Monday, June 9, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It’s been 19 years since Indiana Jones rode off into the sunset at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). A fourth installment has been in the works ever since, and part of me hoped it wouldn’t ever happen. Did we really need one more adventure? Well, for better or for worse, the fourth film has arrived. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are back at the helm, offering all of us an excuse to spend two more hours with one of Hollywood’s greatest characters. The majority of it succeeds in being exciting and familiar, but there are still many aspects that I wish had been handled differently. My thumb is up, but with an asterisk.

The most vital element to this film’s success is, of course, the character of Indiana Jones himself. As soon as you see Harrison Ford back in the famous outfit, your biggest fears will be alleviated. He’s older, but within moments, he proves that he’s still Indiana Jones. The story unfolds in 1957, as Indy and an adventurous young man named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) try to outrace the Soviets in recovering a mystical Central-American artifact, the Crystal Skull. Cate Blanchett plays the villainous Soviet Colonel Irina Spalko (her over-the-top Russian accent is a lot of fun), and Jones is joined by a new sidekick, George ‘Mac’ McHale (Ray Winstone). Indy’s old flame from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), also gets caught-up in the adventure.

The Indiana Jones series was originally a love letter to the classic B movie serials of the 1930’s, and this new installment stays in the same tongue-in-cheek vein. There are snakes, skeletons, mummies, car chases, waterfalls, man-devouring ants, whips, punches, and many impossible feats of daring-do. The action stands out as the film’s greatest strength; most sequences are thrilling and fun, and only a few scenes go too far (the few that did push the known limits of reason induced both laughs and groans from the audience). Most of the action is done the old-fashioned way, with real stuntmen, and there’s a spectacular car chase through the jungle that evokes Raiders of the Lost Ark. Every time Indy punches two guys at once and gets another with his whip, we feel right at home.

The film features an extra-terrestrial element, and while this works with the 1950’s setting, it didn’t feel right alongside the previous films. Indy’s displacement is a problem for me; I didn’t want to see him as an older man, battling Soviets in the late 1950’s. As a superhero, he should forever be frozen in time, fighting the Nazis in the 1930’s. I got over it and was able to enjoy the ride, but I still say that we didn’t need a sequel to the greatest adventure movies ever made. Especially in light of the 19-year gap, expectations were impossibly high. It may not be completely fair to compare this movie to the originals, but you invite that comparison when you take on a project like this.

Early scenes of Dr. Jones teaching in his classroom are welcome, but the intelligent character exchanges are sorely missed. Watching the originals again, it’s surprising just how much time elapses between the action sequences. Memorable characters help carry those movies, and the characters and plot of this latest chapter don’t stack up. Without giving anything away, Ray Winstone’s ‘Mac’ character doesn’t make much sense. I would rather have seen John Rhys-Davies reprise his role as Sallah from the originals.

In the final moments, when the classic music swelled and I reflected on all I had seen, I felt conflicted. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull works as a fun Summer movie, and it carries the Indiana Jones label well enough. It’s not all it should have been (and I still hold that it wasn’t necessary), but I do think audiences will have fun. Often in these Indiana Jones films, Indy will exhume some precious artifact, be glad to have unearthed it, but eventually wish he had left well-enough alone. I’m glad to have seen one last Indiana Jones movie, but part of me wishes it had stayed buried.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.

The violence and scary images are on par with Indiana Jones’ previous adventures. We see people get shot, consumed by mysterious extra-terrestrial flames, and eaten alive by enormous ants. You may recall that the originals also have moments of strange, semi-ridiculous violence: faces melting off, hearts being ripped out, etc. The violence isn’t striving for realism, but it’s still a bit disturbing. As is often the case with movie sequels, you can use the originals to determine whether or not you should take your kids.

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