Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Movie Review                                                                                                                                 12/6/08


Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf and Karen Allen
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Paramount Pictures
Piles of rejected scripts, downtrodden writers, and several shrouds of secrecy later, one of the longest-awaited returns of an icon arrives onscreen.

And no, I’m not talking about Superman Returns, but rather the fourth of the well-beloved contemporary classic series, so famous for its old-fashioned action-adventure and humour, and of course, Harrison Ford’s career-defining role. Fans and cynics crowded around the rumours of a fourth film like oversized army ants to any conceivable prey.

That aside, I finally caught the film in a tiny theatre and tried to forget all the criticism, deciding to just go in expecting a good time. It was loads of fun: I was cheering, laughing and clapping all the way. That said, I was the only one in the theatre doing so.

I’ll get on to the plot, then. Ironically, the story that creators Jeff Nathanson, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg tried so hard to protect got leaked out all the easier, with much hoo-ha surrounding an extra who blabbed and laptops that got stolen. This proved all quite unnecessary, because it isn’t the most ingenious plot either.

It’s 1957, and together with his sometime-partner/rival Mac (Ray Winstone), Indy (who else but Ford) is forced by Soviet Commies, led by the sca-reee KGB Col. Dr. Irina Spalko (Blanchett), to help them locate a mysterious corpse in an oddly familiar warehouse. There is the pre-requisite opening chase (which is actually quite inventive), after which our hero barely-and quite incredulously-escapes a nuclear blast.

Later, he’s approached about a missing old classmate, Prof. Harold Oxley (John Hurt), by greaser Mutt Williams (LaBeouf). Apparently, this all has to do with the myth of the lost city of Akator, and the titular Crystal Skull. An amusing close brush with the KGB later, Indy and his newfound sidekick go to South America in search of Oxley and the skull. He manages to get themselves hunted down by undead soldiers in an ancient temple complex and later gets kidnapped by the Soviet expedition, but is inexplicably reunited with former paramour Marion Ravenwood (Allen in a spunky reprisal of her role from the first flick). From here on, plot machinations lead to fencing duels, jungle chases down waterfalls, a furious attack of the ants I mentioned earlier, the expected supernatural encounter and an ending that is not anti-climatic per se, but is still pretty much a letdown.

For those who remember the era, the flick has a wonderfully nostalgic 50's flavour, what with McCarthyism, old-fashioned diners and greaser gangs, nuclear testing and the fascination with science fiction that’s more “fiction” than “science”. It’s also excellent exposure for today’s generation to peek into a time when muscle cars, leather jackets, pleated skirts and knitwear sweaters were all the rage.

Hearing John Williams’ seven-note trumpet theme and seeing Ford back in that creased leather jacket, battered fedora and wielding a bullwhip after so long is exciting to almost anyone, since the character is such a pop culture icon. A strong point is that film acknowledges the passing of the years, with Grail-hunting Nazis giving way to Reds seeking power over minds. Even though Ford is now 65, he still packs quite the punch. Ford is right in his element, considering that most of his recent roles contain traces of Indy anyway. His face might have creased and his hair may have turned grey, but his acting chops have only gotten better. Wry jokes about his age and a hilarious incident involving Indy’s fear of snakes, as well as loving mentions of characters we miss (Sean Connery’s Henry Jones Sr. and the late Denholm Elliot’s Marcus Brody) bring back some of that flavour from the Indy films of yore.

While many of the new characters prove unnecessary at times, there are moments where the talent of the big-name cast truly shines through. Cate Blanchett visibly relishes her every moment wielding a rapier and wearing the frightening hairdo and starched uniform of Irina Spalko. Playing a stereotype, complete with a Boris-and-Natasha faux Russian accent, is something new to the Academy Award-winning actress, but this is certainly a role that she pulled off with much aplomb. Shia LaBeouf’s turn as the “kid sidekick” shirks some of the conventions associated with that term, and he doesn’t simply tag along for the ride but offers plenty of fun and character dynamics. An especially memorable moment is his rapier duel with Spalko on two moving vehicles, while his mother chides him about his fencing pose.

Speaking about Mutt’s mother, she is of course Marion. Instead of pulling in a new love interest, the film’s use of the character is excellent. A few wrinkles aside, Karen Allen looks almost just as she did in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and her hilarious love/hate dialogue with Harrison Ford provides some of the film’s funniest moments.

Other characters such as Mac, Howard Oxley and the requisite evil henchman Col. Dovchenko (Igor Jijinkine) all get their time in the limelight, but seem disposable at best.

Sadly enough, the gist of the plot also falls into the same category. Historically, stories of “Crystal Skulls” have littered the occult and puzzled archaeologists around the world for years, most experts reaching the consensus that the few found are mere hoaxes. Therefore, this reviewer thinks expanding on it is futile in the first place. Once the film takes off (pardon the pun) into territory best left to Agents Mulder and Scully of the X-Files, there is no saving it. In fact, it makes me wonder if the next film might involve Easter Bunnies and the Loch Ness Monster. Even though most of the stories in the Indy franchise are rather far-fetched, they are still somewhat built upon historical relics or well-known legends. Any reference to ancient civilizations in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is simply cleverly-conceived conjecture. This makes the movie decidedly, as my Dad so put it so succinctly, “un-Indy” for me.

Famous for overusing computer graphics imagery (CGI) in the much-derided Star Wars prequels, George Lucas does the same here, despite earlier promises that the movie would be an old-fashioned adventure yarn. While it is not as noticeable as in The Phantom Menace, the use of CGI is almost just as excessive. On the plus side, though, the Lucas-owned effects company ILM has to be given proper kudos-the ants look scary enough and the nuclear blast is disturbingly spectacular-but what made the first three movies special were the innovative effects in an age before CGI, and spectacular sequences that still hold up to scrutiny today.

However, when real-life sets designed by Guy Hendrix Dyas are used, the result is reasonably awe-inspiring: Indy’s period-furnished home and Marshall College’s classrooms and halls sure bring back the memories, moving stone staircases in the temple complex provide sufficient tension and the warehouse piled to rafters with crates looks amazing in the flesh (it was a matte painting in the first film).

All in all, the film is a fun ride that never lets up and has many enjoyable instances. As a big Indy fan, it pains me to say this: but with just as many a weak moment, it’s not the 65-year old Ford that buckles at the knees, but the story’s core that does so instead.


By Jedd Jong


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