Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008)

Twenty years is a huge amount of time especially in this age of very rapid technological advancements and global warming. If we are to believe Al Gore, we might actually get to see the green in Greenland in tweny years time. While twenty years is enough time for the entire humankind to change continents, it took the creative team of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas a little bit less than twenty years (it has been around nineteen years since Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) rode into the sunset in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989)) to mount another adventure for Hollywood's most famous archeologist.

Plotwise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull manages to bridge the two decade-gap, with Indiana Jones evidently carrying the physical burdens of old age (which we're constantly reminded of by several gags and jokes). Indy is forced to resume his adventuring ways when a group of Russian commies, headed by a very devious Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, sporting a hammy Russian accent, to my heart's guilty delight), plucks him out of retirement to locate a relic he unearthed long ago from Roswell. His involvement with the commies gets him into trouble with the American government, which is also busy penetrating into the atomic age (the film's most enduring frame is when Indy stands against a mushroom cloud; forget the flimsy science behind his survival and just indulge in the moment where pop icon is pitted against historical icon). He is sacked from his professorial job; runs into punk-with-a-mission Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) who turns out to be the son of a former flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); and gets deeply involved in Irina's obsession for finding the mythical city of the crystal skulls.

The story starts out thick with promise and intrigue. The idea of having Indy traverse through the annals of history (getting victimized by McCarthy's paranoid government, surviving the atomic bomb) and of having a film icon suffer through the repercussions of old age (which is becoming a Hollywood trend with the re-introduction of several aging screen heroes in Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, 2006), Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, 2007) and Live Free or Die Hard (Len Wiseman, 2007)) is witty. It's just too bad that Spielberg and Lucas' team cannot extend that initial fascination with their hero's humanity and his place in human history to deeper lengths, or at least beyond the occasional jokes. As such, history is a mere backdrop for the film; with the Cold War-scenario as plausible precursor to the film's slight 50's sci-fi elements; the recognizable moments as reason for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to compose frames worthy of the covers of cinematographers' journals and film magazines.

Spielberg and Lucas is clearly more interested in exploiting the franchise rather than deepening the lore behind the films. Thus, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is more of the same. It's not exactly a bad thing, but it ain't good either. The movie's a lot of fun, with its relentless jungle chases and its tomb-raiding, puzzle-solving, twist-revealing excesses. While it's a novelty seeing a sixty plus year old Indiana Jones dodge punches and breeze through traps, it certainly wears off easily. The movie doesn't have the same vitality, the same that made the past three Indiana Jones flicks so watchable. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like the product of a long-retired franchise revived and kept alive by a pacemaker. In other words, the movie runs on a mechanical heart. Spielberg's attempts to thicken the father-son angle between Indy and his son, and the love-hate relationship between Indy and Raven, remain to be feeble attempts.

Two decades after The Last Crusade, Spielberg has gone to win two Oscars (and a couple more nominations) and a huge chunk of recognition. His days of directing popcorn entertainment seem to be over, concentrating on more serious fare, or if not, films that have more depth than a riproaring adventure down the Amazon river. Dumbed down to cater to the requirements of the franchise, Spielberg's work feels unwieldly if not utterly embarrassing. Of course, Lucas hasn't grown much in talent during the past twenty years, especially if we're to base it on the failure that was the Star Wars prequels. His business sense is indubitable though. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, although hardly the creative success the twenty years waiting time would merit, is another success story for Lucas, especially when he runs to the bank with the millions of dollars earned from the tickets, DVDs (and Blu-ray discs), and other kinds of merchandise sold out of this geriatric adventure.


Marin Mandir said...

"The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like the product of a long-retired franchise revived and kept alive by a pacemaker."

Well said. Maybe I had to high expectations, but this movie didn't seem worthy of an Indiana Jones sequel. Still, it was rather fun and amusing.

Noel Vera said...

A good artist can do a relatively uncomplicated piece late in his career--I'm thinking of Matisse who suffering from cancer and confined to a wheelchair, started doing paper cutouts--which are considered among his best works. JG Ballard, who, having been confined to a prisoner camp in childhood, took decades before he wrote the straightforward "Empire of the Sun." Or Bunuel, after years of scathing, scatological films, came out with the overtly entertaining, lighthearted, conservatively elegant "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie."

I guess Spielberg wasn't capable of that kind of masterful simplicity

jayclops said...

I can't believe they survived the waterfalls! When I saw the deformed skull, I suddenly knew there was somethin ET-fishy about it. Hahaha.

Marin Mandir said...

"I guess Spielberg wasn't capable of that kind of masterful simplicity"

I think you're being unfair with that remark. Spielberg directed a masterpiece - "Schindler's List". Any director who ever directs a masterpiece has my respect for the rest of his career, no matter how many lousy films her directs. "Indiana Jones 4" was lousy, but part 1 and 3 were really very good.

And don't forget, in the last 10 years Spielberg directed a few unbelievably dark and great films, from "Saving private Ryan" up to "Minority Report".

Anonymous said...

I much prefer the fun Spielbergs to the serious ones. Serious is not his forte, he doesn't have the depth for it. He's the quintessential popcorn movie director and I mean it in a good way. I think the best of his recent outputs is Catch Me If You Can. His masterpiece? For my money it's a toss between Raiders and E.T.


Oggs Cruz said...

I also much prefer fun Spielberg to the self-conscious Spielberg, although I was extremely happy with Munich. I think what Noel is trying to say is Spielberg is unable to return to his "fun" side as conveniently as some of the directors he mentioned, which I believe is true.

Noel Vera said...

His masterpiece of fun may be 1941. ET is much too sentimental for me.

And if you like Schindler's List (I think it's okay, myself), please check out Alan Resnais' Nuit et brouillard (1955).

It's not quite a return to childhood these artists achieved; I think it's a form of childlike play, but achieved through full mastery of one's art. Mature play, so great it seems simple, easy (but it's not).

pacheco said...


I think you're pretty much spot-on with this review, especially in reference to some failed setups. When I saw that beautiful mushroom cloud and the interrogation scene, I thought I was in for a vastly different film.

But I still pretty much enjoyed the film I DID see....

Oggs Cruz said...

Hi Pacheco,

Nice hearing from you again. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There's just that nagging feeling that it's basically a movie made by adults trying to be kids again. The best parts of the film was when Spielberg was being himself; the weaker parts was when present Spielberg tried to emulate 80's Spielberg. Overall, it's merely okay...