From the Archive: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


With all my papers still packed up for transit, I’m still relying on my former online home for this weekly dive into the archive. And we’ll use this week’s release schedule to help narrow down what’s selected. The first portion of this review is probably one of the most personal things I’ve ever put to digital paper. Which isn’t saying much, I know. Still, that’s about as close as I come to cracking myself open. 

I thought I might feel unduly strong emotions watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The prior installments of the Steven Spielberg-directed film series loom large in my moviegoing history. It will surprise no one who clicks around this Webspace that I was a big movie fan as a kid, finding trips to the theater to be daunting and, yes, magical. Since the ever-shifting duo that represented my parents was, at best, indifferent to these desires, the task of providing my occasional cinematic excursions fell to my generous grandfather. This despite the fact that he didn’t especially care for movies. He had a generational fondness for westerns, but didn’t seek them out–in active release or the convenience of Saturday afternoon cable showings–but otherwise nothing fictional carried much appeal for the pragmatic carpenter. I can’t imagine how uninteresting the Disney fluff, Bugs Bunny compilations and Charlie Brown features he endured for me must have been to him.

I was eleven-years-old when Raiders of the Lost Ark was released and it seemed I had the first film I actively wanted to see that he may actually enjoy. Months after it first whipcracked into theaters, we saw it together and my suspicions proved correct. From then on, I fervently watched Siskel and Ebert through their various television derivations (they were still on PBS when Raiders was released), trying to glean what other new features might make for a good moviegoing trip for us. The one thing that was always certain was our attendance at the Indiana Jones sequels. Temple of Doom we saw immediately, and I made a special trip back from the city I was attending college so we could see Last Crusade together. These films, made for the masses, were ours, the one creation that the media-obsessed boy and the man who was more grounded in the world could dependably come together and enjoy in the dark of the theater.

My grandfather died fifteen years ago. Now, here finally is the fourth film and the prospect of seeing it without him at my side has been strange at, and times, unbearably sad. The first time I saw the trailer for Crystal Skull, I actually got choked up a bit. I wasn’t at all confident that I could see it without some overwhelming feelings, a constant sense of who was missing. My speculation proved unfounded. It was not a particularly emotional experience. It was just a movie. And not a very good one at that.

Nineteen years after Indiana Jones concluded an adventure by literally riding into the sunset, seemingly a perfect close for a film series wonderfully enamored with the charms of traditional Hollywood legend and thrillmaking, the remaining chief collaborators of the original trilogy have reassembled. The film takes place in 1957, allowing Dr. Jones to be an age befitting the fact that star Harrison Ford’s 65th birthday has come and gone (he’s around the age my grandfather was when we watched Last Crusade together). The plot will be plenty familiar to anyone whose seen a prior outing or any of the myriad of films in recent years that owe a debt to Indy films. There is a mysterious, legendary object that opposing forces are racing to acquire, great power promised to the possessor. There are puzzles to solve and great distances to cross in order to pinball around exotic locales enhanced by busy CGI. Granted, there’s no reason to reinvent the structure at this point, so it becomes a question of style and execution.

Steven Spielberg remains a director of consummate skill. His ability to structure shots and choreograph scenes is nearly without peer, especially in the deceptively simple sequences. The film begins with an extended scene involving hot rodding teenagers coming upon a caravan of military vehicles, a deceptively mundane sequence compared to the cliffhanger derring do that dominates the film. In Spielberg’s hands, however, it’s a tutorial in the mechanics of filmmaking. Simple establishing shots are artfully created, visually interesting without being stiff compositions, demonstrating the care that can go into every frame. Spielberg’s deftness with action sequences remains. There’s nothing here that with enter into the pantheon of great scenes, but at a time when over-edited hash is the rule, Spielberg’s clarity is notable.

The script, on the other hand, is tepid water. Supposedly the lengthy development of the film was largely the result of Spielberg, Ford and producer George Lucas’s inability to find a script they agreed was worthy. If this is truly the result of that quest of high discernment, some of the screenplays relegated to the recycling bin must have been unbearably bad. While the particulars of the central plot has its own issues, the real problem is the weakness of the characterizations. While the film brings back Karen Allen to play Marion Ravenwood, absent since Raiders, there’s no resonance to the comeback. There’s some welcome snappiness to her interplay to Ford, but the characters don’t connect in the way the story requires. To whatever degree we believe in their reunion, it’s only because of affection for the first film, not because there’s anything compelling on screen. It’s not storytelling. It’s simply an exercise in nostalgia.

That’s damaging to the old characters, devastating to the new. Ray Winstone, Shia LaBeouf and Jim Broadbent are all solid enough, but there’s nothing to their characters beyond maybe a whiff of archetype. John Hurt engages in little more than unkempt ranting, which is becoming a new specialty of his, it seems. Then there’s Cate Blanchett as a villainous Russian officer. Initially, it’s highly amusing to see the grandly gifted performer having fun with snarling lines and a moose-und-sqvirrel accent. When it becomes apparent that Spielberg’s post-Schindler’s List aversion to populating these films with cardboard Nazi bad guys hasn’t inspired him to build the Russkie bad guys out of a more multi-faceted substance, the joke wears thin quickly. Rather than enjoying Blanchett’s performance, I found myself thinking about the wasted opportunity. Why hire one of the most compelling actors around and then give her nothing to do but match an accent with her wig?

Wasted opportunities abound in this Indiana Jones. It’s not strictly a comparison with what’s come before that makes it all feel flat. If anything, those old memories bolster this film to a better standing than it deserves on its own merits.

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