"INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL" (2008) Review
As much as I enjoyed the last installment of the INDIANA JONES saga - 2008's "KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL", I had found myself perplexed by it. There was something about its tone that did not strike a similar chord, in compare to the other three movies. It took a second viewing of the movie for me to understand not only the movie’s story, but its entire atmosphere. And it had a lot to do with its setting.
"INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL" is set in 1957. In the movie, Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) leads a convoy of Soviet troops, dressed as American soldiers on a mission to infiltrate a military base in the Nevada desert called "Hangar 51". Spalko and her men force Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) to lead them to a crate holding the remains of an extraterrestrial creature that crashed ten years before in Roswell, New Mexico. When Jones attempts to escape, he is foiled by his old partner, George "Mac" McHale (Ray Winstone), who reveals that he is working with the Soviets. Jones then escapes on a rocket sled into the desert, where he stumbles upon a nuclear test town and survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator. While being debriefed, Jones discovers he is under FBI investigation because his friend Mac is a Soviet agent. Jones returns to Marshall College, where he is offered a leave of absence to avoid being fired because of the investigation. As he is leaving, Jones is stopped by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) and told that his old colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt), disappeared after discovering a crystal skull in Peru.
Like 2007's ”LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD”, I had harbored some serious doubts on whether George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could relive the old magic of their previous three Indiana Jones adventures of the 1980s. Needless to say, my fears proved to be groundless. Like the Bruce Willis movie, this fourth installment ended up being very entertaining. And although it had some of the old magic of ”RAIDERS”, ”TEMPLE OF DOOM” and ”LAST CRUSADE”, it had a tone that made it different than the other three. It took a movie review by someone named Lazypadawan and a second viewing of the movie to not only notice the difference, but to eventually appreciate it.
The main problem I originally had with ”CRYSTAL SKULL” was the presence of a spaceship at the end of the story. The City of Gold that Indy, Spalko, Oxley and others wanted to find, ended up with something to do with . . . inter-dimensional beings. One might as well call them aliens by the look of them. Or it. This is something that has never been seen in an Indiana Jones film before. And of course it has not. The other three movies had been set in the 1930s. It would be only natural that they had a feel of a 30s B-serial adventure. But I had made the mistake of expecting a 1930s serial adventure in a story set in the late 1950s. What I should have realized – and what Lazypadawan had pointed out in her review – was that ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” was not supposed to be a 30s serial adventure set in the 1950s. It was supposed to be a send up of the 1950s “B” movies. And what are the elements of a “B” movie from the 1950s? Here are just a few:
*the presence of Soviet troops or spies
*hybrid of science fiction and horror
*conflicts between biker hoods and high school/college jocks
*the “Red” scare
*Soviet (and American) interests in psychic paranormal activities and UFOs
”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” had most, if not all elements in the film. I had just read a review in which someone had complained that the movie seemed like a rip-off of a cheesy B-movie. I had made that same mistake when I saw the spaceship sequence near the end of the movie. But now I know better. Lucas and Spielberg had every intention of the movie being a "rip-off" of 1950s B-movies. Like I had said before, it would only make sense.
Someone else had mentioned that Harrison Ford had not seemed this animated in years. I am not surprised. Indiana Jones had always been among his favorite characters. And it really showed in his performance. It is also nice to see that after 27 years, his chemistry with Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood) seemed as strong as ever. By the way, she was great - charismatic and spunky as ever. More importantly, she seemed to have some of the better lines in the film. And I was very impressed by Shia LaBeouf as Marion and Indy’s love child – Mutt Williams aka Henry Jones III. As much as I liked his performance in ”TRANSFORMERS”, I have always thought it seemed a bit too frantic for my tastes. I much preferred role as Henry III (I’m sorry, but I cannot bring myself to say – let alone write – “Mutt”). Like Ford, I could tell that Cate Blanchett really enjoyed her role as the villainous Soviet Colonel-Doctor Spalko. She was as obsessive and ruthless as the past Indy villains. But Blanchett’s performance had a verve and theatricality I have not seen since Amrish Puri’s portrayal of Mola Ram in ”THE TEMPLE OF DOOM”. And John Hurt filled Denholm Elliot’s role as friend/mentor of the Jones family quite beautifully. But unlike Marcus Brody, Harold Oxley had a good reason for his loopy behavior. I also enjoyed Ray Winstone's performance as Indy's treacherous old friend and colleague, McHale. In a way, he reminded me of the Elsa Schneider character in "LAST CRUSADE". But as much as I like Alison Doody, I must say that Winstone's take on a very morally ambiguous character had been handled with more skill.
Is there anything about ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” that I disliked? Well, I was not impressed by John Williams’ score. There was nothing original or memorable about it, aside from moments of the old Indy theme being rehashed. Rather disappointing. Nor was I fond of the movie’s occasional heavy-handed style of action and special effects. This was especially apparent in a scene featuring killer ants in the jungle. However, I could honestly complain about the same in regard to the other three films. But the one thing that really irritated me was the sequence featuring the villain’s defeat/destruction. In the end, it was not Indy who defeated the villain or set her destruction in motion. It was the inter-dimensional being. This is the one major fault I have noticed in two other Indiana Jones films. And it tends to give the films - at least in my eyes - an anticlimatic feeling that I find disappointing. In ”RAIDERS”, the opening of the Ark of the Covenant set in motion Belloq and the Nazis’ deaths. Both Indy and Marion were tied to a pole, unable to do anything except keep their eyes closed. In ”THE LAST CRUSADE”, Elsa Schneider turned out to be responsible for the main villain’s death and the destruction of his men through her handling of the Grail Cup. Perhaps Lucas and Spielberg were trying to convey some message about humans being too arrogant to take heed of things/beings that are more powerful or more evolved than mankind. But that same message had been conveyed in ”TEMPLE OF DOOM”. Only in that particular movie, it was Indy’s actions – invoking the power of Shiva with the Sanakara stone – that led to Mola Ram’s destruction. Perhaps this is why I have always found the 1984 movie’s ending a lot more impressive than those of the other three movies.
But despite my initial confusion on what Lucas and Spielberg were doing with the movie’s 1950s theme, along with my disappointment of the score and the handling of the villain’s defeat, I found ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” very enjoyable. It was great to see Indiana Jones back in action, again. And even more satisfying was his marriage to his lady love, Marion Ravenwood, in the end. After 30 odd years, those two finally got it right.