Friday, September 5, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - Review

Here is a review that I had written back in May but had forgotten to post. Better late than never I suppose. Now that a few months has passed I might be inclinded to look more critically at the film but I haven't changed the text since I wrote it.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Quite a mouthful for a title but perhaps fitting for a movie that looks like it is going to generate some heated debate. Whatever way you eventually feel about the movie, it is without doubt one of, if not the biggest film event since Star Wars: Episode One back in 1999 and you owe it to yourself to see it.

I still remember going to the cinema to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade nineteen years ago, in the Savoy in Dublin. It is one of those memories that I will always treasure. It was a surprise trip with a group of friends. When we left the cinema we were all on a high from the movie and spent the day all wishing we could be Indiana Jones. It has been a long wait and a nervous one ever since it was confirmed that a new film was in production. There were so many questions. How would Harrison Ford cope with the physicality of the role? Can they capture the spirit of the original movies? How much influence would George Lucas have? Having seen the movie I can at least answer two of those questions positively and hey, two and out of three is not bad.

First let me say that I really enjoyed the movie. It is an action adventure movie first and foremost, I do not think it pretends to be anything other than that. As such, it has to deliver on the action front and it does - in spades. The opening action sequence immediately dispels any doubts over Fords ability to play the role. From here on in you forget that he is now much older and he is simply Indy as he was all those years ago. The action beats range from the vaguely realistic to the totally preposterous but never fail to entertain. I was particularly taken with the truck convoy chase through the jungle. I will acknowledge that it was insanely over the top and brought to mind one of the weaker effects sequences from Peter Jackson's King Kong. However, it was so much fun that you cannot help but love it all the same. Bazookas, sword fighting between vehicles, fistfights and giant ants what more can you ask for?

I was also particularly fond of the motorcycle chase from earlier in the film. It was more old school in its direction and I think you can see Dan Bradley's (stunt co-coordinator on the Bourne franchise) influence shine through in this sequence. This scene had more physicality to it, it may also be because looked to have a total absence of CG trickery. Indy being pulled from the bike into the chasing car and then fighting his way to the opposite window and climbing back on the bike is right up there in the hit list of Indy stunts. When you think of Indy climbing under the moving Nazi truck in Raiders, or Indy fighting on top of a tank in Last Crusade you can now add this sequence from Crystal Skull.

The feel of the movie really does capture the spirit of the originals. It follows the well established format set out before - the opening action sequence, the downtime when we get some heavy plot exposition and then the adventure starts and continues till the very end. The humour of the previous movies is all present and correct too. For me it is the small moments that make this movie. The 'punch Joe college' moment, the sand trap scene, the hints at past adventures they all combine to make the experience as a whole so satisfying.

I've already mentioned Ford's ability to play the role physically, but he also handles the acting side of things just fine. His comic timing is still there and he still radiates this feeling that he is the type of guy who you'd like to have as a friend. Thinking of the cast made me remember something that this movie has over the other films - a really likeable sidekick (I consider Sean Connery to be his mentor, not a sidekick). Shia LaBeouf's character Mutt is as good a sidekick your likely to get. Short Round anyone? Give me Mutt any day. I like the tough guy image he projects but you can at times see how frightened he is at the situation he has gotten himself into. The bonding scenes between LaBeouf and Ford came across as very genuine too; they are two of the better written characters. I think that Cate Blanchett does a good job with what she is given but her character is a little too one-dimensional. We do not get to know anything really about her background or motivation other than she is a loyal solider of the Soviet Union. Ray
Winstone is a good addition to the cast, always a reliable actor he does a good solid job here. Of all the actors and they are all good actors it is John Hurt who has the least to do. For such a terrific actor he is criminally underused, reduced to a silly comedy sideshow act, he is only given something relevant to say in the final two minutes.

I was really impressed with the look of the movie. It was bright and colourful and seemed to have a really crisp sheen to the whole proceedings. A lot of praise must go to Spielberg for putting all this together on film because there is a lot going on here. The plot is not exactly straightforward and there is not much time for exposition between action scenes. However, he
still finds time for some iconic shots - especially the introduction of Indy, putting on his fedora in silhouette. Sublime.

I have said a lot about the parts that pleased me but there are a few elements that left me cold. The story is perhaps one of the weaker in the series of films, although it might be stronger than Temple of Doom's. One of the questions I posed at the start of the review was how much influence George Lucas would have. Unfortunately, it appears to have been too much. I think it is safe to assume that the alien (and that is what they were, forget the "inter-dimensional beings" guff) aspects were championed by Lucas. Sorry if that is a massive spoiler but you were warned. He seems to be totally preoccupied with alien beings and he obviously is not happy with keeping it confined to the Star Wars universe and has seen fit to bring it into Indy's world. I will be interested to hear if reports come out over time of how accommodating Spielberg was to this idea. I think that the story line would have worked better if the alien aspect were expunged. They could still be looking for a crystal skull and the lost city of El Dorado. That would make an interesting film; there is no need for the skull to be alien in origin. Someone should have shown Lucas, Spielberg and Ford (for he has a lot of influence) the movie Stargate before green lighting this script.

There were some other problems, most notably the lack of a very strong baddie. I already said that Blanchett's Agent Spalko was one-dimensional and you never really get the feeling that she is capable of killing Indy. In fact, after Indy survives a nuclear explosion you get the feeling he might just be invulnerable. Although, he did drink from the cup of ever lasting life in Last Crusade so there is some justification for his amazing survival. I think the 'monkeys' scene is destined for the wrong kind of movie notoriety. And why has Karen Allen (Marianne Ravenwood) got a smile permanently on her face when faced with the certain of not just herself but her son too?

At this point you will have to forgive me if this review turns into a bit of a rant. I have heard a lot of negative comments about this latest Indiana Jones but the majority of these comments are in my opinion base on a fallacy. And that is, that the first three Indy films all contain amazingly complex and wonderful storylines, terrific character development, Oscar worthy dialogue and realistic action scenes. These are the thoughts of people who are looking back with rose tinted glasses on a series of movies that have not been in the cinema in 19 years

Let us look at the facts. Indiana Jones has never been realistic. There are so many examples to draw upon to prove this point and this needs to be proven so people can stop beating Crystal Skull with big fat fraudulent stick.

- The Ark of the Covenant contains the Wrath of God that will send forth ghosts to melt the faces of people with open eyes.
- People can live with their heart ripped out.
- Drinking from the cup of ever lasting life will give you immortality and heal gunshot wounds.
- Having a conversation with an 800-year-old knight from the Crusades is an everyday occurrence.

Suddenly having aliens in the movie does not seem all the unrealistic to me. In fact, it is in keeping with the outlandish stories of the past movies. I am always willing to listen to a point of view but some of the negativity this film is gathering could have been averted if these people had their facts straight.

I hope this review does not pigeon hole me as some kind of Indiana Jones fanboy. I would not consider myself to be such because not even I can defend Temple of Doom. However, for this movie I feel I had to voice my opinion on what I consider to be unfair criticisms. I have only seen the Crystal Skull once and have not had time yet to decide where to rank it against the other three. My first reaction is to say that Raiders and Last Crusade can rest easy but Crystal Skull will probably overtake Temple of Doom in my critical rating. The bottom line is Indiana Jones promises action adventure and you get it in the traditional spirit of the Indy movies.


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