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'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' Review
by Michael French - posted on May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones is caught in the most death-defying trap of his life. After 19 years absent, Indy has to reconnect with his original audience, generate interest from a whole new audience that has no emotional connection to previous films, compete with a spate of cinematic CGI summer spectacles, surmount the surgical scrutiny of the “Internet critics” and simultaneously be both fresh and “the same ol’ Indy.”

Makes getting through the Grail Temple seem easy by comparison.

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Struzan's teaser poster.

George Lucas gave only one guarantee in the months leading up to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, saying it would polarize audiences and they would either love it or hate it. He was right. Indy and the filmmakers are caught in an impossible position. After 19 years of almost rabid waiting, the die hards had time to conceive their own Indy 4 and the new generation of young people have no barometer upon which to measure Dr. Jones. To them, Indy is just another summer movie on equal footing with Batman and the Hulk, so Dr. Jones doesn’t even have nostalgia working in his favor.

Indiana Jones has the added disadvantage that his last movie was a major hit. 1989’s Last Crusade was no turkey, a bonafide blockbuster that in the minds of even the most casual audience that is all but impossible to top. It's a lot easier to wow audiences when the previous film was a flop, like Rambo 3.

Fans have every frame of the original three movies branded into their brains and change is always hard, but in this case everything has changed. Not only has Indy gotten older, but the creators have gotten older, the franchise has gotten older, the world has gotten older and the fan base has aged right along with it. How can anyone expect Indy or his adventures to remain the same? After 20 years, and having treaded into essentially the same story hooks in three previous films, the filmmakers certainly wanted to try their hand at something different. More than anything else about this film, the courage to stick out their necks and try something different earns my respect, even if the execution is sometimes inconsistent.

Crystal Skull is forced into a different historic era due to the aging of the title character. Although I usually do not agree with George Lucas’ creative impulses of late, having loathed his Star Wars “prequels,” I concede that his instincts for setting Indy in the 1950s and focusing on “the atomic age” are spot on. As Indy has always been a modern homage to B cinema, looking toward 1950s B movies for inspiration is a brave choice.

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Indy at the warehouse.

In Crystal Skull, Indy is far more world-weary, having fought through his second World War and now finding himself in an America that is not unified through optimism but postwar paranoia. He becomes the victim of that paranoia when Russian spies, led by Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, force him to assist them in stealing the corpse of the much-debated Roswell alien from the Area 51 warehouse, last seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Now, he's a target of the America's National Security Agency and put on leave of absence from Marshall College thanks to his own government's suspicion. The adventure heats up to a new level when greaser Mutt Williams, played by Shia LaBeouf, reveals to Jones that their mutual friend, Dr. Oxley, has found the much-debated Crystal Skull of Akator but Mutt lost contact with him in South America and his mother, one Mary Williams, sent a letter telling him to seek out Jones for help. Now, it's a race against Spalko and the Russian Army to find the Crystal Skull and return it to Akator first, because whoever returns the skull to its resting place in the mythical city first will gain control over great power.

New Indiana Jones images of any kind will come as a shock to any longtime fan of the series who has seen the other installments numerous times. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is certainly a shock. With two decades on the characters and the wait, the result is a decidedly mixed bag. Much of the movie works well, most notably Mutt Williams. LaBeouf's new character is interesting, engaging and a scene stealer and worth the price of admission. The action scenes are very kinetic and move at a breakneck pace akin to Temple of Doom and both the action scenes and the dialogue sequences are infused with that Last Crusade sense of humor. Aside from some good punches and quips, Dr. Jones' own action moments are limited in this film, and something fans I think were hoping there would be more Indy whipping and jumping, not less.

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Meeting Irina Spalko.

What we have here is the slippery slope of success. The goofy humor of Last Crusade was such a critical hit with audiences and reviewers and the film is still freshest in everyone's memory that the filmmakers went in that direction with this new installment. To this day, Spielberg still needlessly apologizes in interviews for Temple of Doom.

I truly believe he's still reliving the critical backlash from the summer of 1984 as if it happened yesterday. As such, he recoils from being too serious again in an Indiana Jones film. These movies are vacations for him now. So, we get more humor, more goofiness and more over the top comic book style action. Dare I say, more Temple of Cheese?

This new film has brought me to the realization that Raiders of the Lost Ark is really the black sheep of the series, whereas all three of its sequels reinvented the character in a new direction that focused more on humor and comic book or pulp style action instead of Raiders” gritty realism and dramatic tension. Now, we truly have an “Indiana Jones Trilogy” that just happens to come after a movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Many fans are already decrying Indy's escape from a nuclear blast via locking himself in a refrigerator, Mutt's Tarzan-like escapade in the jungle on swinging vines and the UFO-ending shocker as well as the insistence on goofy humor and yes, in some places including those mentioned above, the choices are not always the best. Spielberg and Lucas were once better than this and they should not have been so self indulgent.

However, if Temple of Doom and Last Crusade are a barometer for the series, then it must be accepted that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the natural evolution of the direction the creators were taking this character.

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Beware for quicksand.

Indy falling down the secret stairs in Castle Brunwald in Last Crusade is Indy falling off the rocket sled here. Indy "jousting" with that flagpole in Last Crusade is Mutt's Tarzan homage vine swinging in this movie. The mine cart jump and the raft jump out of the plane in Temple of Doom is injected with steroids and becomes the atomic blast scene in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The first two Indy sequels are replete with moments of goofy humor and “unrealistic” action. Take Indy with his face smashed into a periscope in Last Crusade, the German giving Indy and Dad the goofy look as he swooshes by in his flaming fuselage in the tunnel, Indy punching two guys at once on Coronado's ship, Germans acting like goofballs missing at point blank range in the fireplace scene. Let's not forget Willie unknowingly about to hang a fake-looking vampire bat up to dry in camp that is the equivalent of a moment with a fake snake and a pit of quicksand in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Take Indy's shoes on fire in Temple of Doom after using his feet as mine cart brakes, much like his behavior in the quicksand scene, which I found to be one of the most entertaining moments in the movie. And who can forget Indy in Last Crusade in the zeppelin wearing a steward outfit three sizes too small and yelling “No ticket!”

Given that, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has much in common with its predecessors. What it does not have in common with its brethren is its weakness of story. There is a potentially strong archaeological mystery here that has its roots in ideas about aliens and the origins of man that are outlined in compelling detail in books like Chariots of the Gods and Fingerprints of the Gods. Unfortunately, the screenwriting does not effectively convey enough information to make these ideas clear.

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That was close!

The result is a little of head scratching throughout as Indy and company try to unravel the mystery of the Crystal Skull of Akator. The plot become too vague at times and the object of the quest too esoteric, making the exact cause of Spalko's ultimate demise all the more uncertain. In the meantime, side characters, including Karen Allen's own Marion Ravenwood, are not given enough to do, with Ray Winstone and John Hurt's performances being shortchanged the most.

All that now spelled out, I still assert that this is an entertaining movie from start to finish. I was never bored and had a truly rollicking time from scene to scene. Unlike my Phantom Menace experience, this movie gets more fun with each viewing and not more boring or painful to watch.

The establishment of the 1950s and the first hour of the film are an absolute treat. Spielberg thrusts the audience into Indy's new decade with a shotgun blast of imagery and fun, and it works. There is still magic in these moments, with the motorcycle chase through the university and Indy and Mutt exploring the Peruvian tombs showing that signature Indiana Jones feel.

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Exploring tombs.

The ultimate strength of this film lies in the same place as Last Crusade, with the humor and the interaction between family members. The best moments in the film are the ones in which Indy and Marion trade barbs about their past and the possibility of a future, and Indy's attempts to “parent” Mutt. Here, Indy has become older and wiser and, in essence, more like his father and the shift is very appropriate.

There are also, as with the previous films, great references to past movies and serials. In this case, it's movies such as The Naked Jungle, Tarzan, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them, and even a healthy sampling of Spielberg and Lucas' previous movies, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and American Graffiti.

As a good friend of mine put it upon seeing the movie, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a fatal wound to the Indiana Jones series, but it is not what audiences expected. The movie is rife with action and humor, and it is a fun ride. However, the film is polarizing and will likely turn away many longstanding fans.

I liked the movie in the same way I enjoy Temple of Doom and Last Crusade, despite their flaws. Now I hope there is an Indiana Jones 5, so we can see more of our favorite archaeologist and give Spielberg, Lucas and Ford a chance to find their rhythm again. Although they conceived a beautiful song on the sheet, their instruments were a little out of tune in places when they played it.


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