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'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' Review
by Stephen Jared - posted on May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones meets Marlon Brando and aliens from outer space—and it works!

There is nothing wrong with movies being inspired by literature, comics, video games, TV shows or stage plays. But for anyone who truly loves movies, it’s fun to see a movie born out of a love of other movies. Of course I’m talking about Hollywood movies of the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and with this new Indiana Jones, the 50’s as well. More specifically, I’m talking about Saturday matinee type films. These films have always served as the primary inspiration behind Indiana Jones, and the question best put to anyone critical of these films would be “who has done Saturday matinee type films better?”

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Struzan's final poster.

In the fine arts, critics of major publications often stick to the variety they know best. A specialist in Pop Art would likely not be assigned to review the latest Rembrandt Retrospective. In music, there are reviewers of jazz and reviewers of rock-n-roll. Its unfortunate films aren’t granted the same respect. For a critic who counts Cries and Whispers as a favorite, Indiana Jones or Star Wars would likely be dismissed as soon as the projector starts spinning.

There is one scene that is simply stunning early in the new film. Indy enters a town in the Nevada desert. He is of course battered, bruised and dressed in his iconic khakis and fedora. He needs help, desperately. He enters a home where Howdy Doody’s theme plays on the television. Everything would appear to be a white middle class American dream circa 1957—except for the Twilight Zone strangeness of it all. It suddenly dawns on him that the whole town is a façade. They are not real, but in fact plastic people created to measure the effects of a nuclear blast. The visual surprise of this scene is unforgettable. Indiana Jones could not look more out of place. We see clearly the startling difference between the worlds Indy used to inhabit and the new world he currently finds himself in.

Is this a view of modern man visited by one from the so-called Greatest Generation? It’s tempting to see it that way. What immediately follows makes clear, particularly to fans of the previous Indy adventures, that we are no longer in the 1930’s. To me, this is one of the most brilliant scenes I’ve seen in movies for a long time.

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Return of an old hero.

Spielberg’s cinematic language has become so economical; it’s a marvel to watch him tell this story so successfully in only two hours. There is more packed into this new Indiana Jones than any of it’s predecessors. Some may feel the more periphery characters suffer from lack of development but what we are given—if not extensive biographical detail—is all perfectly clear. For example, Ray Winstone’s character, Mac, runs alongside the action throughout most of the film and lurks in the shadows at other points. We don’t see much focus directly on him, but one of Mac’s first lines is, “I’m a capitalist.” As such, his conflicted nature is obvious. One can extrapolate that he is emblematic of a very different, more complicated, world than what existed in the 1930’s; a world of greater paranoia and greed; a representative of a world where alliances and loyalties must be constantly questioned. He seems loosely based on Thomas Mitchell’s character from the 1954 film, Secret of the Incas, which is also set in Peru and was of course one of the original inspirations behind Indiana Jones.

Not only is it great fun to see Karen Allen back as Marion but also, given so many story elements packed into this picture, Dr. Jones has little time for love. So, from a practical sense, bringing her back works well. Romance is established very quickly as a result of their prior relationship, and every Indy adventure needs some romance. The first time I saw the film (yeah, I saw it twice as soon as it came out) I wondered why Indy hadn’t been told it was Marion captured in South America, as opposed to “Mary.” I felt this would have given Indy more urgency and raised the level of romance throughout the film. Upon my second viewing I can only say I accepted the decision that had been made. I don’t know if the film could have been improved by this difference. It’s hard to argue against the experience of loving every moment of the film from beginning to end, which is how I felt when I watched it a second time. The ride was equally exhilarating to what I experienced watching the previous sequels (I know one was a prequel. C’mon, you can’t out-nerd me.) back in 1984 and 1989.

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Introducing Mutt.

The motorcycle chase is great fun and immediately recalls the levity of Last Crusade. In fact, this is the second time we see Indy desecrate a library. These scenes serve as a visual reminder that while Indiana Jones may be a bespectacled academic, he is more a man of action. The jungle chase is another wild excursion and again is played as much for humor as suspense. Indy at yells at young Mutt, “Don’t be a child! Pick up something and fight!”

Aliens from outer space have always been linked with the crystal skulls. So, the sci-fi elements in the new film should not come as a surprise. The series has always dealt with mysterious phenomena and has always had a dramatic supernatural climax. Indiana Jones sees and experiences that which questions our visible reality. He comes away with no evidence to change the world’s view of existence but, thankfully, we were there with him and saw it too.

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That's Mary Williams?!

Shia LaBeouf brings much to the film and, given how convincing Harrison Ford still is as Indy, it would be a shame not to see them do another. Cate Blanchett’ Irina Spalko may not be terrifying but she’s a fun villain and a striking vision with her Louise Brooks hair and sharp military uniform. Her pale blue eyes seem to echo the eyes of the skull at certain points, particularly in the tent scene where she forces Indy to stare into the skull. The use of light and shadow in that scene is remarkable and will inspire future filmmakers everywhere. Typical of George Lucas films, details can be overshadowed by broad strokes, and only those who really love the genre will look for details. Over time, if they haven’t already, fans will consider Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to be another worthy follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It’s a fantastic story, full of memorable images. Future generations will marvel at the combination of extraordinary talents assembled for these films. Steven Spielberg is as good a director as cinema has ever had. Harrison Ford is easily on par with any of the best movie stars of all time. Movie music doesn’t get any better than John Williams, and George Lucas’ amazing visionary skills bring story and picture together like a merging of Jules Verne and Walt Disney. One can only hope Indy won’t stay away so long next time.


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