Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008)

I’m gonna catch a hell of a lot of flack for this review.  Probably as much flack as an old Steven Spielberg, an old George Lucas, and especially an old Harrison Ford have gotten for resurrecting a film series that probably didn’t need a whole lot of resurrecting.  There’ll be the Indy purists (I’m one of ’em) who’ll hate everything about his latest adventure (I’m not one of ’em), from the special effects to replacing those dastardly Nazis with those dastardly Russians to Harrison Ford getting awfully long in the tooth.  It’s those kind of people who’d give me all the flack, and going in I was prepared to give Crystal Skull the wariest eye imaginable (since there’s probably no bigger “Raiders” fan than this guy writing this), but what Spielberg, Ford, and even that crazy fuck George Lucas did impresses me to no end, because when all is said and done, I truly believe that this has to be considered the best Indy movie since “Raiders.”

Blasphemy!  Outrageous!  Sean Connery would be spinning in his grave (by grave I thankfully mean retirement 😛 )!  Well fuck ’em.  I’m sticking with my guns.  Is it a perfect movie?  Good god, no!  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was a perfect movie, one of the few perfect movies I’ve ever seen…a standard which “Crystal Skull,” or “Temple of Doom” and “Last Crusade” for that matter, could never dream of matching.  And in fact there are point in “Crystal Skull” where I’m almost convinced it’s the most flawed of the Indy sequels…way too much talky talky talky in the middle about the origin of the Crystal Skull, a gross underuse of the wonderful Karen Allen, some very strange pacing to the point that we’re looking at 3 different movies, between almost a screwball comedy involving the A-bomb, political intrigue stateside, and a rip-roaring adventure in the jungle.  And yet, I’m still calling it the best Indy movie since Raiders.  Why?  Quite simply, because it reminded me most of “Raiders.”  I thought it was easier to attach labels of particular faults to the prior sequels than to this one.  “Temple of Doom” was too dark, and “Last Crusade” was too cutesy.  By all kinds of logic, though, “Last Crusade” probably is the best of the Indy sequels, mainly because of the wonderful on-screen chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, between father and son.  Cutesy it was, but it was a cutesy that worked and made for a very charming action film.  But as much as I like “Last Crusade,” and I do like it a lot, something never sat right with me about it, something that just didn’t let it fit in with the rest of the series.  The whole point of “Raiders” was to take us to exotic locales and go plundering long-forgotten tombs and troves of antiquities with Indy, while retaining that feel of a fake-feeling but utterly charming and exciting 30s serial.  The charming feel of the serial was certainly there in “Last Crusade,” but exotic locales and long-forgotten tombs pretty much translated to downtown Venice, the heart of Berlin, and a zeppelin 😕 , not to mention it felt like a lot of the action scenes were stuff we’ve seen before and didn’t necessarily need to see again.  “Crystal Skull,” all faults aside, felt like it belonged, like we were back to basics of watching an adventurous archaeologist doing stuff an adventurous archaeologist should do.  Once all that expository nonsense about aliens and skulls and lost cities of gold is out of the way, Indy’s back to doing what he does best, and what gives the Indy franchise its purpose. We’re plundering ancient tombs and catacombs and seeing spooky places and things we would never otherwise experience from scorpions to treasure troves to mummified conquistadors, and have a hell of a lot of fun doing it.

Like I said, I only wish George Lucas in this cockamamie story of his would’ve treated the macguffin of the skull as an actual macguffin and not put it so front-and-center, even before it makes its grand entrance.  There’s so much expository dialogue about what the skull does, what the fabled city does, Irina Spalko’s grand plan for taking over the minds of every American, that I couldn’t even keep up.  I just wanted to see some damn action sequences both silly and exhilirating.  “Raiders” was so ingenious because it actually kept the Ark at Macguffin level, basically leaving the explaining to one scene at the beginning and instead focusing on establishing Indy as a character and getting us to like the man getting himself into situations more and more outlandish.  The longest stretches of dialogue basically involve him and the villanous Belloq, establishing the two as rival archaeologists with different motives, but always with the focus on character rather than thing.  Much of “Crystal Skull” is about thing rather than character, and that’s a shame.  But once that’s out of the way, though, what exhilarating action pieces!  The first warehouse chase followed by the (very funny) run in with a nuclear test site, a chase on motorcycle through Marshall College, and the piece de resistance, the car chase through the jungle.  Here’s a chase that has everything.  Yes, EVERYTHING.  Bazookas, explosions, vine swinging, monkeys, acrobatic jumping, balancing acts and fencing duels, a cliff, playing catch with that fucking skull, a change of venue to accommodate three waterfalls, a run-in with some rather nasty ants (though Shia’s vine-swing with the monkeys was really pushing it and got it dangerously close to the obscenely over-the-top 😛 ).  All that, and I didn’t think it was too long in the least.  It was the perfect length, I though…not too short so that everything is scrunched in, not too long so that it becomes exhausting to watch.  It’s better than the eye-orgasm car chase of “The Matrix Reloaded,” better than the exercise in economizing time that is the car chase in “The French Connection”…it’s the best car chase since, well, its predecessor in “Raiders.”  And to all those who complain about CGI ruining the purity of the Indy franchise, shut the fuck up.  Didn’t bother me a bit, and I really didn’t think it stood out too much in the least.  Excluding the masterpiece of a car chase through the desert in “Raiders,” this may’ve been the best and most exhilirating action sequence Steven Spielberg has ever filmed..quite a pleasant surprise.

Aliens?  Fourth dimensions?  Flying saucers?  Surely such a silly mythology can’t possibly stack up with the epically biblical mythology of the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail.  And of course it doesn’t, it’s so much cheesier, it seems.  But it works.  It works the way something like the Holy Grail worked because of the common theme of never overstepping one’s bounds.  The Grail promises eternal life, something clearly nobody deserves, just like how the skull promises infinite knowledge, something clearly nobody deserves.  Here’s where the special effects argument rears its ugly head again, as I’m sure a lot of Indy purists will be furious with the spectacle of the film’s climax.  I think that’s a pretty hypocritical point of view.  In “Raiders,” the ghosts coming out of the Ark and the Nazis’ face-melting was pretty state-of-the-art, and today defines cheesiness.  What we see at the climax of “Crystal Skull” is pretty state-of-the-art visually, and I’m sure it’ll be cheesy 20 years from now.  And just as those godless Nazis (and Belloq) got what was coming to them the first time ’round, those godless Commies (and Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, basically a poor man’s Belloq) get what’s coming to them this time around, so what’s the problem? 😛

With everything I’ve said up ’til now, I’m absolutely shocked at myself for not even mentioning the presence of Harrison Ford.  It probably should’ve been front and center, since every potential detractor of reviving the Indy franchise after 20 years first criticizes the apparent fossil that is a 65 year old Ford.  Truth is, I didn’t even think of mentioning it ’til now, because it was, in all honesty, not an issue.  Clearly the man looks older by now and upon first glance he’s not the dashing young adventurer with that incredibly dramatic entrance at the beginning of “Raiders.”  And yet, beneath the gray hair and the leathery skin is clearly and unequivocally the Indy we’ve always known and always loved.  Still there is that sarcastic smirk, the subdued glee upon discovering an incredible archaeological find, that cute xenophobia (here with the Russians instead of Nazis), that world-weary kind of sass.  This is the Indiana Jones we’ve always known, only this time a little more worn out, a little more cynical, even a little more fatherly…somehow this new Harrison Ford that seems to never change facial expression or vocal tone in every other role he’s taken on the past few years pulls out all the stops, and it’s like the ol’ Indy was there all along.

As I said before, I think “Crystal Skull” is the best Indy movie since the flawless “Raiders” because, simply, it reminded me the most of “Raiders.”  Action sequences like the car chase were almost a direct homage to those of “Raiders” and yet weren’t imitations, but genuine add-ons that had originality all their own.  Marion returns and has lost none of her spunk, and the ever-shifty Mac is like a little more sinister combination of Sallah and Marcus (even Marcus himself makes his presence felt at a key point during a car chase, at least in statue-like spirit 😀 …).  Computer effects were kept to a minimum (though those ants were pushing it 😛 ), and Spielberg vehemently refused to use George Lucas’ signature digital camera, which just bastardized the Star Wars franchise.  A lot of the action had that care-free humor you’d expect out of an Indy movie, like the very first “chase” with Elvis playing on the radio or Indy and Mutt fighting their way out of a malt shop, 50s music blasting (no doubt a touch by George Lucas).  That shitty little classroom where Indy (make that Dr. Jones) actually does his day job is still there, and the red line on the map charting our heroes’ travels just brought as wide a nostalgia-induced smile to my face as possible, that probably being the series’ most memorable icon other than Indy’s fedora 😛 .  And, of course, a giant snake makes a cameo, and Indy’s reaction is everything you’d expect, and absolutely wonderful.  And yet, I was also impressed with how “Crystal Skull” separated itself from Indy’s earlier adventures so it wasn’t a complete homage…how Mutt was a pretty original character (despite the Brando-esque outfit) that could easily take Indy’s adventurous reigns (and wasn’t an annoying little shit like I thought Shia LaBeouf would be 😛 ).  Heaps upon heaps of flesh-eating ants and kung-fu fighting Aztecs are pretty silly additions, but I gotta admit, they’re original.  And Cate Blanchett…so ridiculous as the evil Russian dominatrix type with a thing for the supernatural, but in the pulp fiction world of an archaeologist battling the forces of evil and things spooky and other-worldly, she fits right in.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” was conceived as an homage to those old 30s serials, and was so wonderful because it wasn’t a straight-up homage (which would probably make it a straight-up parody) as it became a completely original masterpiece of action, adventure, and humor.  I see “Crystal Skull” as another homage, this time to, well, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  I don’t think its intended purpose of homaging 50s B movies really works, but as a continuation, or just an add-on, to “Raiders,” it obviously can’t be the masterpiece that its model is, but nonetheless, the legacy continues.  As Indy snidely tells Marion in Raiders, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”  “Crystal Skull” does show the age of its star and the franchise, but it shows even more of the mileage.  We probably didn’t need to continue the franchise after a 20 year hiatus, but even upon seeing an older Indy adapting to a new world around him, I think this fourth chapter fits right in.  Welcome back, Dr. Jones.  It’s like you never left.



4 comments so far

  1. Terri on

    Sounds like you had a bad day.

  2. Simon M. on

    how so? actually ended up as a pretty great day 🙂

  3. ShotgunAndy on

    “Aliens? Fourth dimensions? Flying saucers? Surely such a silly mythology can’t possibly stack up with the epically biblical mythology of the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail.”

    I’d say it does!

  4. Simon M. on

    which is why i said like 2 sentences later that it actually works 😉

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