Monday, May 26, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (guest review by William Andreassen)

Did you ever revisit your old elementary school, years after you last crossed its thresholds? Remember how small everything seemed? Of course, the dimensions of hallways and doors hadn't changed an inch, but you certainly had. Watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, director Steven Spielberg's follow-up to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which was released 19 years ago, I felt much the same.

Curiously, I ran across the first film, 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark on television last week. It, on the other hand, was just as thrilling as I remembered. The plot was filled with fascinating (if not entirely letter perfect accurate) archaeological lore, breathtaking action, and characters who were more than just caricatures.

So, what happened? Too much time passed? Perhaps. Tastes refine a bit? Definitely, but I will always, I suspect, have a place in my heart for these sorts of movies. Yes, the anticipation was white hot for Skull. Undeniably. But, as I've learned, such eagerness can lead to thundering disappointment. What could possibly live up to the expectations? Can you say Episode One? You get the idea. Right, George?

Harrison Ford returns as university professor/archaeologist/executor of impossible escapes Henry Indiana Jones. This time out, it is 1957. The world is a very different place since we last followed Indy's improbable exploits across foreign locales in the 1930s. So is Henry Jones. He's much older, beaten up a bit by the passage of time. "I'm at the point where life has stopping giving and is now taking away" he grouses after he is relieved of his duties at the University. As well, the FBI, CIA, and KGB are all interested in his next move. Gone are the hissable Nazis who lusted for gold and power. Oh, the motives of the villains are basically the same, but now they are Russians, led by Cate Blanchett (clearly enjoying herself) as Irina Spalko, a "scientist" interested in the paranormal, the mystical. She forces/utilizes Indy's knowledge of Mayan languages and history to lead her to the mysterious crystal skulll, and the "knowledge" that it brings. The role is a dream for any actress and her dialect coach. I found myself imitating her sharp brogue afterward. She looks more sadistic than she actually is, but this is essentially a family movie, so opportunities for the more provocative attributes of Irina are left to the imagination.

Some of Irina's cohorts, including a "triple agent", are more interested in the festoons of jewels which seem to adorn every South American cave they visit than the usual coveting of world domination. The other villains are mostly just garden variety minions who fire machine guns and die in creative ways.

But the less said about the plot, the better. As I watched it, I realized that it was paper thin, silly, and weak. It's hard to believe that it took so long to arrive at this script??!! Reportedly, Frank (The Shawshank Redemption) Darabont had knocked it out of the park with his take, but fellow scribe David (Jurassic Park) Koepp won out in the end. Speaking of the end, the finale of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is, well, quite visual. The choice to go with a more, um, sci-fi angle was allegedly masterminded by producer George Lucas. This is a shame, but not fatal. I won't reveal what I mean, exactly, but let's say that I was surprised there weren't more terrestrial ideas in the Spielberg/Lucas camp.

Also along is Shia LaBeouf as "Mutt", whose presence in the film thrusts Indy in the middle of this preposterous adventure. He's a James Dean wannabe greaser type, quick with his comb and switchblade, added to the proceedings to bring in the young audience who likely weren't born the first time Ford cracked his patented bullwhip. LaBeouf is very appealing, and this is a well timed follow-up to his success in last summer's Transformers (a surprisingly entertaining popcorn muncher in its own right). Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood, easily the most interesting of the Indy women, though this time she is given very little to do. Mostly, she just looks stunned to actually be there. I was very happy to hear that Spielberg had given her the call, but the script really lets her down. We briefly see some of the spark that once ignited between her and Ford, but it's sadly short lived.

And what about Harrison Ford? Yes, he looks older, but that's integral to the story. One of the few successes of the script is the detailing of how Indy still manages to emerge unscathed from every scrape. Physically, that is. His psyche isn't so sturdy, and Ford plays it well. He's still got the goods. Rather than coasting, he actually puts some juice into it. And why not? After all, it was HIS idea to jumpstart this series after so long.

Several entertaining nods to the previous trilogy are to be found throughout, as well as an amusing line spoken by Ford which directly references that other famous character he played in another well known franchise by Lucas. The action set pieces are fantastic, and reason enough to see the film. One of them very cleverly uses a 50's malt shop as the stage. Another is a sure-to-induce nightmares-in-the-young 'uns scene involving large ants. Lots of them. I also enjoyed the nuclear blast refrigerator scene. Yes, you read that correctly. The chases, fights, and assorted spectacles are so exhilirating that it's easy to forget that Skull is ultimately no Raiders. But, what possibly could be?

-William Andreassen

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