Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - Review

IndyImage by [José Manuel - Viper] via Flickr

After nearly 18 years of absence, Dr Henry Walton Jones Jr. is back.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull marks the return of everyone's favorite archaeologist sans brown fedora, the whip and the witty one-liners. But in an age of digital cinema, when almost every movie now relies on some sort of special effects, does the character live up to the expectations? Or does he himself become an archaic forgotten icon of a bygone era that perhaps only an archaeologist can appreciate?

First and foremost, the good: make no mistake this is the good ol' Indy we saw riding down the sunset some 18 years ago in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He cracks the one liners as good as he cracks the whip, and he does a lot of both in this movie. Fans of the series will pick up on a lot of subtle nods to the past adventures making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a fanboy's (or girl's) dream come true. Also, Shia LaBeouf’s character brings a new kind of charm to the franchise. Riding into the movie, quite literally like the rebel without a case, the young actor is fresh off his Transformers success and holds his own against the likes of Ford in movie’s crucial moments.

Then the bad: Indiana Jones movies are known for their elaborate stunt works. From the market chase sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark to the mine rollercoaster ride in Temple of Doom and even the boat race along the canals of Venice in The Last Crusade, each sequence was elaborately planned and executed as realistically as possible. Those pre-ILM CG days may seem cheesy, but they achieved a sense of realism now completely lost in the current digital era. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull looks good but the feel of a digitally altered background or foreground is just not the same.

The ugly: Indy is old and not just that, he looks old. Tired and haggard from one scene to the other, even the might of ILM can’t bring back the spry archaeologist physical resourcefulness. ILM can make us believe that the film was actually shot in South America (when in reality it was shot in five different sound stages: Downey, Sony, Warner Bros., Paramount and Universal) but it just can't make Harrison Ford look any younger. He may have performed most of his own stunts but clearly time has caught up with him.

The franchise is known for its elaborate and intricate stories riddled with clues from an ancient and bygone era. Through cloak and dagger and a trail of historical clues, Dr Jones unearths ancient secrets and treasures, finding himself in trouble. The films have followed a particular pattern of storytelling. The introduction always ends with a bang (this one has an atomic bang), there’s the mull back at the university, the bad guys then play catch up, Indy escapes and makes amazing discoveries on his own, only to have been caught at the very last minute. And then there’s the final big twist. True, this film doesn’t disappoint the faithful, but a first time watcher may see past the set ups and the hooks and see only cheesy one liners followed by action sequence with hardly any moment to breath and little to none character developments. Instead developments of character rely on big twists and reveals (think Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is and that’s a pretty big hint).

Steven Spielberg has directed blockbusters and award winning films like Schindler’s List. But it’s clear that Indiana Jones bring out the best in Spielberg and he’s not alone. Together with Lucas and Ford, they form the holy trinity of the blockbuster making machine whose throne lies atop one of the greatest cinematic franchises in Hollywood history. Even Lucas, whose latest Star Wars trilogies seemed to wane, and Ford, who hasn’t had a decent cinema hit in a while, shineout in their respective roles.

Writers Jeb Stuart, Jeffrey Boam, M. Night Shyamalan, Frank Darabont, and Jeff Nathanson wrote drafts of the screenplay that failed to satisfy Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford or George Lucas. Finally it had come to Harrison Ford stating that if the film wouldn’t be made by this year, it would never be again.

It was David Koepp’s script that got things on track – by borrowing elements from all of the scripts and incorporating the plot surrounding the crystal skulls (actual artifacts that fascinated Josef Stalin). Koepp is no stranger to Spielberg, having adapted both Jurassic Parks and War of the Worlds for him. As discussed before, Indy films have a formula and Koepp pretty much sticks to it. Right from the get-go, Indy is in deep trouble.

Though there are several call backs to previous films and the most obvious one is the return of Marion Ravenwood played by Karen Allen, from the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Allen’s character is as feisty and jumpy as we last saw her and her chemistry with Jones is quite alive and well. Add to that the eccentric character of Dr Oxley as portrayed by John Hurt, an old mentor to Indy and Mutt William’s father figure. Which brings us to Shia LeBeouf’s character; Mutt Williams. Shia LaBeouf brings a breath of fresh air into the franchise and although no one says so in the movie, it’s pretty clear that Dr Jones has a successor in the making.

Though there are many actors who would have made a better successor, but LaBeouf’s combination of naivety and raw wit make him a good choice. Granted he is more of a Tom Hanks in Big than a younger Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but perhaps that’s a good thing and eventually sometime down the years, he too will have his own franchise to speak of.

Cate Blanchett’s villainess, Irina Spalko, was a character created with the actress in mind. This isn’t her first franchise film (she was also in Lord of the Rings) and clearly she knows the ropes. Though she’s just one villain, the main baddies this time around aren’t the Nazis, but the Russians. Primarily because Spielberg, Lucas and Ford agreed that Nazis has been done to death and since this movie was set after the Second World War, it was only natural to feature the antagonists of the Cold War: the Soviets.

Ray Winstone plays the double (triple and quadruple) crosser, George McHale. His relationship with Indy feels seamless and timeless; although we haven’t seen their adventures, it’s pretty clear they’ve been through a lot. But no matter how good, he isn’t a replacement for Sallah’s character, originally played by John Rhys-Davies in Raiders of the Lost Ark and in Temple of Doom.

Missing from the cast, are Sean Connery and Denholm Elliott. Connery turned down the offer to reprise his role as Indy’s father and Elliott had sadly passed on in 1992.

So after 18 years, is it worth the wait? Flaws aside, this is a movie that isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Instead, grab a big bag of popcorn lay back and enjoy the thrills with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

(This review was originally published in the June 1st, 2008 edition of DAWN Images.)

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