It's not "a tribute to the old days of adventure moviemaking" any more — it is the old days. By that reasoning, we could call Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the senior citizens' special of the year. Or an amiably expensive timewaster. Or loads of fun for the easily amused — no, that's probably too dismissive. Or the Boomers' Revenge. Or perhaps it's just a popcorn movie made from, uh, mature corn.
Not that the laggard fourth installment of the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas/Harrison Ford adventures of Indy Jones doesn't have its moments. There are stunts, chases, fabulous sets (mostly CGI), the usual creepy-crawlies, sinister foreigners, Indy's trusty bullwhip, and plenty of vigorous hamming by an impressive cast of fine actors. Spielberg knows how to put the money on the screen. It's just that we expected a little more than what amounts to a rerun of the same '40s-matinee-style swashbuckling booshwah that was already looking tired back in 1989, when the series petered out. There's nothing fresh about it.
Word has it that the filmmakers revived the long-dormant Indy franchise "because they could." That same rationale has been put forward for all sorts of dubious endeavors. It will surely earn barrels of cash, despite (or maybe because of) the spectacle of Ford throwing his 65-year-old body off motorcycles and over make-believe waterfalls. Ford looks remarkably fit. If only we could say the same for the screenplay.
The action begins in 1957 at the height of the Cold War. Henry Jones Jr., aka "Indiana," who has resumed his post as tenured professor of archaeology at Marshall College (shot at Yale), gets dragged back into action when a company of Russian soldiers raids a US military warehouse in Nevada with the kidnapped Indy himself stashed in the trunk of their car. The Russians, led by officer Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), are after a strangely shaped skull made of a single piece of seamless quartz. It's the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe, or something.
Thus ensues a relatively modestly spaced but invigorating chase through the college campus on motorcycle, then on to various spots in the mountains and jungles of Peru, beset by scorpions, monkeys, snakes, ants, a quicksand pit, runaway trucks (again), a council of thirteen outer-space alien cadavers, the usual ooga-booga savages (again), a whirlpool on dry land, and a flying saucer left over from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It should be noted, in this green and patriotic year, that the filmmakers used locations entirely within the USA, including Yale and other Connecticut sites, Hilo and the Hamakua Coast in Hawaii, Deming and the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, Fresno, and the old reliable Universal back lot.
It's hard to believe this expensive bunch of writers — story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, screenplay by David Koepp, characters by Lucas and Philip Kaufman — couldn't come up with a more imaginative yarn. Crystal Skulls is no improvement at all on the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, although it's clearly a cut above Temple of Doom, with its offensive racial stereotyping, and the dozy Last Crusade, which contrived to make Sean Connery boring. The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Lucas' 1992 TV series, doesn't really count.
The new film falls back on the familiar formula of a quasi-spiritual MacGuffin (hint: The Treasure Is Knowledge, so be sure to stay in school, kids), a cabal of wicked foreigners (godless Russkies instead of godless Krauts), exotic locales full of trap doors and deadfalls, and the all-important critters. Spielberg & Co. deserve credit for maintaining the chronology — sexagenarian Indy ages into the late '50s at the correct rate — but the Cold War Soviet-phobia points up one of the chief problems of the Spielberg world view.
We realize that Spielberg, arguably the most powerful man in Hollywood, is intelligent and sophisticated in his own right. And yet in many of films he persists in re-creating the xenophobia and paranoia of the Eisenhower era — if for no other reason than to evoke the time of his youth. Inside the microcosm of the Indy Jones films there is no external reference point aside from other movies — the '40s-'50s-'60s sci-fi and war flicks Spielberg devoured as a kid, plus shameless quotes from his own work (the Ark of the Covenant makes a cameo appearance in Crystal Skull). That's too bad. We would expect Spielberg, at this stage of his career, to have gotten past that juvenile frame of reference and to feel confident enough to share a bit more with his audience — to let them in on the gag instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator. Crystal Skull possesses a number of virtues, but it's not particularly thought-provoking.
But what the hell, it's the first tent-pole of the summer. Ford looks great — rugged, rough, and ready. He and Spielberg could make a fortune doing Viagra ads, but they obviously don't need it. Maybe for Metamucil or Prudential Insurance. We can't blame Ford for going for the price. His career was made possible by Lucasberg, and even though only the first Indy will stand the test of time, this one serves as a reminder. Nevertheless, Indy is not quite in the same class as Ford's characters in Air Force One, The Fugitive, Blade Runner, or even Frantic.
Blanchett's Russian villain, with her Louise Brooks hairdo, snug Greta Garbo uniform, and that sword, is probably one of Indy's most notable adversaries, right up there with the Nazi whose face melted. "I want to know," proclaims Comrade Spalko — a dangerous wish in any Spielberg movie, but especially foolhardy when we get into that "forbidden knowledge" zone where the bad guys who want to know too much suddenly burst into flame. For what it's worth, Blanchett's Spalko is a far more convincing piece of work than her femme fatale in The Good German.
The production also rounded up a blue-ribbon cast of supporting players, although they have little more to do than to hit their marks for the blue screen. Karen Allen is still her freckle-faced, All-American-Girl self, reprising her role as Marion Ravenwood from Raiders. She has a little surprise for Indy this time around. Speaking of which, teen idol Shia LaBeouf (any relation to Sleepy LaBeef?) shows up as the requisite youth-market draw. Aside from Blanchett, he's the only principal cast member under fifty, and his swordfight with Blanchett kills a few thrilling minutes. Also on board is a trio of esteemed British thesps: John Hurt as a dazed archaeologist, Ray Winstone as a turncoat, and Jim Broadbent as a friendly prof. The filmmakers spent a pile of dough on all this, but that's nothing compared to the coin they're going to rake in.
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