In 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark created a new genre of cinema unto which it would forever be compared. It was the new mythic adventure - gritty, magical and completely American. Even today, there's nothing quite like "Raiders" or its sequels, the success of which bore other franchises like Romancing the Stone, The Goonies, Tomb Raider and National Treasure.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
By Matthew Huntley
May 27, 2008
Because the "Indiana Jones" pictures created this special genre, it's perfectly reasonable to judge the latest in the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, against the high standards those films set. Unfortunately, by doing that, it becomes clearer just how poorly made this fourth installment is. To be sure, even if it was a standalone picture, it still wouldn't warrant a recommendation, so the problem goes beyond the movie merely not meeting expectations. It's a bad film all its own, plain and simple.
Surely director Steven Spielberg, executive producer George Lucas, and star Harrison Ford believed they were making something of value. These are not entertainers known for letting us down. But it's not my job to criticize their good intentions, only the final result, which unfortunately is a major disappointment.
Nineteen years after his last adventure, both in real life and in the context of the saga, Indiana Jones (Ford) emerges from the trunk of a car. It's 1957 and he's being held captive by the Russian army and its strict colonel, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who wants Jones and his partner Mac (Ray Winstone) to locate a crate within the warehouse of Area 51, Nevada. The Russians believe the artifact inside could lead them to infinite power and knowledge.
After dodging bullets, swinging through the air with his whip, and punching out a few Russian soldiers, Jones escapes and winds up in a nuclear testing town. Just before the bomb goes off, he takes cover in a lead-ringed refrigerator and is blown across the desert. When he emerges, a frightened prairie dog (computer generated with animated expressions), crawls back into its hole. At this point, we're approximately 15-20 minutes into the feature, and it already doesn't "feel" like an Indiana Jones movie. I'm not saying it has to fit into a certain category, but little touches like animated prairie dogs just don't seem right.
Without going into long-winded detail about the plot, Jones is investigated by the FBI, is forced to take a leave of absence from his job, and meets a cocky young motorcycle driver named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who's sort of a cross between Henry Winkler's Fonzie and Marlon Brando's Johnny Strabler. Mutt tells him his mother and Jones' former colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt), are being held captive in South America because of Oxley's connection to the Russians' sought-after artifact.
Mutt's mother, as it turns out, is Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Jones' love interest from Raiders, although that's not as significant a revelation as it should have been. As the movie proceeds, we sense the Marion character was re-written back into the story merely to bookend it. In fact, the entire movie feels more like a reunion instead of a full chapter, an exercise done to satiate fans begging for another sequel after nearly two decades. That's no reason to make a movie.
When rumors surfaced of a fourth Indiana Jones picture, I grew nervous and my heart sank a little. Too much time passed since The Last Crusade and I thought, at this point, Indiana Jones should honorably stand down and take his place as a revered icon of cinema, for it's better to leave fans wanting more than to leave them with a bad taste in their mouths. Why not just let Indiana Jones live on in our memories? His big screen time had expired, and there's no shame in that.
But obviously Paramount and the indomitable trifecta that is Spielberg, Lucas and Ford didn't agree. Too bad, because The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a mess - a dull, ugly and flat experience with few memorable moments. It shocks me to admit I was never excited, thrilled, mystified, humored, enchanted or romanticized by this movie. After all, this is Spielberg we're talking about, not to mention Indiana Jones!
I don't think the problem is the plot, which contains more science fiction than religious mythology. We expect bizarre things from an Indiana Jones picture (such was the nature of the Saturday serials that inspired them). The movies could be about anything as long as they were coherent and interesting. We all know the majority of their success resulted from the inventive action, stunts and breathtaking set pieces, as well as its charming and funny hero.
Nevertheless, David Koepp's screenplay, from a story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, steadily falls apart and loses us. Never before has Indiana Jones himself been such a bore, this time acting more like a tired, vapid college professor instead of a virile archaeologist/adventure-seeker. He constantly talks and babbles, almost to an exhaustive degree. I know he's supposed to be older now, but that doesn't make him any more interesting, and certainly not more entertaining. There's a scene shared between Jones and Mutt in a Peruvian cemetery where so much wearisome dialogue is spoken, I started to grow impatient. Great movies allow their stories and action to move with the dialogue. This one puts on the brakes and our minds wander.
Still, the bigger problems are the action sequences themselves, which fail to provide a genuine rush or sense of danger. Spielberg breaks the cardinal rule of cinema and makes the movie underwhelming at the points where it should be most engaging. Sure, the sequences probably seem ambitious on paper, but when filmed they lack the vigor to get us involved and stimulated. Spielberg's gift for enveloping us and make us participants of the action seems to be missing here.
Consider the action contains but is not limited to: a motorcycle chase through a library; a quicksand predicament where Indy must come face to face with his greatest fear; a horde of red ants threatening to eat their victims; a fencing battle taking place aboard two moving jeeps; a greaser swinging on vines like Tarzan; and a boat going over three waterfalls. All these should have incited a reaction and sense of wonder because of their design, but instead they limp in their delivery.
Even the imagery is drab and murky. The color scheme has an orange-yellow mix that lacks depth and vitality. In Raiders, The Temple of Doom, and The Last Crusade, Spielberg filmed in grandiose wide shots with a magnificent depth of field, always picking apart the heavy browns and greens found in nature. Here, the photography looks too bright and artificial, while the CG looks meshed together and poorly rendered. Whereas the earlier pictures used practical effects, which dared us to suspend our disbeliefs, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull submits to green screen and digital effects, which become a liability.
Speaking of a liability, there was great deal of speculation over whether Harrison Ford would be too old for the titular role. That turned out to be a valid concern since his age proves to be distracting. Early in the picture, his walk reminded me of my grandfather, which isn't a bad thing unless you're playing a hero like Indiana Jones. I know every hero grows old; but that doesn't make them fun to watch.
And that's really the bottom line with The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: it's not fun. The actors, especially Blanchett and Winstone, do what they can, but Ford and Allen seem like they're merely collecting paychecks. Ford delivers his lines monotone and soft, infecting us with ennui instead of wonder. And LaBeouf, once again, is his usual punk self. I'm sure the 21-year-old is a nice enough guy in real life, but he has yet to prove himself as an actor. He always appears self-conscious and consistently makes his character, in any film, a tool whom you just want to smack. There comes a point where Indiana says to Mutt, "You don't have to prove to me how tough you are," a line that seems all too appropriate.
I'm aware a movie like this comes with unbelievably high expectations. It's inevitable for fans of the earlier films to compare it to the classics. Had I not grown up with Indiana Jones, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull probably would have earned a 5 out of 10 for its ambitions, but when it sits at the end of such a distinct and venerable trilogy, it warrants a 3. That's the price of making masterpieces. When the latest movie can't deliver as well as its predecessors, it's only natural to feel betrayed.
I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. At the end of the screening, the audience only mildly applauded and you could tell it was less an applause for "a job well done" and more one for "at least they tried." Because Spielberg, Lucas and Ford have given us so much entertainment and memories with this franchise, it would be wrong not to recognize their efforts for The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but in the end, we must accept it as a failure.