Tuesday 24 June 2008

Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008)

Tuesday 24 June 2008
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: David Koepp (story by George Lucas & Jeff Nathanson)

Cast: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Cate Blanchett (Irina Spalko), Shia LaBeouf (Mutt Williams), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Ray Winstone (George "Mac" McHale), John Hurt (Harold Oxley), Jim Broadbent (Dean Charles Stanforth) & Igor Jijikine (Colonel Dovchenko)

In the 1950s, Indiana Jones becomes embroiled in a Russian plot to find a mysterious crystal skull of otherworldly origin...

It's strange to consider the last time Indiana Jones was in cinemas, we were essentially living in a pre-CGI world where Steven Spielberg was still 4 years away from discovering dinosaurs. But the seminal '80s blockbuster franchise returns, after 19 years in development hell, where nearly every Hollywood writer worked on an unproduced script for George Lucas -- who was too busy playing with his Star Wars toys to focus on Indy.

After all this time, you'd think the resulting film would be a polished gem, but it's actually a melting pot of ideas, characters and storylines from a dozen different minds and a hundred script rewrites. Inevitably, the screenplay's patchwork development is reflected in the finished film -- with every good aspect countered by an unfortunate misstep. The scales manage to achieve equilibrium, but the overall quality of Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (henceforth KOTCS) is resoundingly average, with sparks of brilliance and flashes of tedium...

It's the 1950s and comic-book Nazis have been replaced by comic-book Russians. I'm guessing we'll have to wait for Spielberg to tackle a historical Russian epic before he apologizes, a la Schindler's List. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr (Harrison Ford) is still a university professor of archaeology, and still has a nose for trouble. In the opening scenes, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a Russian woman who thinks a raven-wig and blue boiler suit is a good look, has kidnapped Indy and his middle-aged sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone), and taken him to a crate-filled warehouse in Roswell, New Mexico -- familiar from the denouement of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

As fans froth at the idea Spalko's after the Ark Of The Covenant, we're instead plonked into a storyline concerning the retrieval of a mythical Aztec crystal skull, with obligatory supernatural properties. Spalko wants the skull to release latent psychic powers, which she'll use to lead the Soviet Union to a Cold War victory over the communist state's enemies. "Same old, same old" as Indy himself mutters in one scene.

And that's a problem with KOTCS: diehard fans will already know 85% of what's going on (thanks to spoiler-heavy reviews), a post-X Files climate means most people will be 5 steps ahead of Indy's investigation (and unsurprised by the "surprises"), and everyone else will just be swept along in mild confusion -- waiting for the occasionally thrilling, but cartoon-y action sequences.

For the first hour, KOTCS is surprisingly solid and hits some highs. Even the lows (Indy surviving a nuclear bomb by getting inside a lead-lined fridge) have a pulpy, exaggerated charm. And even that love/hate Nevada desert sequence closes with an iconic shot of our whip-wielding hero dwarfed by the God-like spectacle of a mushroom cloud. I found myself remembering that glorious visual days later -- such was its awesome perfection.

Unfortunately, once you've acclimatized to seeing Harrison Ford looking more rugged and leathery as the eponymous tomb raider, and settle in for a decent adventure, KOTCS grows increasingly repetitive and starts overstepping its mark. Things take a dip shortly after Indy teams up with hair-obsessed, Marlon Brando-esque greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who ushers in the first red-line map sequence that has Indy plant a foot on foreign soil.

It's not a disastrous downshift, but the studio-based "exteriors" and computer-generated FX combine to give everything a false veneer. Spielberg didn't want to leave his family to film scenes in foreign locations, sadly. You could argue this doesn't matter in a franchise born from Lucas and Spielberg's fondness for cheesy B-movies (where falsities was commonplace), but location shooting and non-CGI stunt-work was part of Indy's appeal. The Venice boat chase from The Last Crusade has twice the excitement of a comparative jungle jeep chase here -- bloated as it is by CGI foliage, greenscreen sword fights and a ridiculous Tarzan moment for young Mutt.

By the time characters are surviving fatal drops over enormous waterfalls in a jeep with no seatbelts, you're convinced you've accidentally stumbled into a pre-screening of The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor. Indy was always an average guy with extraordinary tenacity and knowledge, prone to failing and resorting to desperate measures. But that Indy disappears after the opening Roswell sequence, to be replaced by someone who thinks it's a good idea to fire a bazooka inches away from his sweetheart's face, and nearly decapitate everyone in the ensuing explosion of wreckage.

As Spielberg grapples with the story's repetitiveness (most of Act II has Indy and gang being caught by Spalko, being forced to help her for a bit, then escaping -- over and over and over...), the actors do a decent enough job. It would have been unforgivable if Harrison Ford gave a half-hearted performance, so a lot of KOTCS success is down to the fact Ford brings Indiana Jones back to the big screen. Sure, he's older, grey-haired, slouchy, and body-doubled in many stunts, but Ford still delivers the goods with a laconic swagger. Ford lights up the screen when he grins (and suddenly it's like the '80s never went away), but it's a shame he doesn't have much to smile about.

Spielberg's latest muse Shia LaBeouf (the "new Tom Hanks", supposedly) is far better than he had any right to be. Ridiculous name aside, Mutt Williams is a worthy sidekick and, while it's obvious from the start what his secret relationship to Indy is, when it's finally revealed I didn't have a problem with it. They even toy with the idea of setting up LaBeouf as Ford's successor, and as much as I enjoyed LaBeouf here, I'm hoping that will remain a sly joke.

The rest of the cast are less successful. Cate Blanchett make a strong impression physically and is appropriately creepy-yet-sexy, but Spalko's a lazy characterization and doesn't deliver any malice. It's a shame, as I suspect Blanchett could have been superb if the script treated Spalko as anything more than an icy Soviet bitch. Half her success is down to the costume department.

Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood, in the film's biggest link to the old movies. Unfortunately, it's strangely non-eventful when she makes her belated entrance, and Allen's determination to appear as feisty as she was in Raiders, while actually resembling a ditzy middle-aged mom 28 years later, is one of KOTCS other disappointments. She's not awful, just shoehorned into events to be wasted.

Ray Winstone and John Hurt fare even worse. Winstone could have been great as a Sallah-replacement, but his character is empty and annoyingly switches allegiances every 20 minutes. The script even references this stupidity in dialogue, but knowing the writer understands the fault doesn't solve it. Hurt has a thankless role as a university egghead who's gone crazy after staring into the eye sockets of the crystal skull, so spends 99% of the film flailing his arm around and staring into the middle-distance. I half-suspect his role was supposed to be occupied by Sean Connery, as Henry Jones Snr, which would have given more credence to the reverence for the Jones family. No wonder Connery turned the offer down, if true.

It's beginning to sound like KOTCS is a terrible movie, but it's not. Certain things prevented me from hating it: the pop-culture significance of the character and franchise spoke to my inner child, there are a handful of well-executed action scenes (like a motorbike escape across campus), Harrison Ford's performance is good fun, most of the in-jokes and past references work, and a sense of old-fashioned fun permeates every second. For the fourth movie in a film saga approaching its third decade, KOTSC holds its own against the march of time and evolving taste.

I can understand why some people hate KOTCS, but also why many like it. For me, it's the worst Indiana Jones movie, but I still enjoyed watching it and would recommend it to friends. I even liked the controversial sci-fi aspect to the plot, which I thought made a welcome change from the religiously-themed adventures, and worked well in context with the 1950s -- a notable period for sci-fi B-movies Indiana Jones owes some of its existence to. It's just a shame the plot is so uneven, the majority of the characters unmemorable, and John Williams score (a highlight of the otherwise bland Star Wars prequels) is a cruel let-down. Honestly, the classic theme tune was hardly used! Indy's fear of snakes was also reduced to a single, silly moment in quick sand. Both unforgivable.

KOTCS may not have the style and panache of Raiders, the rollercoaster craziness of The Temple Of Doom, of the humour and humanity of Crusade, but it's a decent sequel that entertains for 2 hours. Just lower your expectations and be grateful it avoids a Phantom Menace-style debacle -- thanks to Spielberg's talent for polishing over cracks in a creaky story and Harrison Ford's undimmed charisma. The man in the hat is back, and that's all the incentive you need to see this.

LucasFilm/Paramount Pictures
Budget: $125 million
124 minutes