Thursday, June 19, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: A review

At what point do pulp heroes become superheroes? Your answer is the fourth entry in the Indiana Jones franchise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

I try to turn off my inner skeptic when I watch films like Indiana Jones. Gritty realism is not why I like the franchise, and I love and appreciate Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. But when you have scenes in which:
  • Indiana Jones survives a nuclear blast by hiding inside a refrigerator
  • A boy befriends a tribe of monkeys, and swings with them through the vines of a jungle a-la Tarzan, then lands onto the back of a truck moving at high speed
  • A jeep plunges over a series of three waterfalls--the latter close to the height of Niagra falls--and all the passengers come away without a scratch

then you've officially taken the leap from the exciting, over-the-top action that defined the best films in the fanchise into the territory of sheer physics-defying ridiculousness. Director Steven Spielberg routinely crossed the lines of pulp conventions in the Crystal Skull, and in my opinion greatly dimished the film as a result. Instead of a quickening of my pulse, I found my eyes involuntary rolling in their sockets.

Perhaps the worst offender was the scene in which Marion, Indy's love interest from Raiders of the Lost Ark, deliberately and blindly drives a duck boat over a sheer cliff. The boat lands on a tree branch, which bends just enough to cushion the fall, and lands them safely on the ground. It was bat-shit insane on her part and completely unbelievable.

What's worse is that the movie didn't need these scenes. There were some other terrific chase sequences (the motorcycle chase at the beginning a prime example) that evoked the best moments from the original film. I enjoyed the well-placed nods to the first film (the Ark), and I also thought the Crystal Skull did a good job of painting the period (the 1950s) with broad, colorful strokes, including the music, the cars, the duck-bill haircuts, and the political atmosphere of the Red Scare and McCarthyism. There was some clever humor as well, including a chase in which Soviet KGB agents are blinded by a "Better Dead Than Red" banner being carried by a group of college students. In general, I thought the Russians, led by Cate Blanchett, were fine replacements for the Nazis from the earlier movies.

But it seemed as though Spielberg and George Lucas (writer) were intent on one-upping all the great chases and escapes from the past films with sheer implausibility and overuse of CGI. And the ending ... well, the "aliens" left me cold.

Overall, I walked out of the theatre at the end of the Crystal Skull with the same impression I had of the Star Wars prequels: They certainly ramped up the action and the effects, but removed the soul that the older films had. The Crystal Skull, with a few notable exceptions, left me with the same hollow feelings.

My rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars. Although I hate to admit it, the Crystal Skull is probably the worst film in the Indiana Jones franchise.

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