Monday, June 9, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Funny story: I had just finished this review, when I met up with some friends who had seen the movie. They were both die-hard Indiana Jones fans, and you would have thought that this movie had caused them bodily harm. I really thought one of them was going to burst into tears or file a class action suit.

I don't quite see the movie as a personal affront, but it's not the series' shining moment. It is good to see Karen Allen again. Ding-dong!

This review is reprinted with permission from Primetime A&E (thanks, Trina).

As in the previous Indiana Jones movies, the fourth installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, features a rousing introduction. Our favorite rogue archeologist battles Russian soldiers, swings from the rafters of a giant Army warehouse, and ends up surviving a nuclear blast by utilizing a common household appliance.

Jones emerges to see a gigantic mushroom cloud. The year is 1957, and the message is clear: A man who makes his living through the past is staring right at the future.

It's a fitting opening because the storied franchise is also in unfamiliar territory. The previous chapter, The Last Crusade, was released all the way back in 1989. Harrison Ford, the most underappreciated movie star of his time, is now 65 years old and actually looks, well, old. Today's action movies are less concerned with characters and cleverness and more concerned with gee-whiz special effects. How else to explain the demise of regular guy action movies like the Indiana Jones series (or Die Hard and The Untouchables), where heroes have to think their way out of problems?

Indy is a (welcome) anachronism, like newspapers or young women who wear full-length dresses. Director Steven Spielberg and his creative cohort George Lucas were wise to bring Indy back for round four, but they've compromised, catering to a younger audience in establishing the franchise's future path.

In other words: uh-oh.

After Indiana survives the nuclear pummeling, his professional life takes a beating. Thanks to heat from the FBI, he loses his professorship. He's on the verge of traveling for a possible teaching job, when he's confronted by Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf), a young, motorcycle-riding rebel in need of help. The two most important people in Mutt's life, his mother and Indy's former classmate Professor Oxley (John Hurt), are in trouble over the Crystal Skull, an ancient Amazonian artifact with superpowers.

Oxley has left a "riddle" of clues leading to the artifact, which brings Mutt and Indiana to Peru, where adventure and the resilient Russian army greet them. Along the way, Indiana reunites with his old flame Marion (a still luminous Karen Allen) and employs a delirious Oxley to find the lost city of gold that is home to the skull.

The plot, or rather plots, isn't that important. We just need a series of events that keep Indy and his cohorts on their toes, which writer David Koepp and Spielberg provide in abundance. There's more: Spielberg is still the best action director working today; it's fun to see Allen and Ford swap barbs again; and the movie's pace never slackens. But it's not the same. It's apparent that LeBeouf will inherit the franchise in whatever form it takes, so a lot of time is spent establishing his character and his traits, even though Ford's casual, everyman intelligence was crucial to the previous movies' success. So many characters tagging along with Indy (Mutt, Oxley, Ray Winstone's double agent) prevent Ford from settling into the role, while keeping him and Allen from duplicating their sexy chemistry from Raiders of the Lost Ark. This isn't the victory lap I envisioned for Ford.

Crystal Skull does retain some of the chestnuts from the previous installments, such as the map with the moving red line and the amplified punching sounds, but Spielberg embraces the present, relying heavily on CGI technology. A lack of apparent special effects wizardry defined the three previous films, and it's the reason I was so looking forward to this movie. So many movies use these over-the-top special effects as replacements for creative storytelling, vivid characters, and great direction, which defined the Indiana Jones adventures. Do we really need to see LeBeouf swinging on vines like Tarzan? Isn't that what Michael Bay is around for?

The hard truth is that our beloved Indy isn't made for these times, and Lucas and Spielberg's attempt to cater to everyone is the proof. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn't a bad movie, far from it, but it's a sad commentary on the changing nature of the Hollywood blockbuster. Audiences apparently can't be satisfied with one great character, God forbid older ones. Special effects will gain more prominence, so much so that heroes and villains won't define them. If Indiana Jones isn't immune to this, then it's time to brace ourselves.

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