May 21, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

When you said the plot was stuck in the mud,
I thought you were speaking metaphorically.

Grade: B –
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, and Karen Allen
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

Lest anyone think that a return to Indiana Jones would erase Harrison Ford’s curmudgeonly scowl and replace it with a rakish grin, think again. The instances in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when the 65-year-old Ford flashes his bygone, Solo-esque whimsy are more than forced; they’re practically vaudevillian. And, so it goes with the fourth installment in the august serial, which comes off far too frequently over its 2 hour-plus running time as a nostalgic revue rather than embodying the sense of discovery that elevated the original trilogy.

Crystal Skull is not a bad movie; in fact, it is a rather enjoyable one when judged in a vacuum. However, nothing that blends the talents of Ford, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and a supporting cast headlined by Cate Blanchett with the Indy Jones mystique can ever be viewed through a purely objective prism. Hamstrung by Lucas’ meddling – from an over-reliance on CGI-saturation (last seen eroding the Star Wars prequels) to such hokey gimcracks as multiple animal reaction shots – and another dog-eared Spielberg foray into father-son relationships and extraterrestrials, the whole spectacle emits an air of homage to the Indiana Jones series and beyond.

It begins with a romp through the Area 51 warehouse of antiquities last seen in the closing shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg flashes a glimpse of the Ark for good, gratuitous measure). This comes on the tail-end of an opening sequence that, with its (thankfully) non-CGI visual dexterity and American Graffiti tableau, reminds us once again of Spielberg’s firmly entrenched status as the John Ford of our era, a master at effective, seemingly seamless filmmaking who can impart more through acute camera choreography than any other director. However, the scene is also a microcosm of the film that follows: a handsomely shot tease highlighted by a car chase that goes nowhere, literally and figuratively.

Later, when Jones gazes reflectively upon a photo of Sean Connery as his now-dearly departed father, a parallel to Connery’s latter-day James Bond entries comes into focus. Indeed, Crystal Skull is Ford’s Never Say Never Again, a return to his seminal movie role after over a decade absence (in Ford’s case, nearly two decades). Along with that frown, Ford’s gait is a bit more slouched and his clothes are not as tight-fitting as they once where. Nonetheless, Indy still strikes a dashing pose when he dons his trademark fedora, even if it is only when he is cast as a shadow or a silhouette against the backdrop of the setting sun or nuclear mushroom cloud.

Set in 1957, Jones has traded Nazi pursuers for Communists ones, headed by Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, a Russian femme fatale who resembles Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction and sports a Slavic lilt straight out of Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle. After losing possession of a container housing the remains of the Rosewell alien and being nearly vaporized in a nuclear test blast, Jones inexplicably loses his Yale professorship due to governmental pressure, a device Spielberg introduces only as a means to interject Eisenhower-era Red Scare as a further means to trot out some strained, fleeting allusion to contemporary political witch-hunting. More perplexing, this subplot is mysteriously forgotten once the adventure begins and miraculously vanishes once it finally ends.

To make a long story short (without spoilers), it turns out the alien’s skull emits an energy force that might unlock the key to the human psyche, or something along those lines. Despite the fact that the Soviets now possess one of the magical craniums, they follow Jones on his quest to find more in the mythical Mayan city of El Dorado. Jones is accompanied by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a ‘50s greaser who, despite his Wild One-esque entrance, exudes less Brando than Travolta in Grease. Along the way, Mutt somehow morphs from a punk kid whose weapons of choice are a switchblade and comb into a swashbuckling daredevil. I did not mind when inexplicable inspiration prompts Mutt to suddenly tree-swing like Tarzan through an Amazon rainforest with the skill and bearings necessary to catch a car chase. But, it was a bit much when he suddenly develops the ability to fence while straddling two speeding vehicles.

The milieus feel claustrophobic and phony against the backdrop of sets mostly erected on soundstages and green screens. Add to that computer-enhanced action sequences that allow Jones and Co. to take death-defying to a level not seen since the days of Wile E. Coyote. Into this gumbo toss in John Hurt playing the same crazed old man role he always plays nowadays, Karen Allen reprising her Raiders role of (the kidnapped) Marion Ravenwood to inform Jones he has a son, and Spielberg winding things up by returning to his Close Encounters of the Third Kind comfort zone.

Cap it off with, of all things, a wedding scene, and you have a summer movie that, by most standards, is an above-average actioner. But, that is the problem: without anything to set this film apart, you find yourself in the position of grading an Indiana Jones film against the likes of National Treasure and Mission: Impossible. When it comes to Indiana Jones, the measuring stick is – and should be – a lot longer.

Neil Morris

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