A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 123 mins.

Indiana Jones: Harrison Ford / Irina Spalko: Cate Blanchett / Marion Ravenwood: Karen Allen / Mutt Williams: Shia LeBeouf / "Mac" McHale: Ray Winstone / Prof. Oxley: John Hurt / Dean Stanforth: Jim Broadbent

Directed by Steven Spielberg / Screenplay by David Koepp, based on a story by George Lucas.


So grumbles the aging, wiser, more world weary - but still rough 'n rugged - 65-year-old archeologist, Indiana Jones, at the beginning of the fourth film in the Indy Quadrilogy, THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL.  The opening sequence of the film does a pitch perfect job of firmly encapsulating and harkening back to the legendary iconography and mischievous tone of the previous Indy adventures. 

The preceding films, which were set ostensibly in the 1930s and pitted Indy against damn, dirty Nazi scum (he hated those guys) has now been shifted to 1957, an appropriate move considering the advancing years of SKULL’s title hero.  Now that the Nazis are caput, Indy faces an even more deadly and ravenous enemy against God and country: Deplorable commies that want to wash away America in a wave of the Red Scare.  I mean, Nazis are easily the most secure villains in terms of our simplistic hatred of them, but bringing Russians to the mix reflects the paranoid mindset – and passionately heated Cold War milieu – of the period.  It’s kind of a trip to see Ruskies – once very disposable villains in movies 20-plus years ago – back into the fold as protagonists that are easy to despise. 

Anyway…back to the opening sequence of CRYSTAL SKULL, which left a really wide smile on my face.  Indy, of course, is still played by Harrison Ford with the requisite combination of guts, perseverance, and stubborn grit.  He’s aged a lot and is certainly not quite the man of limited years he was before, but the physical mileage he’s clocked on over the last few decades has not made him any less determined and intrepid.  Ford, kind of like Clint Eastwood in his latter westerns, continues to have a face that has matured so timelessly: With sullen eyes, that roguish half-grin, and a fedora-clad profile, he is an actor that director John Ford would have yearned to shoot.  Watching Ford here is a nostalgic treat and there is that spark in his eyes that has been regrettably vacant in his last few performances. 

Okay…seriously…back to that opening sequence!  Our first image of Indy is, very appropriately, enigmatic.  He has been stowed away in the truck of a Russian military vehicle, is taken out, and hurled to the ground.  His fedora lays a few feet away.  We see Indy walk over, pick it up, put it on his head, all done in as a noirish shadow on the vehicle.  He then turns around in a reveal worthy of a classic western to confront his Red enemies.  We learn that the Russian military caravan is in Nevada and have snuck into a very, very top secret US government location called “Hanger 51".   Also kidnapped with our hero is his sidekick of many years and adventures, Mac (Ray Winstone).  All of the Russian’s firepower are set on the pair, and Indy hilariously dead pans to his partner, “Put your hands down, yer embarrassing me.”  The Ruskies are led by a femme fatale, Colonel Irina Spalko (the wonderful Cate Blanchett, sinking her teeth into a full-on villainess role).  She wants Indy to help her comrades find a mysterious object of enormous power that, we learn, Indy and the US government unearthed over a decade ago.  This, of course, is that same warehouse back in 1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK where the Ark of the Covenant was left to collect dust (it makes a brief cameo).  Once Indy does lead the Russians to the box and reveals the contents to be literally out of this world, the scene then swings into classic Indy adventure mode.  

After a dreaded double cross, Indy then has to secure himself away from the Russians in a virtuoso action sequence that involves guns, swords, head on collisions with military vehicles, a secret missile silo that is accidentally turned on during Indy’s fisticuffs with a unstoppable Russian brute, and eventually culminates with the hero accidentally stumbling on to an Atomic Bomb testing site (it’s a mock up of a suburban neighborhood with mannequins).  When warning sirens turn on and the countdown begins, Indy nonchalantly mutters, “That can’t be good.”  This whole sequence reveals why I adore the Indy films.  It’s clear that the first 20 minutes of CRYSTAL SKULL seem entrenched in the aesthetic of the cliffhanger adventure serials of the 30’s where the hero is placed in one life-threatening sequence after another, narrowly escaping death.  This time there is the element of the B-science fiction film, complete with three widely utilized testaments of the genre: The Red Scare, aliens, and the A-bomb.  When George Lucas created Indy nearly 30 years ago, his modus operandi was to relive that sort of wide-eyed sense of innocent jubilation, spunk, and adrenaline induced fun that those serials and 50’s sci-fi flicks had.  CRYSTAL SKULL’s opening sequence is such an unapologetic kick of unbridled, giddy fun that you start to think that this fourth Indy adventure will be on par with the other perilous entries. 

Yet, as the film progressed, I was left with a nagging thought: Why couldn’t the rest of the film be as good and thrilling as the introduction?  It is with great reluctance and regret that I have to say that the remaining film is a decidedly disappointing hodgepodge.  Whereas the first 20 minutes are sensationally enjoyable, the rest of CRYSTAL SKULL suffers from a lumbering pacing, an overly plotted and convoluted story, a preponderance of goofy and hooky action set pieces and gags, and – I thought I would be the last to say this – direction by the usually masterful Steven Spielberg that feels really flat and lifeless.  The result is a film that is both (a) not worth the 19 year wait since the last episode and (b) does not destroy the legacy of the previous Indy adventures, but does not do them adequate justice either. 

CRYSTAL SKULL has been in development hell for nearly two decades.  It should be noted, though, that this is the fifth, not fourth, appearance by Ford as the legendary character (many forget his cameo, playing a 50-year-old Indy in a 1993 episode of the short lived TV series THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES).  The main problem was that Ford, Lucas, and Spielberg could not settle on a decent script.  Several writers were brought on board over the years, from  M. Night Shyamalan, Jeff Nathanson, to even Frank Darabont, but the trio settled on David Koepp’s draft based on Lucas’ story treatment.  Koepp’s previous credits included the lackluster Spielberg entries, WAR OF THE WORLDS and the JURASSIC PARK sequel, THE LOST WORLD, the latter arguably being one of the director’s lesser films.  I think the main problem with CRYSTAL SKULL is the screenplay, which is all over the map in terms of tone and never really does much justice to the unique premise of a Cold War Indy Adventure that Lucas envisioned.  

Consider what occurs after the sensational opening sequence:  After narrowly escaping the A-bomb test site, Indy is taken to a secure facility by FBI stooges in horn-rimed glasses and debriefed, seeing as his former ally, Mac, has turned Commie (granted, by his own admission, because they “pay” better).  The FBI then tells Indy that he is now a “man of interest”, a euphemistic set of terms meaning “We think you’re a commie, so we’ll be watching you.”  Indy, we learn, became a decorated soldier in WWII (he was a Colonel), but even his war exploits – not to mention his discoveries of artifacts for Uncle Sam - don't help him at all here.  McCarthyism is a foe that even Indy has troubling fighting.  This angle to the film is fascinating.  A whole story could have been drummed up about Indy trying to fight the Red Scare, clear his name as a fiercely American patriot, and take it to those Commie bastards, all while searching for the prized MacGuffin (that item that everyone wants in the Indy films, but is so difficult to obtain).  But the script here drops the ball and does nothing with it.  The FBI agents are never seen again and, after Indy is unceremoniously suspended by his University because of his alleged Communist ties, it’s never really dealt with any further. 

As the story does progress it at least introduces one of the film’s pleasant side characters.  Just as Indy is about to leave his University he is cornered by a twenty-something greaser named “Mutt” (played with a lot of spunk and gumption by Shia LeBeouf).  His entrance in the film will remind viewers of Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE and an altercation he has with some jocks in a malt shop has the breezy period detail that reminded me of Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI.  It seems that Mutt needs Indy to help him find Professor Oxley (John Hurt, looking as wily eyed as ever), who has gotten involved with Mutt’s mother in looking for the sacred crystal skulls and – yes – the Lost City of Gold.  Mutt’s mother is Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the same Marion that ran the Himalayan saloon in RAIDERS that used to be Indy’s main squeeze when they were younger.  When Mutt’s true parental heritage is revealed late in the film, it is arguably the least-best kept secret in the film. 

Indy, Mutt, Marion, and eventually Oxley find themselves in South America where they pit themselves against the Russians and that sneering Spalko, who is a villain appropriately out of 50’s pulp sci-fi fiction for her yearning to get the Skulls because of their supposed abilities to give people psychic powers.  Of course, we get the obligatory Indy elements, like dark caverns, desolate, corpse-laden tombs, and mysterious puzzles and clues (all good stuff), but the script is filled with too much exposition and too much explaining.  At times, I felt like I was attending one of Dr. Jones’ boring college lectures.  There are, however, a small handful of sequences I truly admired, such as a motorcycle chase involving Indy and Mutt.  There is also a fantastically grisly and spin-tingling cliffhanger sequence involving Indy fighting a Russian brute with giant, man-eating ants surrounding them (one pleasure of all the Indy film’s is the way they tap into our phobias about creepy-crawly-slimy insects to create suspense).  Mutt is also a nice addition to the proceedings.  He’s extremely good with a knife, even more talented with his comb (a running gag regarding his greaser-inspired narcissism over him constantly combing his hair gets solid laughs) and LeBeouf's chemistry with Ford is inspired.  

Yet, there are too many would-be thrilling set pieces that fail to...well...thrill.  A lavishly mounted chase sequence through the South American jungle which pits Indy’s car versus Spalko’s – with Mutt straddling between both vehicles and getting hit in the privates with foliage and tree limbs – elicits bad groans.  Even more cringe worthy is a moment where Mutt swings through the jungle, ala Tarzan, to catch up the speeding vehicles.  Another sequence involving not one, not two, but three waterfalls in a row – with the heroes’ boat going down all of them, injury free – reveals the film’s reliance of special effects fakery first and generating good, visceral scares second.  The Indy films all have a goofy, carefree exuberance to their action scenes, but too many in CRYSTAL SKULL seem to jump from sublimely silly to utterly preposterous. 

Even worse is the script's handling of supporting characters.  Ray Winstone, normally charismatic, has a lackluster, one-note greedy treasure hunter role that changes allegiances at will.  Even more criminally wasted is Karen Allen and her interplay with Ford.  The two were dynamite together in RAIDERS and Allen played well above her damsel in distress capacity, but her scenes with Ford in CRYSTAL SKULL  try to sustain themselves on manufactured chemistry.  We fondly remember their previous appearance together, appreciate seeing them opposite of each other again, and this, furthermore, is expected to generate our investment.  Allen is given so little to do in the film, other than to have a lot of lame dialogue exchanges and arguments with Indy on one hand and then swoon over him when he tells her that – gosh darn it – she’s irreplaceable.  There is no spark here between the two, and their banter lacks the subtle, sexual flirtation that Gweneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. had in abundance in IRON MAN.   The lack of dramatic and comic punch to Ford and Allen's on-screen duo makes their scenes free fall quickly.

There has been considerable concern over the film’s usage of CGI effects, not to mention Lucas’ insistence of an alien themed last crusade for Jones and company.  True, some of the computer effects get too cutesy at times (a small moment with prairie dogs, for example), but the previous Indy flicks were effects heavy and, if they existed today, would have utilized pixelized trickery.  The CGI here is not the red herring people think it is.  I think people will appreciate how Spielberg and his long time Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski attempted to replicate the gritty style of Douglas Slocombe, who filmed the previous Indy films.  The results are noble bit of copy-catting Spielberg's own younger style, if not with a bit too much polish and sheen. 

As for the MacGuffin?  There will be some that will despise the film’s focus on searching for extraterrestrial artifacts, but I think Lucas’ premise is congruent with the film’s time period and intended genre.  Yes, the previous Indy adventures heavily focused on religious artifacts, but if you can swallow Arks that can burn Nazis to bits, cups that Biblical saviors drank out of that can give you eternal life, and sacred stones with Voodoo like powers, then aliens certainly do not seem as out of place as it would appear.  Again, Lucas' underlining premise is not SKULL's problem; it's just the execution at Koepp's script stage that is surely lacking. 

Indiana Jones remains one of the most indelible creations of the cinema.  I hold a very special place in my heart for the previous Indy adventures (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK still remains the highest benchmark for the adventure genre).  Alas, the long awaited, $180 million budgeted re-teaming of Ford, Lucas, and Spielberg unfortunately stirs up PHANTOM MENACE-sized levels of disappointed and discouragement.  There is much to admire here, and seeing Ford so effortlessly jump back into the title character is an unqualified hoot that will send fanboys into a geeked-out fever, but the adventure he embarks on does not sustain legitimate thrills, suspense, or intrigue.  Lucas will, no doubt, get the lion’s share of scorn, but the real guilty culprits are SKULL’s uninspiring screenplay and Spielberg’s somewhat soulless direction.  The first 20 minutes were fantastically executed; if the only the rest of the film followed suit, then we would really have an Indy romp to sink our teeth into.

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