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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) Print E-mail
Thursday, 22 May 2008
Few are expecting another “Raiders of the Lost Ark”—unless they’re naïve. But “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (awkward title) is unquestionably an Indiana Jones adventure and not merely an imitation. It’s the real deal—exciting, mysterious, funny, and with Harrison Ford in great form. Sure, he’s older, grayer, a bit more lined, but he’s still that dashing, ever-inventive archaeologist he was in the other three movies, staying just ahead of (or sometimes behind) the bad guys. It’s great to see Indy back, dodging bullets, swinging by his bullwhip, plunging off cliffs, and always enthusiastically, even obsessively, on the track of weird archaeological wonders. It’s satisfactory but never as astonishing as you want it to be. A good Indiana Jones, but not a great one.

Film buffs have fun picking apart the Indiana Jones movies—a bit of Republic serials, a touch of “Secret of the Incas” (Indy’s fedora, bullwhip and leather jacket), and a whole lot of the wonderful Duck stories by Carl Barks, the greatest little-known 20th century writer/artist of children’s fiction. Some of his longer Donald Duck stories and many of the great Uncle Scrooge adventures had strong influences on George Lucas and the other creators of the Indiana Jones Universe. (Don’t believe me? Check it out: There were many of us for whom this didn’t come as a revelation, but a confirmation.

Barks’ stories are perfectly suited to these thrillers that use real archaeology as a jumping-off point for fantastic, action-filled adventures. Sure, Lucas and Spielberg saw lots of movies and read lots of comic books, and reference them in these lavish adventures. Nothing wrong with that—those movies and comic books were inspired by even older works. Pop fiction always builds on pop fiction of the past; thus it has ever been, thus may it ever be.

It’s been about 20 years since the time of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and about 20 years have passed in the real world since that movie was released. Spielberg, Lucas and screenwriter David Koepp would be remiss if they didn’t deal with the passing of time, and sure enough, scattered throughout the movie are plenty of jokes about Indy getting old. (A younger character asks, quite seriously, if he’s 80.) But the passing of time is not what the movie is about. The intervening years are quickly dealt with in a couple of lines—Indiana is still a college professor in a tweed jacket and a bow tie, sure enough, and we learn that he was in the OSS during World War II, and that both Marcus Brody and his father have died. (We’re shown photos of Denholm Elliott and Sean Connery.) But again, this isn’t the movie, so this stuff is soon ignored.
The movie opens with a hot rod zooming across the New Mexico desert to the pounding rhythms of Elvis’ “Hound Dog”—we’re in the 1950s. (1957, to be precise—which may have been a slight error; there weren’t mass “Better Dead than Read” rallies that late in the 50s.) But never mind—the filmmakers knew that and blithely jump over it. That hot rod passes a military convoy; the drivers have some fun as they tear along the highway. But the convoy turns off (at a sign for the Atomic Café)—and they shoot their way onto a military base.

When they stop, we see Indiana Jones’ fedora blow out of a car; a hand picks it up, and a shadow puts it on. Indiana Jones is back, and he’s still Harrison Ford, grayer but still cranky. He was in the trunk of one of those cars along with his wartime buddy Mac (Ray Winstone); these guys clad as the U.S. Army are actually Soviet soldiers led by tough, steely-eyed Colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), in her crisp gray uniform and black Louise Brooks bangs. (If she makes you think of James Bond’s opponent Rosa Klebb, that’s okay.) Indy is, of course, indignant, but there are all those guns, so he has to lead the way into the huge warehouse (we’ve seen the interior before) that’s the reason for the base. Spalko is after something that will enable the Soviet Union to defeat all comers—by means of psychic powers. Something in this building, she’s sure, will enable that, and Indiana Jones knows where it is.

Indy demonstrates a use for gunpowder I’ve never encountered before—did you know it’s metallic enough to be affected by powerful magnetic fields? (Maybe Koepp made this up.) With the further help of scattered buckshot (apparently the Soviets use iron buckshot rather than lead), amidst all these crates they find a hidden one (stamped “Roswell,” so you know where this is going). There’s a steel coffin-like box inside the case—more magnetic tricks—and inside that coffin is a wrapped corpse of something that isn’t human.

This leads to an astonishing, exciting chase sequence, in some ways the highlight of the movie. There’s a betrayal, lots of bullets, and Indiana Jones zooming to escape on a rocket test sled. This leads to Jones taking refuge in what looks like a typical American suburban town, way out there in the desert. But the family gathered around the TV set watching “Howdy Doody” are dummies. More dummies outside, including dummy dogs. Yipe. It’s one of those towns built to be blown apart in an atomic test, and Indy has one minute to find shelter. Yow. He does, of course, but we do get to see that emblem of the 1950s, a roiling mushroom cloud. (We also see lots of cute prairie dogs.)

Somehow, Indy’s being kidnapped by Spalko and her crew leads the FBI to suspect Indy of being a spy himself, and the college puts him on suspension. As Indy angrily departs by train, kid (Shia LaBeouf) in a black leather jacket and ducktail hairdo (which he constantly recombs), mounted on a motorcycle, interrupts Jones’s departure. In a malt shop, the kid explains himself while dipping his comb in a glass of Coke. This leads to another fabulous chase sequence, which at one point demonstrates how to transfer from a speeding motorcycle to an equally speeding car—and back again. As that motorcycle on which Indy is a passenger skids to a halt in a library, a nearby kid asks him for help on a question Jones himself assigned. As he leaves on the motorcycle, Indy advises the student, “If you want to be a good archaeologist, you gotta get out of the library.” Zoom.

The kid introduces himself as Mutt Williams, who studied with an old colleague of Indy’s, Professor Oxley, who has vanished somewhere in South America. The kid’s mother has followed Oxley, and she’s vanished, too. Oxley always told Mutt to look up Indiana Jones in the case of trouble, so here he is. When he learns of the archaeological details, which involve a crystal skull from the lost Amazonian city of Akator—possibly the fabled El Dorado, the city of gold—Indy kicks into high archaeological/adventurer gear, and the two (with Mutt’s motorcycle) set off for Peru, across those maps showing travel courses that Spielberg used in the other Indiana Jones movies. It’s a great touch, a tip of the hat to yet older movies.

Naturally, there are more adventures in South America, beginning with Indy and Mutt trying to trace Oxley. This involves a curious, brief sequence in a lightning-lit old Peruvian cemetery with lots of leaping zombies, or something. They’re not explained, and Indy and Mutt are soon out of there; the sequence was probably added because this middle portion of the film does tend to drag a bit.

Eventually, Irina Spalko and her thugs capture Indy and Mutt. They already have the currently-deranged Oxley (John Hurt) in hand, as well as Mutt’s tough mother—who turns out to be none other than Indiana Jones’ old flame from the first movie, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, in great if a bit leathery shape). Naturally, she and Indy immediately start sniping at one another—on through an escape from a dry sand pit (not quicksand, as Indiana pedantically explains as he’s disappearing into the ground). This is followed by a lengthy jungle chase in various vehicles, including a strange tractor-like device, another element that seems to be adapted from an Uncle Scrooge story (the one where giant Paul Bunyan machines battle one another). This includes a lively sword duel between Spalko—who always carries a saber—and Mutt while they’re each on their own speeding Jeeps. This also involves that crystal skull being tossed back and forth in a bag between the vehicles. Only Oxley knows what to do with it.

This leads to a sea of large (but not giant) ants, the voracious army ants of the jungle. (I think someone says they’re the “marabunta,” amusing because the word was invented for “The Naked Jungle,” that George Pal movie about army ants menacing Charlton Heston’s plantation.) These are mean mothers, capable of swarming over a person and hauling his still flailing body into an anthill. (The ants are repelled by the crystal skull, a useful side effect.) Then Marion drives her vehicle, an Army Duck, off a cliff into a river—which has three waterfalls downstream. One damned thing after another.

Which is pretty much how these movies should go, of course. Maybe we have to do a bit more than catch our breath in the middle of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” a slight disappointment, but we trust Spielberg and Ford enough to know it will rev up again very soon. And it does.

The other Indiana Jones movies dealt mostly with real archaeological details—the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail—but “Crystal Skull,” though sprinkled with authentic references (the Gilded Man, El Dorado, etc.), is wild-eyed sci-fi at its core. (A working title was “Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars.”) The climax is even more special-effects-intensive than the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and it’s a pretty satisfying spectacle.

There are a few dropped stitches here and there, though; Spalko explains several times that she’s trying create the new frontier of psychic warfare that was Stalin’s dream The crystal skull can be used to alter people’s minds, and she tries it out on Indiana Jones. It “will turn you into us,” she purrs, “and the best part is you won’t even know it’s happening”—but this idea is raised only to be immediately dropped. Even though Ford begins looking very intense, the scene ends and he never shows another sign of psychic abilities. What was that all about?

The cast is great. Harrison Ford hasn’t seemed both this relaxed and this committed to a movie in years—maybe he needed Indiana Jones as much as Indiana Jones needed Harrison Ford. He’s completely credible as an action hero and as the occasionally distracted super-archaeologist he is underneath. And he trades barbs with Karen Allen with romantic-comedy zest and wit. He’s perfectly cast as this smart, often-apprehensive adventurer. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” might not have had the impact it did had, as originally intended, Tom Selleck played Indiana Jones.

Although Karen Allen has been doing movies and TV shows ever since “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” including “Malcolm X” (1992), “King of the Hill” (1993), “The Perfect Storm” (2000) and others, much of her time has been spent on her New England farm. Despite quarreling with Spielberg during the shooting of “Raiders,” she's back now, and is great fun--she seems like she's having great fun, too. She’s as tough and inventive as Indy himself, and every bit as ready to argue. She and Ford work very well together.

There's been so much pre-release speculation as to whether Shia LaBeouf's Mutt Williams is the son of Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood that it's something of a letdown to discover that, yes, he is. He's Henry Jones III, in fact. The most amusing element of this relationship is Indy instantly switching from "do your own thing, kid" to "finish school!" as soon as he learns Mutt's his son. LaBeouf has a few 1950s-sounding lines (he suspects Indy of having “smog in the noggin”) and gets to do a lot of action stuff, including swinging Tarzan-like through the jungle, accompanied by a passel of monkeys. Since he’s a black-leather-jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding 1950s-type “hoodlum,” he plays with a switchblade knife a lot, but is of course basically a good kid under it all. Then there's that swordfight with Blanchett--who herself is clearly having a grand time being this cold-hearted, brilliant bitch, who instantly and correctly sizes up Indiana Jones as an opponent to be respected.

Ray Winstone, unfortunately, has relatively little to do; it’s hard to get a grip on his character or even his reason for being in the movie—I couldn’t see how he affected the plot. John Hurt, on the other hand, does affect the plot, because as his dementia clears up, he’s the one who explains everything. Sean Connery was approached to play Indy’s father again, but backed out relatively close to the start of production; perhaps Henry Jones, Sr. would have occupied the plot position that Professor Oxley does—but it’s hard to imagine Connery playing a doddering fool for half his time on screen.

Composer John Williams is also back, though the movie is so busy you might not notice the music until the (long long) end credits roll. That familiar “Raiders” theme turns up again and again, cuing us in that this is indeed the real Indiana Jones. Janusz Kaminski is the cinematographer, taking over from the retired Douglas Slocombe (whose last movie was “…Last Crusade”). Reportedly, Kaminski tried to follow Slocombe’s lead in the style of photography—his own is different—but I doubt that most audiences will notice. It looks like it’s supposed to look, a big-scale, showy adventure, with scenes on deserts, in a New England college town, in the jungle and in that lost city of the title.

Is this as good as “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? No, of course not. That was made by a bunch of young men with ants in their pants, out to wow the world. And they did. Not only that, they established an entire subgenre of movies, then continued to provide the best examples of that subgenre. Indiana Jones movies can profitably be compared only to other Indiana Jones movies; the imitations always lack key ingredients. This one has all of them, if presented somewhat less compellingly than before.. If it’s not the best Indiana Jones movie (I think it’s third best), it’s still a by-george, for-real Indiana Jones movie. I hope there are more to come. But fellas, please don’t wait so long next time.

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