INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
Reviewed: May 15th, 2008
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, and Shia LaBeouf
My Rating: 7 out of 10
This is a really tough movie to review, ‘cause it’s really a tough movie to get a handle on. If you like the Indiana Jones movies, then you’re gonna like this one. But there are a lot of things about the film to hate.
For the uninitiated, Crystal Skull follows the continuing misadventures of Indiana Jones, intrepid archaeologist and fedora-wearing adventure hero. This time around its 1957, a full twenty years since the last movie, and an ageing Indy is going up against the Soviets to find the titular crystal skull. Helping Indy is punk greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), duplicitous colleague Mac (Ray Winstone) and bat-shit crazy colleague Professor Oxley (John Hurt). Trying to do the heroes in is the Soviet scientist Colonol-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) and her army of Ruskie redshirts.
First, the good. Harrison Ford might be in his 60s, but he ain’t slowing down and we’re glad for it. Indiana Jones can still pack a punch, crack a whip and run around with the best of ‘em. But Spielberg and Lucas still acknowledge the passing of time, and not just in the setting (more on that later). The Indiana Jones of 1957 has shades of the grumpy old men that everyone knows from somewhere in their own life, a product of Indy’s many years of adventuring and general old age. And he’s also a touch wiser too, able to pass on gems of knowledge like Sean Connery did in Last Crusade. In short, it really feels like Indy’s grown over the twenty years since we’ve seen him last, and the film is better for it.
Bringing a lot to the table is Shia LaBeouf as Mutt Williams. LaBeouf has a great charisma and makes his greaser character arrogant yet likeable, a perfect foil for Indy, and really funny on top of that. The interactions between LaBeouf and Ford are fantastic, a great spin on the relationship between Ford and Connery in the previous film. The rest of the actors do their best and bring a lot to the film, but they’re hamstrung by some tiny problems (more on those later).
The film’s period stuff is great. Spielberg captures the essence of the 1950s well, giving us enough subtle background stuff to make us buy into the new time period, and when he does get really obvious he does it in great fashion. Specifically I’m thinking of the scene that runs under the opening credits, and a brilliant moment early in the film where a fight breaks out in a café.
For the most part, the action is classic Indy: exciting, with a great sense of humour and fun without being too over-the-top. The film’s “opening gambit”* is a near-perfect example of this: fisticuffs, cars, some whip action, heavy blunt objects, a buff baddie of the Pat Roach variety, and John Williams awesome music running through the whole thing. I only say near-perfect because the last five or ten minutes of the sequence were so mind-numbingly stupid that I had to block them from memory. But like I said, great action in this flick, and not just from Indy. LaBeouf gets a chance to prove he’s a worthy successor to Ford with some great fisticuffs of his own, a cool swordfight and a kick-ass motorcycle chase.
But now, onto the bad… we might be here a while.
The problems with this movie can be summed up with one simple acronym: CGI. As the film goes on it becomes more and more CGI heavy, to the point where sequences at the end were clearly filmed as just the actors against a blue screen. It really detracted from the movie when rather than buy into the heroes’ plight, I just rolled my eyes at whatever CGI thing they’d thrown in there. What would’ve been an exciting car chase through a jungle becomes lifeless when 90% of the jungle is rendered in CGI, and the whole thing goes down the gurgler when so-obviously-fake vine swinging comes in. Things just aren’t as tense or exciting when CGI comes in. The first three films had scenes with the various creepy crawlies that scared the pants off me as a little kid (I’m thinking of the bugs in Temple of Doom), but this time around Spielberg chose to render the creepy crawlies in CGI, and as a result they just aren’t scary. I propose that someone be appointed to Lucasfilm as a “CGI Slapper”, and their only task is to slap anyone across the face if they even suggest putting CGI into a film. George Lucas needs to learn that special effects are not the answer.
The plot is quite distractingly-ridiculous. Spielberg and Lucas decided that since this flick would be set in the 50s, it should emulate their favourite genre of that time period: the sci-fi B-movie. As a result, this film features the presence of – yes, you guessed it – aliens. And it’s a ridiculous notion; not because sci-fi B-movies are bad, but because Indiana Jones has no place in them. And because if anyone wants to do sci-fi these days they need to use a lot of CGI, which dovetails into the previous problem. But the more plot unfolds, the more that even hardcore Indy fans will groan and roll their eyes. The last portion of the flick plays out like a terrible cross between the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the end of Close Encounters, and it’s a terrible disservice to the franchise. The previous films worked well because they revolved around objects of religion and faith, and in order to survive Indy had to adopt some form of belief. At the end of Last Crusade he’s making leaps of faith, acknowledging the humility of Christ and putting aside his greed. Crystal Skull doesn’t get anywhere near as interesting.
While Ford and LaBeouf are fantastic as Indy and Mutt, the rest of the characters suffer a bit. Marion and Oxley are MIA for half the film, which is a damn shame ‘cause Karen Allen and John Hurt give some great performances. Winstone does his best with the character of Mac (and Winstone is no slouch), but Mac’s characterisation is all over the map, and when the audience can’t get a bead on a character it’s hard to make any kind of connection with him. Spalko is written as the stock-standard villain. Blanchett brings a lot to the role, from the attitude to the look… but she never seems to master the Russian accent, and throughout the movie she keeps slipping into something very British for milliseconds at a time, distracting the audience from the rest of Blanchett’s great performance. If Spielberg had’ve put in some excuse for the character to be British, Spalko would’ve been a brilliant villain. Instead… meh.
There is a lot to hate about Crystal Skull. From the CGI to the plot to the handling of many characters, it’s clear that Spielberg and Lucas dropped the ball a lot when making the flick, and had this been anything but an Indiana Jones adventure it would’ve sunk like someone’s pet rock. But it’s an Indiana Jones adventure, starring Harrison Ford, and that can make up for just about anything. Indy and Mutt, running around and fighting baddies, makes for a very fun movie and a just worthy addition to the franchise.
My Rating: 7 out of 10.
* I dunno where the term originated, but I remember it from episodes of MacGyver, where the “opening gambit” was the brief action sequence that took place before the episode’s main plot got underway. Each of the Indy movies has one: in Raiders, it’s the infamous sequence with the idol and the giant boulder. In Temple of Doom, the fight with gangsters in Club Obi-Wan. In Last Crusade, it’s young Indy and then adult Indy trying to get that gold cross.