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Indiana Jones Tries to Shake Off the Cobwebs

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by David Koepp from a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson
Paramount, 2008

Some movies come with such large amounts of anticipation, history, and backstory that it’s hard to know where to begin. You could say that these sorts of movies have become more common recently with the return in recent years of Rambo, Rocky, or Die Hard, but I would say that we haven’t seen a return of this magnitude since 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. It’s the kind of movie in which so much goodwill was generated from the first chapters that you might be forgiving of the new movie’s flaws.

However, the Indiana Jones series is no stranger to disappointment. 1984’s The Temple of Doom has largely been regarded as the whipping boy of the franchise, although it has its fans. I recently watched The Temple of Doom again and the struggle I had was with the question, “Do I dislike this movie because it’s genuinely not good, or has Raiders of the Lost Ark set the standard for how an Indiana Jones film is supposed to be and I don’t like it because it’s different?” With the latter part of that question in mind, I watched The Temple of Doom with that consideration and I while I enjoyed it more, I still didn’t like it overall.

So I took a refreshed outlook into the fourth chapter, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If I disliked the movie, it would be because of its stand-alone merit and not because I loved Raiders and The Last Crusade.

It’s been 19 years since The Last Crusade and in this film, we find Indiana (Harrison Ford) and a British buddy, George McHale (Ray Winstone), surrounded by Russians around Area 51. It is now 1957 and Indy apparently has been working as a government agent in addition to his part-time teaching duties. The Russian baddies are headed by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), and they want Jones to find a container of mummified remains in the Area 51 warehouse. This, by the way, is the very same warehouse that Raiders of the Lost Ark’s famous final shot takes place.

Shortly after finding the remains and breaking free of the Russians, Indy comes back home to find that the college doesn’t want his teaching services anymore and his dean, Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) is resigning (there is mention of why Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody and Indy’s father Sean Connery aren’t in this chapter). Then a young kid named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) enters the picture and tells Indy that his mom, along with a former professor Jones knew, Oxley (John Hurt) were lost searching the mystery behind a crystal skull. And it looks like the Russians want to know where the crystal skull is as well.

The adventure takes them to Peru and the city of Akator, aka El Dorado. And later they are joined by (surprise!) Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy’s flame from Raiders (and before Raiders). Mutt is Marion’s son and…could he be Indy’s as well? The crystal skull that is found has an alien-like appearance. Indy thinks it’s because the Mayans used to stretch out their children’s skulls…but could that be wrong? Anyhow, the skull, once returned to its owner, is supposed to possess great power.

There are many exciting Indiana Jones staples here: the series’ trademark death-defying chase scene, a couple of them in fact. A nice backstory: one of my favorite aspects to the Indiana Jones films (except, of course, Temple) is the creation of a legend set to the backdrop of history. Our hero is the only one who can really figure out if the legend is true, so it’s always exciting following him to that end. For the most part, the movie stays afloat.

But I hated the ending of this. I think it’s something in not only the concept but the execution. My mind nearly reaches overload in thinking of all the cool stuff that could have been done with the final setup, and while the sound and fury of the last moments are quite impressive, the lead-in to it needs lots of work. A lot of criticism has been directed towards the digital effects, which I also don’t like but I have to shrug nowadays because no one will use miniature models anymore. I’ve had two days to think about this movie and ultimately my hangup is the ending. It’s not exactly a great movie up until then, but it works on an acceptable level right before the last moments.

So it is, for the most part, a fun movie. But the aforementioned anticipation, history, and backstory, not to mention one of my favorite directors of all time, Steven Spielberg, is at the helm, it’s hard not to expect more. It’s unfair, and it’s unfair to all the good things that happen in the film, but that’s the way it is I guess. It’s the theory of relativity in full swing.


Comment from KW
Time: May 23, 2008, 5:13 pm

Okay, I saw this last night and have been checking your site for your take all day. And I agree with you, for the most part. I think I was even more underwhelmed than you were.

Possible aliens… really?

Mutt as tarzan, swinging through the jungle… really?

Three trips over major waterfalls without even a hint of danger or tension… really? From Spielberg?

I felt like there were some moments of brilliance, especially once Indy gets to the jungle and meets up with Marion and Oxley. But those moments were separated by a lot of half-assed acting and some surprisingly hokey moments.

I mean, how many ground hog reaction shots do we need in the opening 20 minutes? Because I counted at least three.

And while I hated the ending too, for some reason I was so much more bothered by the Tarzan moment than anything else in the film. What… the heck… was that?

I had a good time, for sure. But the peaks and valleys of quality in this film throughout really keep me from recommending it. I would almost say it was, at best, just okay.

And frankly, if you’re going to dig up an old cinema hero, and team Ford with Spielberg and Lucas, and throw in one of the most entertaining young actors today (Shia)… then you better do better than “just okay.”

Not nearly the let down of the Star Wars prequels for me… but a let down nonetheless. Ugh.

Did love the greasers versus preppies fight in the diner, though. Made me chuckle a lot.

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