Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Film Review - INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL: The Whip Don't Quite Crack Like It Used To...

For the past decade the return of Indiana Jones to film-screens has been speculated and discussed with more religious fervour than the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant combined. As time marched on though, it seemed less and less likely to ever develop past the point of fan-fiction. However, occasionally miracles happen in that little town of Hollywood, and Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas all threw their battered fedoras into the ring once more to bring us the latest Dr. Jones adventure, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.

A lot has changed since we last saw Indy and crew ride into the sunset at the end of The Last Crusade, most importantly the demise of the Nazi threat. This time around it’s those blasted Commies, led by a dominatrix-like Cate Blanchett, up to no good, and seeking to capture unlimited power in the form of the cheesy-looking skulls of the title. Indy, initially forced into aiding the Russians, is soon racing to beat them to the prize, aided by a mysterious young greaser of dubious lineage named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf). Along the way they are joined by friends old and new, such as Karen Allen, resurrecting her Raiders Of The Lost Ark character Marion Ravenwood, Ray Winstone as Indy’s shifty accomplice, and a loopy old professor played by John Hurt.

Now, before digging into the details I’ll answer the million dollar question. No, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull doesn’t come within spitting distance of the level of quality accomplished by the first three series entries. It’s a reasonably competent adventure film with a few really entertaining set-pieces and enough tongue-in-cheek humour to (sort of) warrant its existence. If it were a National Treasure sequel it’d be a revelation, however as an Indy film it’s a bit disappointing.

When Indy IV clicks though, especially in the action sequences, there is a palpable sense of the classic magic that emanated from the original films. The first major scene, a Soviet-led Area 51 break-in, crackles with an excited sense of joy, as Ford swings from the rafters and engages in some nicely staged fisticuffs. As well, a jungle-set vehicle chase, while a little too heavy on CG (a major stumbling block for the film), contains more inventiveness than most of the films that the series inspired.

It’s unfortunate that the script, by David Koepp, lacks a firm grasp on how to pull all the narrative threads together. The film relies far too heavily on exposition, having Indy deliver long, tortured explanations regarding the crystal skulls, and their usage, history, etc. In previous films the artifacts were simply used as character motivation, with little information necessary. I dare anyone to try and recall anything of consequence about Temple Of Doom’s Sankara stones. The long-winded middle section of this film stifles the energy that is so vital to the enterprise.

Spielberg and Lucas seem desperate to make every event in the film bigger and more cartoonish than their predecessors, which hurt the film in a number of ways. The computer-aided immensity of the environments takes away from the intimacy of the series. Whereas previous adventures were filmed in real locations, which lent an aura of believability, the backdrops here just look... Fake. Also, whose idea was it to make the creepy-crawly scene here in CG? Lucas, no doubt. Animated insects have never been less threatening. The CG gophers I can (barely) forgive, but the finale flat-out doesn't work. It's big, but lacks wonder. And why is Winstone's character suddenly struck a paraplegic???

With those complaints notes, I must admit that the actors all seem to be having fun, with Ford typically engaging, however it’s LaBeouf who gives the standout performance. He completely understands the tone of the film and matches it accordingly. Winstone, Allen and Hurt inject good humour into their underwritten parts, while Blanchett is something of a frustration. The actress is game, but she never gets an iconic villainous moment, and her come-uppance is extremely underwhelming.

As an immediate experience, Indy IV is engaging and breezy, with a light-hearted appeal that most mega-blockbusters lack. It’s only in retrospect that the numerous flaws (a few of which I mentioned) become apparent. While I don’t think the film was necessary, or enriches the series in any way, I must say that I enjoyed my time at the Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull and suspect you might as well.

3 out of 5

P.S.: I can't believe I'm saying this, but Spielberg would have been wise to look to Sylvester Stallone for inspiration. With Rocky Balboa and Rambo Stallone demonstrated how to properly deliver follow-ups to long dormant franchises. He understood that you need to strip the iconic character down to his basic essence and place him in a story that emphasizes his mythic qualities. Indy IV needed to be more intimate and scaled back and not a tired attempt at meeting the typical bloated aesthetic standards of the modern blockbuster. Judging from fan reactions to the film, this theory has serious validity...

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