Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The opening of this latest Indy could be taken as a way to possibly deflate all the hoopla surrounding the film. The film begins with the Paramount logo, with its famous mountain, dissolving into a gopher hill. It's almost as if Spielberg is saying, okay I know you're expecting a lot and the anticipation is high but don't make a mountain out of a mole hill, or in that case a gopher hill. It feels self-deprecating, as if to remind us that this is not a film that's meant to be taken seriously, it's just meant to be fun.
Dealing with Russians in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of teh Crystal Skull (Paramount)
The action in this case picks up 19 years after Last Crusade left off. We find a military convoy heading out into the Nevada desert in 1957 as Elvis blares on the car radio. But it's right in the middle of the Cold War and the "soldiers" turn out to be Russians infiltrating an army base. They arrive at Hangar 51 (in an odd way this film may provide the perfect warm up for the new X-Files movie) and drag Indy (Harrison Ford) and his new sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) out of the car. An all-business Russian agent named Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett in a Louise Brooks style bob) informs Indy that he will help them find a crate containing some mummified remains that's lurking somewhere in Hangar 51. The contents of that crate set the plot in motion and leads to Indy getting suspended from his teaching job over suspicions of him being a Red; hooking up with the rebellious teenager Mutt (Shia Le Beouf) who needs help rescuing his mom and teacher; reuniting with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen); and trying to return a mysterious Crystal Skull to a temple deep in the South American jungle. Aw heck, that sounds like something Indy could do in his sleep.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, like Star Wars before it, took the Saturday morning serial to new heights - kicking up the budgets, production values and action. This latest outing doesn't top the energy and breathless sense of fun of Raiders or the delightful character development afforded by Sean Connery as Indy's dad in The Last Crusade . But the latest Indy adventure is head - or should I say skull - and shoulders above Temple of Doom (that grim misstep in the series). Kingdom of the Crystal Skull could use better pacing and more ingenious scripting, but Ford and Spielberg jump back into the saddle determined to have a good time.
At last summer's Comic-Con, Spielberg delivered a message to attendees stating that he was making this film "for them." He said he had to make other films for himself but Indy 4 was for the fans. This creates initially made me worry because designing a film to please a fan base isn't always the way to make the best movie. And the resulting film does have some things that feel clunky as Spielberg tries to tie up some plot strands from other movies. It also means that Spielberg tries to cram a lot into the film to please everyone. The result is a film that's carrying some extra weight and could have easily been trimmed down to a leaner, meaner running time.
Cate Blanchett as a Russian agent (Paramount)
That said, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull still delivers the goods. Spielberg and writer David Koepp (the only one credited with authorship of this final draft) stay true to the Indy formula by delivering more stunts and fights than special effects; by making sure to show Indy both in the field and in the classroom; and by maintaining a sense of humor throughout. The film addresses Indy's age early on with a reference to how it was easier to get out of binds when Indy was younger. Then in the first action scene in the hangar, Indy engages in some not quite dazzling maneuvers that poke fun at the fact he's not the man he used to be. But after this and a joke by Mutt asking Indy if he's "like 80 years old," the film pretty much lets Indy prove that he may be older but he's still Indy. And he's still pretty amazing. The fights and stunts have a distinctly American feel, avoiding the wirework and gravity-defying agility and grace of Asian action films. Instead, they are rough and tumble exchanges with a lot of slugging, and frequently involving vehicles. My favorite stunt involves Indy being pulled off Mutt's motorcycle and into a car with Russian agents. Battling the agents in the car for a few moments, Indy then climbs out and back onto the bike. Then the whole thing ends with the motorcycle sliding to a stop in the campus library where Indy answers a student's question about reading material. There's also a sword fight between Mutt and Irina standing on jeeps. The scenes push the bounds of realism but do so with an old school Hollywood flavor that makes them incredibly fun to watch.
Those Jedi mind tricks won't work on me! (Paramount)
Spielberg and Koepp also toss in a slew of knowing references - a spilled box at Hangar 51 reveals the Lost Ark, and Indy confesses to having ridden with Pancho Villa, alluding to something on a Young Indy TV show. Plus Irina tries to read Indy's mind in a manner that seems lifted from Obi Wan Kenobi and you half expect Indy to say "those Jedi mind tricks won't work on me sister." Then Indy gets to utter Han Solo's famous line, "I got a bad feeling about this." You get the feeling that former film students Spielberg and Lucas were joking around on the set and trying to sneak in references to each other's movies. Spielberg even closes out the film referring to his own movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. But that's all I'm going to say about that.
Indy's durability gets a severe test in Crystal Skull as well. This is a bit of a plot spoiler so skip this graph if you want to know nothing about the dangers he encounters in his latest outing. With his natural aplomb, Indy reacts to the discovery that he's on an atomic blast site with a simple, "This can't be good." But lucky for him there's a lead lined refrigerator to jump into and get thrown to safety in. (This escape plan is actually reminiscent of what the main character does in the Hong Kong actioner Time and Tide. ) Now it's a bit difficult to make light of anything involving a nuclear blast -- with Dr. Strangelove's nimble-footed and razor sharp satire being the exception that proves the rule. And while I wish they could have come up with some other "gag" to rattle Indy's cage, the absurdity of situation does recall how in Raider's Indy clung to a sub to travel across the open sea. And that basically set the ground rules -- credibility is not what these films strive for, and the blatant way they push credibility makes it play more as style than as mere lazy cheats. Plus my friend reminded me that didn't Indy drink out of the Holy Grail or at least touch it, and wouldn't that make him close to immortal or at the very least more durable than mere humans like us? Well why not! I'll buy that absurdity because at least it's consistent with the universe created for the film. No one is trying to be realistic so why bother to hold everything to a standard of reality that's obviously not meant to rule this universe. If you want to point out all the things that couldn't possibly happen, then you are probably not the right audience for this film. This is a popcorn movie meant for diversion and its cartoonish improbabilities are part of its charm. It doesn't embrace its big dumbness with the same audacity as Live Free and Die Hard , but it happily throws reality out the window, just like those old Saturday morning serials where the heroes were left in cliffhanging, inescapable predictaments yet when you caught up with them the following week they had always managed to miraculously escaped.
Shia Le Beouf, Harrison Ford and Karen Allen (Paramount)
Going into this, though, I have to confess to misgivings about the casting of Shia Le Beouf as Mutt. Now when Spielberg cast River Phoenix as a young Indy in The Last Crusade that felt right from the very beginning, and added a delightful dimension to the film. But Shia, of Disney TV fame, being cast in a role that seemed to be the heir apparent to the Indy franchise - that made me wince. Add to that the fact that he was dressed like Marlon Brando from The Wild One, and well it just seemed to be going from bad to worse. But fortunately, Le Beouf does more stunt work than acting and when he tries to put on the hat, Indy snatches it away as if to say this old man still has plenty of kick left in him. But I will say that when Shia's Mutt dips his comb into a glass of Coke to make his hair nice and stiff, that got one of the bigger laughs in the film.
Visually, the film is an odd mix of high and low tech. Spielberg obviously had money to spend but some shots look cheap and the crystal skull looks like crinkled cellophane inside a plastic case. At times the cheapness seems deliberate as if to tap into the way old movies were shot on soundstages where you could practically see the seam between the painted backdrop and floor. But the old school look isn't consistent enough to really sell it completely as a style choice. This kind of a retro look was done to perfection, though, in the spy spoof from France, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.
Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravewood (Paramount)
The success of the film, though, really rests with Ford, and as Indy, he still wins us over. He's a scruffy, tough customer who takes a beating and keeps on ticking. He's got a redeeming sense of humor and a matter-of-factness that's appealing. And when Ford's Indy meets back up with Karen Allen's Marion, Ford becomes downright boyish. Although I have some complaints about the script, Koepp does give Indy the perfect line as a retort to Marion's inquiry about there being other women in his life, he says yes but "they weren't you." Anyone who's been a fan of the films knew that Marion was his perfect match and it's great to see Allen back in the role and still feisty. We've missed the presence of a strong woman in the other films. Seeing the two of them together is quite satisfying. It would have been nice if Connery returned as Dad, but oh well.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images) is highly enjoyable pop entertainment. It doesn't capture the verve of Raiders but rather is quite honest about the fact that Indy, Ford and Spielberg are all a little older and a little slower. But the film works because they have all retained a sense of fun and still get a kick out of what they are doing. This isn't great art, just great fun.
Companion viewing: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Wars: A New Hope, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, Time and Tide, Live Free and Die Hard (with the 53-year-old Bruce Willis not acting his age)
QUICK ADDITION: There will be an outdoor screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation -- the shot-by-shot remake of Raiders begun by a pair of pre-teens in 1982 and completed more than a decade later. Spielberg was so impressed by their efforts that he gave his blessing to the project and helped the two young filmmakers get their film screened. What's most impressive is the ingenuity of these kids in coming up with cheap ways to imitate the expensive special effects. The San Diego screening takes place at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla on Thursday, July 10th at 8pm.
ALSO: I had a chance to see Indy 4 in both digital projection at the newly re-opened, state of the art digital AMC Plaze Bonita Theaters and projected in 35mm at the Reading Gaslamp Theaters, and I have to say that the digital projection was hands down the better, more impressive screening. At the Gaslamp the film began with the wrong gate in the projector, which meant the film was in the wrong aspect ratio, then the focus was off for a good ten minutes. But at Plaza Bonita, the image was consistently sharp, the aspect ratio and framing were perfect, and the audio sounded great. So considering that multiplexes do not have a projectionist sitting by each projector monitoring the screening, and that the art of projecting film is being lost, I am beginning to be sold on digital projection. So check out the new AMC Plaza Bonita for yourself and see what you think.