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Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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Two weeks prior to its release, I wrote a review of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. My pre-release review was equal parts contempt and resignation, swirled around with a jigger of blogger’s snarkiness. It was a sophomoric stunt, to be sure, but one with a point: that this is a movie so predictable one doesn’t even need to see it to comprehend it. Sadly, I was right.

The review was educated speculation, and extrapolated from the inert trailers and lavish pre-release hype. Vanity Fair’s puff piece “Keys To The Kingdom” was particularly noxious and fawning. The coverage in Entertainment Weekly was so single-mindedly rah-rah it seemed Paramount’s PR department had taken up residence in the editor’s office.

In the blogosphere, reactions have ranged from bemused to apologetic. The short-tempered hotheads rush to defend their embrace of mediocrity. “It’s supposed to be entertainment, not high art,” they’ll clamor. What a stirring defense. Paramount and a troika of mall cinemas’ most decorated icons invested $185 million dollars for 120 minutes of lowest-common denominator pabulum. Legions of bleeding hearts and press-kit plagiarists posing as critics trip over themselves to apologize for it.

What’s worse? The studio’s cold calculations of how much revenue can be extracted from a fourth Indy picture, or the blind enthusiasm of movie-goers who race to the theaters to reward those calculations, in naked defiance of quality? We’ve already seen large portions of Indy copied off in National Treasure and Tomb Raider, which were just copies of the original Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Now that I’ve seen Crystal Skull, let’s see how the reality of the film compares to my pre-release review. Here’s the opening:

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is like that awkward drink you have with your ex-girlfriend years later. You smile, you laugh, you tell a few jokes and try too hard to act cool, but your heart isn’t really in it. After it’s all over, you smile through the half-hearted hug, but deep down inside you know it was a bad idea, and you’ll be happier when it’s all forgotten.

Nothing to correct here.

Coming nearly 20 years after the last Indiana Jones sequel, Crystal Skull wheezes across the finish line about 10 years too late, the occasional sparks of charm dying off in an airless script that talks too much and manages to explain nothing at all. The whole venture is a schizophrenic mess, a patchwork of half-ideas held together with autopsy stitching. A-list writers such as Frank Darabont, M. Night Shyamalan, and Tom Stoppard all took a pass at the script, each getting shot down by George Lucas who used his digital wizardry to graft his favorite pieces together into an ungainly whole.

Again, nothing to correct. The film zips about like a child in desperate need of Ritalin, flitting madly from one underdeveloped thought to another. The Russians. The aliens. The missing son. The missing father. The missing love interest. The double agents. The skull. Weird Amazon tribesmen. There is no coherence or continuous thought, just reaction and distraction.

Worse is the George Lucas-inspired reliance on digital effects that robs the film of that tactile sense of place. The first Raiders was covered in sweat and grime and felt infinitely more real than the too-pretty digital sheen of Crystal Skull.

Every problem that besieges a blockbuster sequel is on ample display here. The guiding principles of “Bigger! Better! Faster! More!” feel like they were written on every page of the script. The whole thing starts off well enough, but like a wild mushroom hors d’oeuvre at a wedding, it promises a better meal than will be served. The opening action scene at a military base promises more fun than the film comes close to delivering.

I’d amend a sentence in the middle of that. The film doesn’t start off well at all. The opening warehouse scene is stiff and awkward. The chase through the Yale campus shows signs of life — Shia LeBoeuf’s best contribution — and then the film nosedives into incoherence.

There are moments through the first half where Spielberg feels like he might be truly having fun, free from the onus of ‘serious’ filmmaking. There are even moments of charm – including a cutesy wink and nod to the ending of the original Raiders. By the halfway mark, though, the erratically swerving screenplay throws Spielberg and the cast off, and they’re content to let the venture crash to a pointlessly noisy conclusion. The jeep chase through the jungle plays like the Nazi truck chase in the original Raiders, only this time the self-conscious corniness gets in the way. The wisecracks fly too freely and the clever camerawork can’t hide the tedium. The danger is too forced – especially with the Lucas-approved digital cliffs that Indy perilously hovers over, and everyone looks a little tired, as if they know they’ve all done this better before.

Also largely true. Indy doesn’t hover over a cliff, and the digital ants make for a nice bit of gruesome fun, but most of the first half is fun-free. The reveal of the city of gold plays like a 20-minute lift from the climax of National Treasure.

The good news is that there’s very little flop sweat on display. It’s almost impossible to tell if Ford is playing it cool, or if he’s stoned. Cate Blanchett plays a Russian special agent with a snap-on dominatrix hairpiece. She smartly marches about, preening through a cartoonish accent, her eyes lit up like she can’t believe she’s being paid to talk this way. Karen Allen comes off as happy to have a job, and Shia LeBoeuf is the only cast member who feels genuinely excited to be here, even if his character is the stock-issue perky orphan, like cousin Oliver from the Brady Bunch after a stint in a halfway house.

The only thing I’d correct here is the bit about Cate Blanchett’s eyes. She seems half-asleep. At the climax, instead of getting a memorable Toht-melting, we get to see a well-feigned green-screen panic in her eyes.

There isn’t any integrity at risk here. Everyone’s here for the easy paycheck, and nobody’s making any decisions that will jeopardize an infallible summer blockbuster. Already, there’s a retconned rumor floating around that Spielberg and Lucas originally planned to make five Indy pictures, and nothing about the finale suggests we’ve seen the last of Indiana Jones.

Couldn’t be truer, especially those rumors about making another. Overall, I was too modest in my original estimate of being 75% correct; it’s closer to 90%.

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is just another death-knell for filmmaking as a legitimate artistic medium. The bells have been ringing for the better part of the last twenty years, so it’s forgivable that few notice the erosion anymore. It represents the triumph of movies as expensive theme park rides – devoid of substance, merit, and fun.

With hundreds of millions of dollars invested in their production, these box office behemoths are equipped with safety belts, shoulder harnesses, and excess padding. No risk is too small and nothing is left to chance. The casting, product placement, and story design are engineered like a Volvo. Every creative decision is informed by fiscal safety over artistic need. The collective talent of everyone involved is focused as much on the placement of the Harley brand as any interest in the story being told.

In the end, the audience is more at fault here than the studio. If you will see it, they will film it. The true cost isn’t the fiscal rewards of unimaginative filmmaking; it’s crowding everything else but empty noise out of the marketplace. If you wanted to see a movie this weekend, your choices were largely limited to Indy, Iron Man, Prince Caspian, and if you were lucky, What Happened In Vegas.

In another decade, all that will be left on theatrical screens will be the safety-first rollercoasters of sequels, remakes, and mindless digital spectacle. New digital distribution formats are opening up all over the place, so intelligent and quality entertainment won’t disappear, but it will be shoved to more mundane outlets. Errol Morris’ stunning documentary Standard Operating Procedure deserves to be seen on the big screen and good luck finding it in a theater near you.

All the things that made the first (and second) Indiana Jones movies so much fun can’t be replicated. Memory is cruel and nostalgia is a bitch. Time and time again, audiences will race off to see something they once loved, but it turns out it’s like watching the corpse of a re-animated pet. It’s depressing that crowds flock to theaters to look backward instead of forward. Every endless rain of sequels all started with an original, and the magic of that first kiss exerts an unavoidable pull back to the theaters that overrides all reason and common sense.

As long as people keep Googling their exes, studios will keep cranking out sequels. Like those awkward get-togethers, the memory might be nice, but once the magic is gone, no amount of CGI Aztec pyramids will bring it back.

Sadly, it’s all too true.

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About Jeffrey Williams

  • Brad Schader

    Great and original review. I like the approach of writing a review based on what you think going into a movie and comparing it to what you think after. I would love to read more like this actually. I smell a feature =D

  • I agree. But my shallow reaction has to do with age: Jones, Marion — three decades of “experience” makes for interesting people, but not necessarily the appeal a film requires. Sorry.

  • Very good and funny review, JW.