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Monday 26 May 2008

Review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by David Koepp, based on story and characters by George Lucas, Jeff Nathanson, and Philip Kaufman

Starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine

Both: All in all this was a pleasant surprise. Given how very badly an attempt to return to a franchise character two decades after the last installment might have gone, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a fairly rousing action/adventure tale that's true to the character, and the best installment since Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lawrence liked it better than Howard, but we both liked it.

Howard Waldrop: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have seen, in the course of their movie-watching lives This Island Earth (1955) the Quatermass films (1956, '57, '68) The Naked Jungle ('53) and Land of the Pharaohs ('55) . In the new Indiana Jones movie, you get to see their takes on their favorite scenes from all those films.

This movie's not as bad as other reviews I've heard about make it seem. It's just not great, or really even very good either. There's a chase scene in the middle that goes on forever, with the crystal skull as a hot potato. Karen Allen, in her return to the franchise, is not so much unused as not used very well. There's a kid, half-Brando, whose intro is a direct swipe from The Wild One (1953) and half Ed "Kookie" Byrnes from the television show 77 Sunset Strip.

The movie starts on the way to the Operation Plumbbob A-Bomb tests at the Nevada Proving Grounds and it's strange to see the Jones character in a movie with a '53 DeSoto and Elvis on the soundtrack. There's a jackbooted female commissar (with a sword!) (Cate Blanchett in the Angelina Jolie role), Commies galore, triple agents, FBI/CIA snoops, motorcycles racing through libraries, etc.

The political climate is more like 1953 than the 1957 setting. (It's like Joseph McCarthy was still a powerful man, instead of the washed-up censured Senator starting the day swallowing a quarter-lb. stick of free Wisconsin butter so he could drink rotgut all day...) We catch up on some of Indy's history since 1937 — in the OSS in WWII, medals up the wazoo, etc. Time has made him older and more beat-up, teaching at Indiana in the school year, going on digs in the summer, where he can be glommed by Commies (uniforms and ideologies change — they're still Nazis) and he finds himself in yet more adventures he didn't choose.

Lawrence Person: Actually, I liked the period setting. If you're going to do a new Indiana Jones film with Harrison Ford, your only choices are to play it in a period where the character has aged as much as the actor, or to try and pretend no time has passed at all. Given how cringe-worthy that choice might have gone, the 1957 setting is obviously the right one. I also appreciate the fact that Karen Allen actually gets to play the older, matronly version of her character from Raiders.

I also liked making the Commies the bad guys of the film, a historically and thematically correct choice, especially given that the director is not exactly known for his anti-communist fervor.

HW: There's some stuff early on at the Nevada Proving Grounds right out of Mickey Rooney's The Atomic Kid (1953) — at least Lucas and Spielberg are staying in period with their homages/swipes. It's a long way from Nevada to South America (stood in for by New York, New Mexico and Hawaii!) but Indy (and we) make the trip. I chose a yakky part to go take a whizz; when I got back, things were happening. My friend Martha Grenon said "Those guys came out of the woodwork." "I figured," I said. The whole movie is like that.

In the big chase scene, you forget Indy, et al are in a DUCK (amphibious vehicle) driven by Karen Allen, with an ever-changing cargo of Commies, good guys, crazy men (John Hurt in the Dennis Hopper role), until you find out why they're in a DUCK.

LP: There are, as you could guess, many fight scenes, chase scenes, daring deeds, and hair-breadth escapes, all done with superb choreography and top notch technical skill. (Clearly Spielberg has brought his A-game to the material.) Given the advances in special effects we've come to expect that as a matter of course, but there's so much going on here it would have been easy to get something wrong. They didn't.

There's also all the supporting business that made the original such a success: Indy himself remains a deeply appealing figure, as solid a scholar as he is a fighter, earthy but high minded, extraordinarily lucky but occasionally fallible (early on, Indy misses the timing on one of his swinging jumps). There are ciphers to be decoded, crypts to be explored, bad guys to be vanquished. And even a little archeology to be taught, including a funny scene where Indy comes sliding into the library on a motorcycle, gets calmly asked a source material question by a student, and just as calmly answers it before being ridden away again.

I greatly enjoyed that the first big action sequence in the film takes place in warehouse seen in the last scene of Raiders. (And yes, you do get a peek of the Ark.) It makes total sense that it would be in Area 51, and would be where they store those pesky alien bodies from Roswell...

The acting is also excellent. Ford slips back on the old Indy character like a comfortable old shirt (insert your own hat reference here). Cate Blanchett turns in a pitch-perfect performance as the sexy/creepy Commie commander. John Hurt plays crazy like nobody's business. Shia LaBeouf's motorcycle boy (who turns out to be exactly who you guess him to be) is just fine, and never tries to upstage the gimcrack gang of old acting pros surrounding him.

HW: And Jim Broadbent has changed his looks and acting completely again.

There are missteps. Marabunta (army ants) don't take you back to a nest to finish eating you — the reason they're moving on a miles-wide front is to get to new territory, away from the old nests, and they have everything — queens, eggs, hatchlings — on their backs or in their jaws. Somebody should have listened to the dialogue in The Naked Jungle a little more closely. Swell scenes, though wrong.

LP: A few small to moderate quibbles:

  1. In the warehouse fight, the lights all swing toward the magnetized box when they remove it; why wouldn't they have been leaning toward it the entire time?
  2. They walk through an ancient temple/crypt, and after they've passed, a bunch of spear-carrying natives jump through false masks and crannies in the walls and ceiling to follow them. What, does their tribe do rotating 8-hour shifts on a regular schedule to hang out there just in case anyone walks by? Does Omboogala have a regular Tuesday appointment with the village chiropractor to work out his back kinks from all those hours crouched behind the mask?
  3. Do these people not bruise? Surfing the shockwave of a nuclear blast in your handy, lead-lined refrigerator and I think you're going to be more than a little sore. Likewise going over those hundred-foot falls. I know this is a classic trope of the action/adventure genre, but there are times they cease pushing the suspension of disbelief and actually start pounding on it.

And yes, the jungle chase scene takes too long, but isn't nearly as bad as the mine cart scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where it looked like they stopped even trying to make a movie and went straight to designing the amusement park ride based on it instead.

HW: As for the Quatermass stuff — the commissar yearns for the psychic warfare potential of the crystal skull (both the KGB and CIA were hot for psychic warfare in the '50s) — the only thing missing from this movie is an incomprehensible scene in another medium, the trademark of all three of Nigel Kneale's three Quatermass teleplays and films from the 1950s (a silent grainy 8mm film in The Creeping Unknown/Quatermass I, recollections of internecine Martian slaughter on a mind-reading device in 5 Million Years to Earth/Quatermass and the Pit.)

LP: Technically speaking, all the previous Indy films were fantasy. Technically speaking, this one is science fiction.

HW: There's an ambiguous happy ending (the doors blowing open at a wedding is homage to both Tormented (1960) and Curse of the Demon, (1957), as if we weren't already in the land of pleroma. At least, the movie and the quotations end in the same year. There's also a verbal quote from dear old dead dad Sean Connery, from The Untouchables. Lucas and Spielberg don't miss much.

So Henry "Indiana" Jones goes on into the future, looking more beat-up with hammers than ever. The kid even asks him, at one point in the movie "What are you? — about 80?" The answer would be, about 57 in '57, since he'd been kidnapped by Pancho Villa as a kid; we assume Indiana was born close to the century mark, Fitzgerald or Hemingway's age. Is the franchise over? Or do we get to see Indy in the Swinging '60s, waiting with hippies for RISE!, the Manson Helter-Skelter race wars?

As John Cleese said, when asked why the Pythons hadn't stayed together: "Does the idea of 80-year-old men dressed as mice repel you as much as it does me?" Or, as adventure heroes go, 80-year-olds swinging on vines and bullwhips?

This is slightly better than the third movie, 19 years ago — the gravitas of Sean Connery is missed, though — there's a photo of him on a desk. Indy's in the wrong period.

Think of this as the movie's longest movie-quote movie.

LP: It's easy, and wrong, to blame Lucas and Spielberg's great early works for the legions of inferior summer blockbuster imitators they spawned. But the vast majority of those films lacked the heart that Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark brought to their material. Not only is this a sequel to Raiders, in many ways it's an homage to it. Not only does Allen's character return, but the villain is dispatched in almost identical fashion, and for almost identical reasons. Certainly part of the appeal is nostalgia for a film now a quarter-century old. And certainly this sucker is going to make a mint. But there's still enough of the old magic, and heart, left in to leave no doubt that this was a film that everyone involved really wanted to make for the characters and story, not just for the paycheck. That, among many other virtues, is what elevates Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull above the vast majority of would-be blockbusters this and any other summer.

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