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

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As my friends in the back row will attest, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a movie best viewed high. Here's a film that will test survival skills. Not Indy's, yours.

The movie takes place in 1957 with Ford returning as The Man in the Hat. The old Nazi villains have given way to Cold War Russians, led by Cate Blanchett's Irina, a caricature searching for the title skull, an object which can literally blow your mind. Toss in a few stock characters — an Aussie, a young Marlon Brando from The Wild Ones, an old love interest, pictures of Sean Connery, flesh-eating ants, wild natives, and a few extra-terrestrials, and you have what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas now consider a quality summer film. Is it the age, or the mileage?

To talk of plot is to give the thing too much credit. There's really nothing here other than stunts and CGI effects strung together to form a story in only the weakest sense of the term. All the pieces are there, to be sure sure: trains, motorcycles, detonations, a love affair rekindled, a lost son reunited with a father, but we've been here before with all of this; most of it is unnecessary. I'm reminded of a line from another Spielberg movie — preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should. The problem is these elements are nothing more than hollow building blocks given no life. The movie is stuffed to the brim with accents, explosions, books, dust, skeletons, rocks, water, ants, and one spinning UFO. To call it a "movie" would be a stretch. It's more like a Disneyland theme park ride.

Crystal Skull
is terrible, and I say this as a huge Indiana Jones fan. Raiders of the Lost Ark is an all-time favorite movie. It set a standard and created a genre. The adventure was palpable. The characters, though exaggerated, were knowable and believable and thus likable. Indy wore down and by the end of the movie you felt his exhaustion. He didn't want to fight the bald, burly German mechanic around the plane because he was damn tired. The only thing that saved him was a timely propeller, not superhuman strength.

Raiders' genius was that it understood that Indy had to be both unbelievable but also fully human. And since he was human you didn't really know how he was going to get out of each situation, and that tension drives the journey forward. But today, in movies like Crystal Skull, each situation breezes into the next. When Indy is trapped in a town set for nuclear detonation, he hides in a refrigerator. As the town is vaporized his refrigerator flies through the air, crashes to earth, rolls for half a mile, and Indy tumbles out and walks away.

This scene defines the movie in a nutshell. So over the top, so implausible, so strained, it has given rise to a new Internet phrase: Nuke the fridge. It's the moment when a movie or franchise goes to hell and never recovers. In this case it's the obliteration of the requisite cognitive dissonance needed for an Indy movie. Are the situations bigger? Definitely. But then the escapes must also be bigger and then beyond the realm of plausible deniability to the point where there's no reason to even worry. If Indy can escape a nuclear explosion in a refrigerator then it is mostly pointless to buy into his mortality just for the sake of faux suspense for the rest of the film.

The 1981 Indy was human. In 2008 he is invincible. In this, much of the magic and charm is lost. Here is a movie where anything can happen and does, even if it's laughable and irrelevant. Crystal Skull has all the earmarks of poor Lucas films: too much CGI, too much commenting through the obvious, not enough human touch. Or, to put it another way, not enough of what made a movie like Raiders so much fun.

I know people get upset by even comparing this movie to Raiders, as if they aren't even remotely related. And that's fair because they're not, really. This movie has far more in common with The Mummy or National Treasure 2 than it does with Raiders. But it's worth pointing out for this reason — it was made by the same people and by looking at one and the other it shows how far even its creators have sunk.

The original Indiana Jones venture managed to be original, while also paying homage to 1930s serials. It was tightly wound, witty, and even thoughtful. We could learn something from a movie like that and about why movies like that are great. That movie, was created in 1981 by men with something to prove. Those men, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, became legends, and it's an incredible mystery that the same minds could hand us this 2008 wreck. I doubt if Raiders of the Lost Ark could even be made today without UFOs, or product placement, canned lines, or stock characters. Hollywood would never let it escape in such sincere form.

Crystal Skull
is the 2008 version of Indy and it's a bloated mess, amped up and hyped out. Tired, formulaic, and interminable. It's modern, sloppy, lifeless summer schlock, and on that level it does just fine, but Brendan Frasier belongs here, not Harrison Ford. It's not a bad movie because it's no Raiders, it's just a bad movie, and compared to this movie, Raiders seems as rare and untouchable as the lost Ark itself.

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