Saturday, May 24, 2008

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Okay, I get the crystal skull, but what's the kingdom part?

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by David Koepp. Starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, and Karen Allen. Paramount Pictures (2008). Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AII--Adults and Adolescents.

Read other reviews here.

D.G.D.: I took Lucky to see this, so the two of us are reviewing it together. Not surprisingly, we're of two minds.

Lucky: I kind of liked some parts but not others.

D.G.D.: Because of Harrison Ford's age, it's necessary that the movie be moved out of the 1930s. The story takes place in 1957. Indy has gotten along in years and is now a decorated war veteran, though he's still teaching at a college. KGB agents, led by the terse and knowledge-hungry Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), kidnap Indy and take him to Area 51 to help them find the remains of the Roswell crash site, which Spalko believes can be used to take over American minds and turn everyone into a communist. Indy escapes, of course (in the most ludicrous fashion possible), but his run-in with commies gets him blacklisted by the FBI. On his way out of town, he encounters a motorcycle-riding greaser named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), who wants Indy to travel to Peru to find his mother, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) from Raiders of the Lost Ark, who was captured by Russians while searching for a crystal skull that's key to finding El Dorado.

Lucky: It's okay as a summer movie, but I thought the action sequences were kind of crazy. Indy does stunts he couldn't have done when he was younger, and there's a lot of CGI, and it's pretty fake-looking, especially the animals. For some reason, there's a lot of prairie dogs and monkeys and ants, and they're all computer-generated and they all look fake.

D.G.D.: There's a rule that every Indiana Jones movie needs some kind of gross-out animal. Killer ants are the animal of choice for Crystal Skull, but as Lucky says, they're fake-looking. In both appearance and behavior, they're closely related to the flesh-eating beetles from the remake of The Mummy. Not only do they swarm a man and crawl en masse into his mouth, they pick him up and drag him bodily into their anthill in one of the film's more outrageous scenes.

Speaking of outrageous scenes, I should add this: if you got annoyed seeing Indy skydive out of an airplane with an inflatable raft in Temple of Doom, that's nowhere near as wild as the escape he makes at the end of Crystal Skull's opening action sequence. Over-the-top phoniness pervades the film and crescendos at the climax, which looks like a blend of the climaxes of The Mummy Returns and the X-Files movie.

The film's also padded with a number of pointless elements that make the murky plot harder to follow. The heroes escape the Russians for a few minutes just so they can fall into quicksand and get captured again. And they have a run-in with natives, apparently the Hovitos from the first film, who in the interim have learned Capoeira; their only reason for existence is to get beat up by Indy and shot by communists. We also get a lot of bizarre reaction shots from groundhogs and a gratuitous scene with scorpions. And then there's Indy losing his job because he runs into communists, an out-of-date political commentary with no apparent point.

Lucky: The one thing I really don't like is the re-introduction of Karen Allen's character, Marion. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy had used her and dumped her ten years prior and then does the same thing to her again. Now in Crystal Skull, he gets the chance to do the same thing to her again. I don't understand why she keeps coming back for more. I don't understand why any woman would stick around an archaeologist who's mean and insensitive and treats her like dirt...Deej? You're squirming.

D.G.D.: Huh? No, I'm just thinking this is the part where you and I disagree. I think the reintroduction of Marion is the best thing about this movie. In fact, I'm inclined to think that alone redeems its many problems. In Raiders, Indy is depicted as a bad character, a greedy womanizer who heads to the bottle to forget his problems. The sequels treat these character flaws in a more playful fashion that's mildly amusing in Temple of Doom and outright irritating in Last Crusade. In this latest movie, however, the reappearance of Marion forces Indy to admit what kind of man he is and deal with it. His past catches up with him. Perhaps it isn't explored as thoroughly as it could have been, but the reintroduction and resolution of Indy's conflict with Marion makes a nice wrap-up for the series: finally, in his old age, Indiana Jones grows up. I think that's a brave step for the franchise, and I'm quite pleased with it. The new film doesn't add depth or complexity, but it does add a touch of maturity.

Lucky: I think Marion should have just kicked him in the--

D.G.D.: Moving on from there, I've got to give a spoiler alert to talk about one thing that's bugging a lot of fans: the extraterrestrials. The plot centers around communists and aliens, and some think this doesn't jive too well with the established Indy universe. Considering what they've already done in these movies, however, I have a hard time imagining anything that doesn't jive with the Indy universe. It's the sort of universe you can cram pretty much any legend into. However, the shift from fantasy to sf is very bumpy: the screenwriter can't seem to tell the difference between a living alien and a dead, skeletonized one, so most viewers will probably leave the theater scratching their heads.

That being said, I'm stunned or maybe even perturbed by the similarities between this movie and the video game Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. That game is also set after World War II, in 1947, and the villains are Russians. Like Crystal Skull, its story centers around dimension-hopping aliens. It too features one of Indy's old flames, in this case Sophia Hapgood, who first appeared in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, which is commonly considered one of the best adventure games ever made. One of the ancient booby traps in Crystal Skull looks almost identical to part of the bonus level, "Return to Peru," in Infernal Machine, and some of the other set pieces look strikingly familiar as well. Considering that Infernal Machine is an absolutely awful game I never would have played if it didn't have Indiana Jones in it, I'm wondering why somebody thought it would be good inspiration for a movie.

In spite of the movie's problems, I can't deny being entertained. Impatient with a few parts, maybe, disappointed with some inept cinematography during the action sequences, and thinking it should have been shorter, but definitely entertained. It might be easier for die-hard fans to enjoy it if they pretend the title is National Treasure 3 or The Mummy Comes Back For More.

You know, now that I think of it, the climax of Crystal Skull is strikingly similar to the climax of Fate of Atlantis. I mean, what the heck?

Lucky: Deej, I don't think you should play so many video games.

Content Advisory: Mild language, frequent action violence

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull:

Quality: Medium (too much CGI and a plot to make you say “huh?”)

Myth Level: Medium-High (it
is still Indy)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (the one Indy flick that admits treating women like playthings is bad)
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