Movie Reviews

Half Ass Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Jun 10)

Did anybody really believe that the fourth Indiana Jones movie was real? It’s one of those things that we’d hear about every few years, with no real expectation that it was something that would ever exist. Sort of like Chinese Democracy or Iron Man. OK, that last one was a bad example, but it was in development for so long that it was originally conceived as a Tom Cruise vehicle, for Pete’s sake.

Even when the movie was officially announced and all the main players confirmed that they were on board, even when photos from the set leaked out, even when I actually saw a trailer, I wasn’t completely convinced. It was only when the movie finally opened that I could convince myself it was a real thing. After almost 20 years, Indiana Jones was back! And you know what? It was all right.

For starters, you’re going to be disappointed if you expect the same rush you got from Raiders of the Lost Ark. You’re not ten years old anymore, and a movie is never going to have that same effect on you again. True, Raiders stands up pretty well to modern-day viewing, unlike so many of those other childhood favorites. (I know this is blasphemy, but just try watching Star Wars entirely free of nostalgia – you will be horrified. I have a friend who didn’t see the original trilogy until a couple of years ago. She was not entertained.) But the fact is, now we’re old and much less likely to spend an entire weekend watching the same movie over and over. Unless you just got dumped and the movie in question is Anchorman. Ron Burgundy heals the pain.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull begins, as any Indiana Jones story should, with a big and silly action sequence requiring minimal set-up. Unlike the other movies, we’ve moved forward to the late 1950’s (which makes sense, what with the way Harrison Ford insisted on aging during the gap between movies) and the villains are Russians rather than Nazis. Actually, I think Cate Blanchett didn’t get that memo, as she plays villain Irina Spalko as the old Nazi-dominatrix archetype. (Hello, Google hits!) And now Indy’s in America, Area 51 to be exact. I’m not sure if it works that Area 51 is the warehouse where they stashed the Ark in the first movie or if that’s just a clever retcon, but it’s a good idea. It’s all good fun, but it does feature the rather dubious image of Indy silhouetted against the backdrop of a mushroom cloud.

The main story introduces Shia LaBoeuf to the Indiana Jones mythos as “Mutt Williams”, the son of a former flame of Indy’s. His parentage is just about the worst-kept secret in summer movies, but if you managed to somehow miss it, I’ll say nothing further. (Those of you who haven’t heard may also be surprised to know that the Sex and the City movie features numerous references to vaginas.) Mutt is a fun character, a 50’s greaser with a comb and a switchblade. As in Transformers, LaBoeuf makes the most of his scenes, injecting his dialogue with a cleverness that wasn’t necessarily on the page. Unlike in Transformers, the dialogue isn’t consistently crap.

Harrison Ford is solid as ever. A more senior Indiana Jones isn’t a problem, since Indy was always, well, human. He gets hurt, he messes up, he doesn’t always have the answer. For Indiana Jones to lose a step or two in his old age fits the character nicely. And, Crystal Skull brings back one key element of Raiders story structure forgotten by the other sequels: Indiana Jones doesn’t actually succeed. His contribution to the plot consists of not dying, and occasionally saving the bad guys the trouble of having to find something when they can just steal it from Indy. If you completely remove Indiana from the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it takes the Nazis slightly longer to find the Ark, and then their faces melt anyway.

Crystal Skull returns to that idea, with the Russians basically following Indy to the treasure and then being defeated by forces outside their control. I’m surprised at how many younger people (who need to get the hell off my lawn, quite frankly) were disappointed at the deus ex machina ending – that’s how an Indiana Jones movie is supposed to end! Hey, the first movie ends with God killing the bad guys. That’s just about as literal a deus ex machina as you can get!

But that does bring up the elephant in the room. This movie involves aliens. Not to the extent that George Lucas reportedly wanted. If I’m to understand correctly, he would have preferred the movie to be called Aliens from an Alien Planet with their Alien Artifacts, guest-starring Indiana Jones. P.S: Aliens. Which is still a better title than Quantum of Solace, really. I understand that it’s meant to reflect the pop culture of the 1950’s, as the other movies were rooted in the pulp tradition of the 30’s, but aliens still feel a little bit awkward in this context. Not movie-wreckingly awkward, but it still clashes a little. That may be my own personal bias where I don’t like magic and science fiction mixing. It’s weird and unsettling.

That aside, Crystal Skull is all kinds of fun. Between the requisite death-defying stunts and some nice character work (Bringing back Raiders’ Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood? Genius!), it’s everything you could want from Indiana Jones. The plot tends toward the incomprehensible at times (so what was the point of stealing the body in the first scene?), but even that’s forgiven when Indy’s fear of snakes pops up, hilariously, at the worst possible time.

It’s not going to change your life or have you debating the symbolism late into the night, but you’ll have an enjoyable time at the movies. That’s what Indiana Jones is all about, people.

Four Beans

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