The Good: Moments of concept, Moments of performance
The Bad: Direction/editing, Obvious character and plot twists/development, Special effects
The Basics: Entirely predictable after the first minute, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull plummeted from the most anticipated film of the summer when it was released.
It is a rare thing that I begin a review before I have sat through a film. I mean, I like to think I go into virtually every experience with as little bias as possible and so it's unheard of for me to begin a review before I've experienced a product. My anticipation, however, for the film that would make the boxed set Indiana Jones Trilogy (click here for my review!) obsolete was so great that I wrote some preparation notes and had a basic outline ready for my review. When I first started reading reviews of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull on its debut weekend, I began to update my notes for how I would be bucking the trend of other reviewers.
Well, that version and all of my other notes went out the window and now that I have returned from the midnight showing of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, I have just two thoughts. First, I suspect that most of the people who started this film out with a bevy of average ratings had not seen Smilla's Sense Of Snow. Second: Steven, George, I want my eight bucks back!
Anyone looking for the logical successor to Raiders Of The Lost Ark will be utterly disappointed by Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.
Dragged out to Area 51 (no kidding, folks!) by agents of the KGB, Dr. Jones reluctantly aids the Russians in recovering mummified remains that were part of the 1947 incident in Roswell. Betrayed by his MI-6 friend, Mac, Jones returns to his university where he is promptly blacklisted and heads for the hills. On the train out of town, he is accosted by a young man, Mutt Williams, who begs his help to save a mutual friend.
The friend is Oxley, Mutt and Jones' mentor and his abduction by the Russians while searching for a mythical crystal skull implies the end to a quest Dr. Jones has been on for decades. Armed with new information, Indiana Jones drags the kid along for an adventure to Peru and beyond where he is reunited with Marion, who happens to be Mutt's mother, hounded by the KGB paranormal investigator, Irina Spalko, and works to solve the riddles of ancient contact by higher beings. This puts Indiana Jones and his allies and enemies on the road to Acator, better known as El Dorado, the legendary city of gold.
First, I was ready to love this movie from the beginning. I found myself in an audience of mostly younger people, which surprised me whatwith it being a school night and figuring that the crowd that would be most drawn to Indiana Jones would be closer to middle age. I was the only one in the theater to laugh, for example, when the famed Paramount logo faded into a prairie dog's hill. So begins a witless chase/race sequence that opens the film and sets a tone that is more like American Graffiti than Indiana Jones.
It did not take long before the film began to get sucked down into the territory of questionable to lousy. I mean, it takes some pretty powerful boredom for a cinephile like me to start questioning things that I have only peripheral knowledge about. So, for example, after the director rather uncleverly beat into the viewer's head that the military compound is Area 51 (done quite subtly in the first shots, then made more and more explicit in case a complete ignoramus was watching), the Russians hunt through the artifacts there for a powerfully magnetized mummy. The object is so magnetized that it tears glasses off people's faces and attracts the metal in gunpowder from long distances away. And rather than do anything so clever as allow Indiana Jones to foil all of the villains with guns by using his nonmetallic bullwhip vs. all their bullets getting sucked toward the magnetic field, the director instead begins an elaborate chase sequence through the building. To properly describe how exciting this sequence is not, it was just begun when I asked myself, "Aren't there a lot of metal parts in a car engine? Wouldn't a magnet of this strength essentially freeze up the motor?" Moreover, the viewer is asked to believe that an object that is this powerfully magnetic is either not attracting any other metal in the building or that none of the other objects in Area 51 are metallic. Please!
The point with this is, of course, that the action sequences are hardly special or interesting in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Indeed, they remind us why special effects are best in limited quantities as the editing and special effects are so poor that virtually every time the image switched from an actor to their digital stunt copy, the viewer was aware of it.
Even more important than the poor special effects - the exception to these, by the by, is this film's creature swarm sequence that easily trumps the rats in the prior installment - are the problems with the story. From the outset, the film is a mess in that it is clear that it is unsure what it wants to be. This becomes painfully obvious when the first sequences are plagued by excessive comments on aging and slapstick humor. Yes, old people fall down in the first part of this movie . . . frequently. The viewer knows that both Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford are older here. There is nothing classy or subtle about the way this is handled.
Moreover, there is the entirely problematic aspect of Indiana dealing with his father and Brody's deaths. Looking at a photograph on his desk, he laments the death of Henry Jones, Sr. What could have been an interesting or touching scene is gutted by the limitations of cast and then story. It is well-documented that Sean Connery's recent retirement put him out of play for even a cameo in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. However, it is equally clear that Steven Spielberg wanted to do something with Connery's character in this film. As soon as Indiana laments his father's death, there is a slow pan in on the photograph, desperately awaiting a flashback scene that does not exist. The viewer is set up for an entire plotline that does not exist.
But this is the tease of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull; we are set up for an Indiana Jones archaeological adventure story and instead, we get Steven Spielberg's 2008 incarnation of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The Smilla's Sense Of Snow comparison is an apt one; both films start out as a logical, ordered, very real world and then take an abrupt right turn. This installment of the Indiana Jones story is especially banal in this regard as Spielberg attempts to mix it up by pretending the viewer did not guess the end from the very beginning. As a result, he peppers in unnecessary details that make distinctions that are both useless and unbelievable derived. Yes, the inhabitants of El Dorado, we are told, are very specific type beings, not quite like what we expected them to be, but in a useless way, much like bothering to tell an audience that the character they thought was British is from Manchester.
The truth, however, is that the moment Area 51 is shown - and repeatedly beaten into the viewer's head that it's THAT Area 51 - the film is set up as a very different film from every other Indiana Jones film, but, alas, identical to every other science fiction film of that ilk. It is no surprise, then, that this film begins to take the tact of Smilla's Sense Of Snow or even more accurately, The X-Files: Fight The Future. Once Area 51 is shown in the first five minutes, the film becomes a pathetically predictable cinematic event. Every conceit that the seasoned cinephile would predict comes to pass.
Even worse is that the character elements take on an equally predictable formula. Mutt and Indiana have a special relationship, Marion's return to Indiana's side sparks the same chemistry they once had and the babbling professor's obvious riddles begin to tire rapidly. Yes, this is a film that will make virtually any science fiction or action-adventure film fan feel smarter than Indiana Jones himself. In Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Indiana is hardly clever; most of his lines are simple exposition as he provides the clues for where the story is going next. These are all facts not at the viewer's disposal and the film makes little sense until Indiana tells us what he knows and thus why he's about to do something.
No kidding, the person sitting next to me through the viewing was a deaf girl. When the lights came up at the end of the film, this complete stranger looked at me and shrugged. I wish I had been able to remember enough sign language to assure her that the film made little more sense with words to it.
That said, there were moments that were exciting, though this is no thanks to the awkward direction or the choppy editing (seriously, it's a rare thing I am able to notice editing problems enough to comment on them, but in this movie there are entire sequences that look like they were cut and pasted together by a fourth grade student). Moreover, for all of the plot predictability and the bits where the character's stories are obvious and entirely predictable, the concept of the film has some merit.
This is not the straightforward story and that is admirable. It is rare that a series that relies very little on supernatural elements leaps over into hard science fiction. That, however, is exactly what Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull does. This is very much a science fiction piece.
The acting is fair at best, mostly because most of the characters are cutout types that are predictable. Shia LaBeouf plays Mutt like a typical '50's greaser and he could be playing the same role in a rendition of West Side Story next month, if he wanted to, his performance was so generic to the type. Similarly, Cate Blanchette's Irina Spalko is largely the archetypal KGB operative.
The only bit of genius here is in the inclusion of Marion Williams (formerly Marion Ravenwood). Some performers are blessed with an unaging quality; Erin Gray comes immediately to mind. Should anyone wish to do an update on the 1980's Buck Rogers In The 24th Century, Colonel Wilma could still be played easily and plausibly by Gray as she has virtually not aged. Similarly, Karen Allen has that same timeless quality and she effortlessly returns to the role of Marion and makes it look simple! Allen does not so much push the role but illustrates acting genius by recreating her performance, now over twenty years past, and makes it seem effortless.
Similarly, Harrison Ford lives up to plausibly re-establishing Indiana Jones when he is not so busy delivering stale lines about how much he has aged. Once the film gets going, Ford beautifully recreates his character's mannerisms and body language.
On DVD, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is loaded with extras. The two-disc special edition might not have a commentary track, but it does have a slew of featurettes on the making of, development of the story, and very in-depth exploration of the making of the special effects. There are trailers and advertisements for other Indiana Jones products, like the Legos. This pretty much meets the industry standard of what to expect out of a DVD for this type of film.
Still, it is not enough to sell this film. By the time the most wacky and - almost - original science fiction elements enter the mix, the viewer has long since stopped caring. Instead, I find myself considering the words of a much younger person at the film tonight. As he walked out, he said, "George Lucas, is there any masterpiece you won't go back to and screw up?"
Well said, young man. Well said. Unfortunately, those looking for greatness or even entertainment are unlikely to find it here.
For other works starring Harrison Ford, please check out my reviews of:
Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope
Star Wars - Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Star Wars - Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi
For other film reviews, please visit my index page for lists of all I have reviewed in a nice, organized fashion!
© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.