And, yes, your loyal, true believing World's Greatest Critic (self proclaimed) can add this one to the list, having officially seen all four Indy flicks in the theatre in their original run. This one at Midnight the morning of its release.
How was it? I liked it, I liked it a lot! Is it as good as the other films in this venerable and popular series? Well...
The film is not without its flaws in a number of areas. However, when it comes to the elements that make Indiana Jones Indiana Jones, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull really delivers. That said, in many areas this fact seems to be almost too obvious. At times, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems like a checklist of the things that make Indiana Jones great, marked off one by one without necessarily being vital to the story itself.
But what a story. Writer and Executive Producer George Lucas (who created the characters with Philip Kaufman) commissioned so many different versions of Indy 4 from varied scripters that time has taken its toll on the actors who play these characters. Ford himself is no longer of swashbuckling age (or so it would seem), while others had to be written out entirely due to either old age or (gulp) death. With Ford 20 years older, Lucas and company advanced Indiana Jones by 20 years, setting this film in 1957. The Nazis have been defeated, the Red Scare and Cold War are everywhere and the "Anything Goes" world of the 1930s is most certainly a thing of Indiana Jones' past now as much as it was ours when he debuted.
Thus, Lucas and his director pal Steven Spielberg (who has helmed every Indiana Jones flick so far[!]) have updated that "cheesy" Republic Pictures-esque matinee serial to the late fifties for a more mythical (as opposed to religious) other-worldly and somewhat paranoid action adventure. The result is some of the same type of fun, albeit for a different generation!
When we first see Dr. Jones he is the captive of psychic KGB Agent(!) Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) and her gang of uniformed Soviet thugs who have managed to infiltrate Area 51(!!). He and his old Archeologist buddy George "Mac" McHale (Ray Winstone) have been forced to help them find a certain crated artifact that "Top Men" have worked on. I'm not saying what it is, but I will tell you this: It's NOT the Lost Ark of the Covenant.
From here, Indy and his trusty whip begin punishing some Commies harsh as you please with enough tricks and traps to amaze just about anyone. The fact that Area 51 is revealed to be in the Nevada Desert (in 1957) proves to be more than a hint for Indy and the Reds. Let's hope they're all in the mood for Mushrooms!!!
It isn't long before Professor Jones is facing off with the new FBI and other paranoid government agencies, much to the chagrin of his other old buddy (and boss) Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent). Note: Denholm Elliott's Marcus Brody is revealed to have passed away around the same time Sean Connery's Professor Henry Jones, Sr. did, though we are shown their portraits in fitting tribute on Indy's desk.
This great film flatlines just a bit with the introduction of Mutt Williams, a motorcycle rider and scrapper who insultingly appears for the first time dressed like Brando in The Wild One. The fact that he's played by Shia LaBeouf doesn't help matters much. With Mutt's information (and Mutt annoyingly in tow), Indy must take a map-streaking plane down to Peru in search of yet another old buddy Professor Harold "Ox" Oxley (John Hurt) and Mutt's mother Mary Williams.
The fact that "Mary Williams" is revealed to be the current name of Raiders' own Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) certainly must give the viewer just a bit of pause when the adventure brings them all together.
Naturally, Oxley's search for the mythical (and magnetic) Crystal Skull soon becomes the quest of Indiana Jones as well as that gaggle of greedy Soviets, still led by Blanchett. The mysteries of the Crystal Skull are more than intriguing and worth watching for the viewer. It's a hell of a prop, too (thanks to Stan Winston Studios). Where did this Crystal Skull come from and why is it so abnormally shaped? What people created it and for what purpose? Where is this fabled temple the Skull belongs to and what are its secrets? The answers bring us deep into the jungle and, possibly, to the mythical city of El Dorado.
Interesting? Yes. Action packed? You'd better believe it. There is no shortage of thrills, chills and derring-do for a great many of the characters. Marion is still the tough lady she was almost 30 years ago and Indy himself proves to be almost charmed in his survival skills. A nod is paid early on to his age and that fact informs a lot of the story from there on, however this is wisely let go to any major extent, simply letting Indy be Indy at any age. There is a fair amount of CGI in this film (which is necessary to make Shia the Cow look like an action hero), but also a good deal of physical work, much like we saw in the prior entries into the series.
Again, though, there is the checklist aspect of this. Lucas, Spielberg and final screen-writer David Koepp seem to be mining the franchise for individual moments to re-use here either to simply add Indy-style action or to theoretically please fans. You've got Indy's fear of snakes, an enormous amount of icky insects, ancient mechanisms doing amazing things, car chases, car exchanges, the potentially duplicitous ally, the impossibly long falls and enough iconic focusing on "The Hat" to come close to self-parody (count the hat shadow scenes, folks). Even the whole "Don't look at it, Marion!" aspect is here! In true Lucas style, we do also get an utterance of "I've got a BAD FEELING about this!" Does it please fans? Absolutely! In fact, many of us were reflexively clapping during some of the more thrilling and familiar moments. After all, Lucas himself calls the inspirations for these movies "Cheesy" and they weren't all known for their originality. But Lucas and the gang also love these movies and one can tell that they cared about the product they were making.
Still the occasional acting flub (usually on the part of Shia), a few predictable scenes and a somewhat obvious "Revelation" all mar the finish of The Crystal Skull just a bit in their own way. Further, though the big secret in this movie is right up my alley, it's easy to imagine a lot of viewers being turned off when they reach the final act. I support Lucas' idea to advance the Matinee subject matter from that of the 1930s to the late 1950s, but even I was a little surprised to the extent that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull started to resemble something along the lines of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Scully and Mulder!
Lastly, there's the obvious franchise angle here. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had a certain finality to it, as does this film. It's hard to say that this film was made because Ford's career isn't what it was in 1989 (let's not forget, this sequel has been in the works for a long, long time). Still, Spielberg and Lucas seem to be setting things up rather clearly either to launch or to leave things open to more sequels. Can Ford keep playing Indiana Jones forever? Probably not, but the slow, but sure re-focusing of the spotlight from Ford to LaBeouf in this movie does give a bit of a cringe to the true fan. The very thought of Indiana Jones without Indiana Jones is a depressant. Look, I don't hate Shia LaBeouf and I realize Spielberg sees something great in the kid, but he is, quite simply, no Harrison Ford. Luckily they fall just short of "literally" passing the torch (or the hat) to Mutt Williams (try picturing that name in sweeping orange font on a movie poster), but the hints and suggestions here are far from the realm of subtlety.
Make no mistake, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a Must-See, no ifs, ands, buts, oaths, threats or rebuttals. Personally, I love this movie and I will be seeing it again on the big and small screen, possibly as often as I will revisit the first three in the series. Objectively, though, the film has its flaws. Happily there are many more Peaks here than Valleys, making this cool movie worth Three and One Half Stars out of Five.
The Matinee revival films of previous decades, like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars worked because they were self-aware and showed us just what we needed, leaving mysteries from each chapter to the next. Those of the 2000s, however, tend to show us everything and reveal every secret to a degree that not a lot is left to the speculative mind. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is every bit the spectacle that the previous films were with lots of quick visuals and nods to other films. In some ways we're shown a bit too much here. Watch all four films in a row and you'll see what I mean. I will, that's for sure. Flawed or not, this is a truly worth-while movie from a series (or serial) that never gets old! This one is highly recommended for anyone who loves the thrills and chills and derring-do, great adventures, music, magic and surprises that have come to be associated with the great Indiana Jones. You won't want to miss it! Grab the popcorn, tune into the thrills and just enjoy. Over-thinking it can lead to true hard-headedness!
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