Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Movie Review: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

It’s been a few days now since I saw “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” with some friends, and it’s time for a little review. I’ve thought about my initial disappointed reaction – and, well, it still stands. Here are a few more thoughts (and, yes, I wrote them when I should have been doing research. Shhhhhhhh – don’t tell the Nerd Lords!).

Maybe this movie should actually be titled “Indiana Jones and the Weight of Completely Impossible Expectations.” There was no way that this movie could possibly meet the hype, hopes, and expectations that surrounded it (even if it just raked in $100 million over the holiday weekend). The original Indiana Jones trilogy of movies has become pop culture icons and – more than that – a temple of affectionate nostalgia visited by an entire generation of people like me, the “children of the 80s.” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out when we were small, and we basically grew up with the trilogy. By the time Sean Connery and Harrison Ford rode into the sunset at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” we too were riding off – into young adulthood. The original Indy became, for me anyway, inextricably tied with all those life memories and experiences of a particular span of time; those movies became more than mere movies – they were the touchstone for a generation as it grew up.

All that nostalgia is both good and bad for seeing the new, fourth Indy film, released years after the originals. The nostalgia is bad in that it raises expectations sky-high for the new movie. At the same time, though, the nostalgia is good in that it creates a wave of goodwill that drives people to the cinema and lets them (or at least, me) gloss over the new movie’s flaws. I ended up liking the film rather a bit more than I probably should have – because of the nostalgia factor alone, not because of the movie’s own merits. I went into the theater nervously hoping, “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please don’t suck,” and I’m pleased to report that the movie does not, in point of fact, suck.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” isn’t a bad movie. But it’s not a great movie, either. If anything, it left me feeling unsatisfied and antsy. Something was missing. It took me a while to figure this out, because the movie is full of action sequences and set-pieces and references/homages to the other Indy films. It has mystical objects! Car chases! Dangerous exotic locations! Scary flesh-eating insects! A host of bad guys out to get Indy! CGI mayhem on a grand scale! HARRISON FORD AS INDIANA JONES, for goodness sake! Yet . . . Why wasn’t I happy? What more could I possibly want?

The answer is “fun.” Pure popcorn movie fun. The missing ingredient was the sense of adventure and fantasy, of letting yourself go on a thrilling ride of imagination. There really is such a thing as movie magic. When it works, it sweeps the audience away to totally different places – while making the enchanted audience forget that all that fun is the product of filmmaking. The trouble with the fourth Indy film was a sense that it was trying – and trying really, really hard. The sense of exhilarating, effortless FUN was missing, along with the sense of zestful, energetic filmmaking that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The jokes in this film seemed to fall short; the (admittedly impressive) panoramas seemed to be art without emotion. I kept waiting for the film to hit its stride and give me an iconic moment – like the famous “fight” between a weary Indy and the showboating kung fu assassin. I kept waiting for a scene that would hit that high note. It never came.

The movie gave off a distinct sense of being too self-conscious. It reminded me of (uh-oh) George Lucas’ latter-day Star Wars movies. They too had struggled mightily to deal with the iconic status of their predecessors – and failed miserably. They’d also forgotten about the fun factor in their titanic effort to match expectations. Relax: Indy 4 is not the flaming chunk of worthless space debris that the new Star Wars trilogy is. Still, it shows a few of the same symptoms and the same feeling of overworked contrivance. I found myself thinking that maybe this film needed less George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; maybe what it needed was a touch of Michael Bay. (Good grief, did I just say that out loud?)

This review sounds as though I’m damning the Indy movie with faint praise. The movie has flaws aplenty, but it does have a few great moments too. When you first see Harrison Ford don his famous hat . . . when he first brandishes his iconic whip . . . when you first hear the unmistakable notes of the Indiana Jones theme music . . . when you see the first shot of Karen Allen reprising her role as Marion Ravenwood from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” who can – and does – give Indy a run for his money. Those are great moments. Unfortunately, they, coming at the beginning of the film, are promises that the rest of the movie never quite keeps.

In terms of setting and plot, the movie is set during the 1950s. Indy’s enemies now are not the Nazis, but the Soviets, led by the campy, kitschy, gun-slinging pseudo-scientist Irina Spalko, played by a spastically energetic Cate Blanchett. (By the way, what’s the deal with that terrible haircut? Maybe Spalko pretends to pay her hairdressers, and they pretend to give her a coiffure. I’m thinking that hm, capitalists have better hair.) The goal for everybody is an artifact shaped like a crystal skull, rumored to possess (what else?) mystical powers. The final revelation about the true nature of the artifact is pretty much preposterous, even compared with the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail from previous flicks. You’ll see why – and then you’ll wonder if George Lucas had sneaked into the movie.

Aside from Spalko, Indy is joined by various others. Marion Ravenwood I’ve mentioned, and though she and Indy start arguing and bickering as though no time had passed at all, the chemistry seemed just a tad off. Indiana also soon acquires – or, rather, is acquired by – a sidekick, a leather-wearing young rebel and Fonzie-wannabe named Mutt (played adequately if not memorably by a poufy-haired Shia LaBeouf) who has an identity issue that anyone with two brain cells can spot from a mile away. Big burly Ray Winstone is also in the cast, though frankly he’s wasted as a character who has no real impact either emotionally or creatively. A wispy John Hurt is on board as a nutty soothsayer type of fellow – because I suppose you can’t go questing for magical objects without having a nutty soothsayer along to dispense bizarre warnings. Maybe it’s a union requirement. Anyway, Hurt’s most memorable caveat is “It falls three times,” leading straight into an action sequence so completely ludicrous that I laughed. Besides the manic Spalko, though, I kept getting the impression that the performances were a little off, that they weren’t operating at 100%. The thrill is gone -- or at least faded. (In fact, I started thinking of this eternally awesome Onion satire.)

The final analysis? Despite its flaws, I really think you should go see this movie, especially if you’re a “child of the 80s.” Go and watch Indy take up his fedora one more time. Go and spend two hours of nostalgia-fueled entertainment. Go and see what might be the redeeming theme of the film: the idea that age is only a number and that at any point of life, the hardy hero is ever ready and willing to do what he should and must. Add too that the choice of Karen Allen as the love interest, not some dewy, doe-eyed young starlet, was very astute. After all, courage, adventure, and love are not only the province of the young, and that’s a nice thought for all of us “children of the 80s” as we live our own, now-grown lives.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” runs for 124 minutes and is rated PG-13 for action sequences and some scary images.

Mad Minerva gives this movie a grade of B-.

My friend and fellow movie fan Alessandra D’Ambrosio gives it a grade of 85 out of 100, a solid B.

Rotten Tomatoes gives “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” a very respectable rating of 78%.

This is the official website for the film.

Nerd Note 1: This made me laugh: in one scene, a professor says that it’s time to retire if people start hunting Communists in academia. Well, Indy 4 is set in the mid-1950s. In 2008, practically the only hard-core, unrepentant Communists left in America are . . . in academia! Oh, OK, I’m kidding. Sort of. (Seriously, nowadays if you want to be a subversive academic, you should be an evil capitalist – or a libertarian – or a real conservative.)

Nerd Note 2: Look for one action-chase sequence in which Indy skids into the library. An undergrad, oblivious to the obvious fact that Jones is otherwise occupied, walks up and asks about homework! And Jones actually replies. Hey, in real campus life this sort of thing happens all the time! A grad school friend said the same thing when she saw the scene. Some undergrads will just walk up to you as if you’re a vending machine for information, and they won’t have any clue that maybe you the instructor are busy and that maybe you’re not holding office hours right then! Listen, this past semester, this happened to me IN THE BATHROOM. A student walked up and asked me about an assignment right there at the sinks and mirrors. Can’t I even visit the bathroom in peace? Well, at least I wasn’t also being chased by a bunch of artifact-seeking crazy Commies. (And, yes, I answered the student’s question.)


Anonymous said...

Sounds like you got the same things out of it that I did. And I didn't even get around to discussing Cate Blanchett's horrible acting. But yeah, the film was definitely drenched in moments of things that were just too stupid to be accepted, which definitely ruined some of the cohesiveness of the flick.

ps. you might remember me from several years ago as a commenter who just rediscovered your blog.

Anonymous said...

I saw two films over the weekend, 'Iron Man' on Saturday and 'Indiana Jones' on Sunday.

I thought it rated about even with the second flick in the series, the one with the blond in India, and below 'Raiders' and 'Grail'. Good points were the return of Marion Ravenwood, she was the best heroine by far I thought. They shouldn't have dropped her although I can see why they did because if they had stayed together after Raiders there would have been a family, kid(s), etc to keep Indy from other improbable adventures.

The most disappointing plot device were Spalko and the Russians. They got it off to a roaring start (Holy Mushroom Cloud, Batman!) and provided rationale for a lot of great action in the middle of the movie (the chase scene), but the Spalko chracter was a big disappointment at the end, unlike the villians in Raiders and Grail. Basically she shows up just in time to get sucked into the maelstrom, but really played no role in drivign the plot in the last 30 minutes of the flick.

Anonymous said...

Well,I saw the movie this afternoon and it's really BAD!!!. There is no time to expect anything, is easy to predict, and the use of unnecessary violence makes it almost offensive. I was expecting a GOOD or at least a FAIR goodbye to Indy, but it seems that the producers wanted to show how skillful they are in computer generated content, than a real sense of legend

Pat Patterson said...

Two points concerning the latest Indiana Jones; The first is that Hollywood does indeed have more money than God so even He might be tempted to do a sequel such as, Jehovah and the Five Lost Commandmants and second, Cate Blanchett was simply channeling the greatest femme fatalle spy of all time, Natasha, you know of Moose and Squirrel adventures.

Mad Minerva said...

Welcome back, Greg! Didn't we once have a friendly argument about which regional BBQ was best? ;-)

Mad Minerva said...

A quick reply to all:

~Blanchett's acting couldn't match the cartoony Natasha's, really. What does that say?

~Spalko and the Soviets really were a disappointment, IMHO.

~If I had to rank all 4 Indy flicks, I put them in this order:
1. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
3-4. Tie between Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

~The plot device about space aliens was just too much even for me, really. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but it kind of requires a movie context in which you're willing and happy to suspend that disbelief. Indy 4 just didn't have it.

As I said earlier, I think I gave this flick a B- based on nostalgia, not merit. It's probably a C movie at best.

Anonymous said...

@MM - yes, I believe I did. Sadly, I've moved out of NC, and there are no places around here that I've found that do BBQ the way it should be done. ;-)

I agree with your ranking of the quadrology. Temple of Doom included a lot of really hokey things, and they seemed to include a lot of things in a way of one-upping what they'd done 30 minutes earlier. 4 was stupid almost from the get go - bad acting Commies infiltrate the US and take over Area 51. They throw gunpowder in the air to detect a highly magnetic object in a building full of metal objects and their guns barely react except when convenient. Then they spill over into a nuclear testing area where Indy survives a nuclear explosion inside a lead lined refrigerator which gets catapulted through the air and he climbs out, unaffected from the crash landing. And that's just the first 30 minutes!

I could accept the oversized man-eating ants, and the ability to survive a 200 foot drop in a waterfall as standard tropes of adventure movies. As well as the horrible shooting of the bad guys. But how in the world did the Spaniards steal the head in the first place, if it required the alien head to enter the friggin' chamber?

Anonymous said...

The best BBQ I've ever had was in Bluff City in far eastern Tennessee, the wedge between Virginia and North Carolina. But that wasn't a regional style, just a single roadhouse.

The best regaional BBQ (to my taste) is KC. Don't particularly like Texas-style or North Carolina vinegar Q, although I am partial to South Carolina mustard-glaze.

There were too books published years ago named @Goodfood' and @Roadfood' published by a couple who lived in Connecticut but travelled a lot looking for the best regional American food in the US.