So while the Crystal Skulls are considered by many to be the film’s ‘MacGuffin,’ it’s really LaBeouf who is its red herring.

I think the screenplay is terrific structurally. Lots of surprise twists, almost no grimace-inducing one-liners, and something else that I haven’t heard anyone mention yet: a serious nod to the Quatermass flicks of the 50s and 60s. I know that it was Spielberg & Ford Vs. Lucas when it came to the juvenile sci-fi level of the earlier drafts of the screenplay. Lucas was using the American International potboilers of the 50s as his guide. According to Ford at the screening, more and more of Lucas’ ideas were jettisoned with each successive draft, and finally, when David Koepp came on board, most of what is in the film now was added. And what was added, to my satisfaction, was a sci-fi plot rooted in ideas, an approach that distinguished THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (THE CREEPING UNKNOWN here), QUATERMASS 2 (ENEMY FROM SPACE here), QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (5 MILLION YEARS TO EARTH here), and all the other sequels and spin-offs; thoughtful, carefully woven webs, part sci fi, horror, and fantasy, shrouded in imaginative speculation about why we are where we are and just who or what was responsible for our present place in the universe. Koepp catches it just right, and all the action shenanigans, all the CGI, and all the love some of us bring along for the characters, strike a fine balance.

Except for the prairie dogs… Please don’t get me started on that. I think both Lucas and Spielberg are guilty. Ford was outnumbered.

And I guess the gripes I’ve heard about the actual ‘crystal skulls’ has some merit. They looked more like fiberglass to me, but you must admit, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE FIBERGLASS SKULL doesn’t carry quite the weight that the actual title communicates to us.

Another nice touch: in the original film, in the first act, there’s a memorable scene with a gigantic boulder bouncing down a cave corridor after our hapless hero. It, of course, is right out of 1959’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, albeit a bigger boulder. I’m fond of bookends, and in IJ&tKotCS, in the end (spoiler alert) they are lifted out of danger by a gush of flood-water up a natural shaft in the mountain…right out of the ending of JttCotE. A beautiful reverberation!

Also stirred into the homage mix is a tribute to George Pal’s 1954 film THE NAKED JUNGLE, employing the ‘bigger is better’ approach which impaired Peter Jackson’s KING KONG. Pal’s work still holds up equally well, but the Marabunta recreation is certainly fun.

Many are claiming that the first act is the best part of the film, ending approximately with the scene where Jones wanders into a little village and discovers it to be one of those atom bomb test sites. Other negative voices point out that the McCarthy vibes were admirably powerful but not followed up on. I’m not gonna disagree, but I had no problem with the remaining two acts, and I thought they moved with great speed. In fact I was never bored (oh, maybe a little, with LaBeouf in the diner), but I sure was bored in the original INDIANA JONES, from the point where Ford climbed onto the submarine, until he was captured by the bad guys on their way to a final apocalyptic date with destiny. The original wasn’t without flaws. And I also remember that the big fight on the army truck was not as good as the finale of ROAD WARRIOR, whose stunts and violence out-did Spielberg’s Saturday-Super-Serial approach.

The CGI effects employed here, for me, did not overpower the human element in the narrative. They were smoothly incorporated and the Special Effects and Art Direction were two of my favorite aspects of the film. If you want to see a severe misuse of special effects, to use as a measure against the work of Spielberg, who doesn’t feel the need to dwell on them just because they’re so manpower costly, check out MACKENNA’S GOLD, a belly-laughable epic, also about a city of gold, which misfires on every level, but perhaps most of all during the effects-laden third act, where the producer felt every last frame of every effects shot needed to be shown to wring his money’s-worth from the project, resulting in a kind of cinematic acromegaly. It makes IJ&tKotCS’s use of effects appear subtle by comparison.

Continue to Roy’s review of the INDIANA JONES DVD Box-Set…

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