Combustible Celluloid Review - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), David Koepp, based on a story by George Lucas, Jeff Nathanson, Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, John Hurt, Ray Winstone, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine
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With: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, John Hurt, Ray Winstone, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine
Written by: David Koepp, based on a story by George Lucas, Jeff Nathanson
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images
Running Time: 122
Date: 05/17/2008

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

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Searching for El Dorado

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Indiana Jones returns after 19 years of absence and 27 years since his first appearance. The actor who portrays him, Harrison Ford, is now 65 years old, but he jumps right back into Indy's skin without the slightest discomfort. Ford is the reason Indy works so well; he has planned out an entire orchestra of physical movements that demonstrate the character's conflicts. He moves with a kind of cautious lope, far from confident or cool. He approaches conflict with trepidation, and often seems surprised to find himself in yet another chase or battle, and perhaps even winning. He's not exactly what you'd call a badass. His main drive is his curiosity, childlike of course, and his insatiable thirst to discover the long-hidden secrets of the world. Danger is just a side effect. Ford was once asked if he would care to play Han Solo once again, and he said no. Asked if he would like to play Indy again, he responded, "In a New York minute." It's the role he was born to play. Because Indy has always shown reluctance and pain in his very physical activities, the older, wiser Ford still seems right at home.

Indy has become an icon, a cinematic equivalent to Robin Hood, Zorro, Tarzan or James Bond, with the exception that he only has one face, one body (Ford's). Bringing him back after this extended absence was a risk accompanied by an impossible level of anticipation. But Ford, writer/producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg have pulled it off spectacularly. Even after so much time away, this new film is easily the equivalent of its predecessors and perhaps the second best of the series. I loved watching it, and I can't wait to see it again. It would have been interesting to explore the concept of age in this film, and the talented screenwriter David Koepp adds one potent line to that effect: "we seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking things away." But Indy has always been about boyish things, and, as Alan Moore discussed in his introduction to Frank Miller's comic book The Dark Knight Returns, dealing directly with the subjects of age and mortality can provide an ending for an icon like Indy, and sometimes icons are not supposed to have endings.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull begins in 1957, and it begins with a bang. A car filled with sock-hoppers (recalling Lucas' American Graffiti) races past a caravan of military vehicles, blaring Elvis from their car radio. The caravan pulls into an Arizona military installation and we discover that these are the bad guys, with Indy and his partner Mac (Ray Winstone) kidnapped and riding in the trunk. Villainess Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), with her square, black haircut, jodhpurs, riding boots and saber, questions Indy as to the location of a certain crate in a warehouse. The Ark of the Covenant? No... this one is magnetized; Indy finds it -- with an inspired touch -- by throwing a handful of gunpowder in the air. (Spielberg then deliberately blocks our view of the crate's contents by placing a crowd of soldiers in front of the camera.) After a bit of a fight and a chase, Irina makes off with her prize. The resulting controversy causes Indy trouble at his university, but just before he can take his leave of absence, a young motorcycle thug -- dressed like Marlon Brando in The Wild One -- named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) approaches Indy for help. Mutt's pal and mentor, Professor "Ox" Oxley (John Hurt), has gone missing. Indy determines that Ox has gone looking for Akator (also known as "El Dorado"), using a crystal skull as his guide. But first Indy must use his detective skills to follow Ox's twisty trail, all the while pursued by Spalko and her minions. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) eventually turns up as well, and she and Indy have a few delightful moments of screwball sparring in-between punches. Jim Broadbent also briefly appears, more or less filling Denholm Elliot's Marcus Brody role at the university.

Many critics have complained of slow, draggy bits, but I disagree. Spielberg calls upon his oldest and most finely-honed skills to turn the film into a traditional, spectacular roller coaster ride, with rest spots, surprises, chases and escapes built in like a human pulse. Like the other Indy films, this one requires heavy suspension of disbelief to maneuver past some tiny plot holes -- my biggest question has to do with the supposedly magnetized crystal skull that doesn't effect certain vehicles, guns or swords -- but this one also relies less on bawdy, outsized humor to pass the time. LaBeouf's character for example could easily have turned into a Short Round-like comic relief, but he instead plays it refreshingly straight. My biggest gripe is that the film looks fairly set-bound, rather than filmed in actual jungle locations. One chase scene requires two or more vehicles to race through the underbrush for several minutes, and there are two nice, long road-like clearings conveniently located for the job. But the very nature and origin of the Indy series allows viewers to laugh off such contrivances; if Lucas and Spielberg's favorite old serials and rinky-dink adventure films can get away with little cheats, why can't Indy?

Once again, Spielberg appears to have fun just playing. In one spectacular moment, Indy is dragged into the window of a moving car from the back of Mutt's motorcycle. He dispatches the car's occupants and climbs out the opposite window, back onto the motorcycle. Spielberg gets a laugh by staying with Mutt, who instinctively pulls around to the other side of the car just in time to pick up the doctor again. In another great scene, Indy fights a band of soldiers; someone accidentally flicks a switch, turning on a huge digital counter, which starts at 10 seconds and begins counting down. Spielberg shows the counter only to the audience, while the fighters are oblivious. At the end of the ten seconds, Spielberg delivers the expected punchline, but then also a second, unexpected one.

I will confess a certain bias when it comes to the Indy films. I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark at just the right age, and I've carried Indy around with me ever since. As far as I'm concerned, these exhilarating and light-hearted films are the heart of summer, filled with outdoors and sunshine, adventure, treasures, chases and escapes. But I have my critical reasons as well. Compared to other filmmakers, Spielberg's skill has maintained a high level of quality and consistency nearly unmatched today. His action sequences are clear, bright and brisk; like Hitchcock, he can almost effortlessly control the heart rates of his audience. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn't comment upon any world problems or try anything artistically revolutionary. It makes reference to many elements of the 1950s, such as nuclear testing, Ike, Communists, rock 'n' roll and juvenile delinquents, and it even provides a kind of full circle for both Lucas (with the previously mentioned American Graffiti echo) and Spielberg (with a Close Encounters of the Third Kind echo), but doesn't do anything with these concepts other than simply present them. It's nothing more than a really good adventure film. But in that, it's the closest we've come in years to seeing the real Spielberg.

Indeed, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Indiana Jones films are the pinnacle of Spielberg's career. It's currently fashionable to choose one of his "serious" films, like Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan or Munich as his best film. But those films show a Spielberg struggling for acceptance, unsure of himself and usually bungling the film's ending in the process, providing too much explanation. He doesn't trust himself or the audience. With the Indiana Jones films, however, he's at home, relaxed, confident, unafraid to try ideas that might fail. He's like a modern-day John Ford, who won Oscars for his powerful dramas but is best loved for his Westerns. Ford's The Searchers was critically ignored in its day, but has gone on to prove itself as the best representation of Ford's vision. The Indiana Jones films occupy roughly the same place in Spielberg's canon. The "serious" films are easier to justify academically, but the Indiana Jones films are more truthful. They're like Charles Foster Kane's "Rosebud." All the journalistic or political aspirations in the world can't compare with a single moment of pure joy.

DVD Details: Paramount has released Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in four versions, a box set, a single-disc edition, a Blu-Ray and a double-disc edition. The first disc of the double disc edition comes with the feature film (available in 5.1, French and English, with optional subtitles), a featurette, "The Return of a Legend," and another one on pre-production. The second disc comes with a 12-part "Production Diary" (about 80 minutes altogether), "Pre-Visualization Sequences," other featurettes, galleries, trailers and an ad for an Indy Lego video game.

[See also: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), & Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023).]

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