Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Zaki's Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

These are the hardest reviews to write.

Not the unabashed rave or the unqualified thumbs-down, but rather the “eh.” The shoulder shrug. I had the same problem with last year’s Spider-Man 3 (which I never did end up reviewing) and such is the case with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a film whose illustrious lineage is both blessing and curse, and for which only the hypnotic, magnetic pull of nostalgia helps elevate it above the merely ordinary.

“It’s not the years, it’s the mileage,” said Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the nearly two decades (of real time and movie time) since last Ford donned his weather-beaten fedora and bomber jacket have provided the good Dr. Jones with ample doses of both. As Crystal Skull begins, our man Indy is caught up in a madcap adventure involving, among other things, Russian spies, a nuclear weapons test, and Area 51, not to mention a certain artifact sure to be familiar to fans of the series. Soon enough, Jones (Colonel Jones thanks to his exploits during the war) is ensnared in the Red Scare and drummed out of his cushy university job, his future uncertain.

Of course, this is all preamble to the real show, which has Indy, along with greaser teen Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), embarking on a quest from Peru to the Amazon in pursuit of the cranial bone of the title (possessed of mystical powers, natch). In the process he reunites with Marion Ravenwood (the returning Karen Allen), his love interest from the first film, and crosses through the usual gauntlet of fisticuffs and pyrotechnics. There’s more, of course, but we’ll get back to that in a second.

First thing first, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of seeing Harrison Ford, still fit and hearty at 65, back in gear as Indiana Jones. After fits, starts, and a development cycle that stretched from the middle of one decade to the end of the next, the promise that actor and character would ever reunite on movie screens seemed to slip further away with each passing year. The mere fact that Ford slips so effortlessly back into character after the interminable delay is impressive, and seeing him once again coupled with the strains of John Williams’ “Raiders March” is undeniable cause for applause.

In fact, if there are any complaints to be had, they definitely aren’t as a result of the cast, all of who march through their paces gamely. LaBeouf’s Mutt, modeled on Brando’s leather-clad Wild One image, and the combative mentor-student relationship he forms with Ford has echoes of the interplay between Ford and Sean Connery in the previous entry, 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Allen too is mostly agreeable in her return to the Jones series after a twenty-seven year absence.

Serving the villain role for this go-round is Cate Blanchett, doing the most she can with an underwritten role and a Boris-and-Natasha accent as Russian femme fatale Irina Spalko. The motivation for why precisely the Russians are seeking the skull is never elucidated precisely, but it involves the usual stuff about mind control, world domination, etc. So, with twenty years worth of anticipation, and with the alchemically rare reunion of Ford with director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas, why does Kingdom of the Crystal Skull not quite satisfy?

As mentioned above, there’s no doubt that at least part of the blame can be apportioned out to nostalgia. In the time since Indy last rode off into the cinematic sunset, an entire generation has come of age holding the previous three films up as a Holy Grail (pun unintentional) of what a blockbuster can be. The mix of star, director, and producer rarely stepped wrong, creating highly crafted, tightly paced, and consistently engaging films that remain as timeless today as when they first premiered (well, almost, in the case of 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

Still, nostalgia alone can’t account for the mish-mash of story elements that never quite come together in the new entry, as well as the needlessly confusing cosmic hokum of the film’s McGuffin. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the crystal skull as the film’s raison d’etre. (nor the sci-fi bent that Lucas championed during the entire torturous development process), it's the leaden, often ponderous execution where things fall flat.

The labyrinthine mythology surrounding the skulls is nearly impenetrable, lacking the simple clarify of the previous films' Ark of the Covenant or Holy Grail or Sankara Stones, for that matter, and this in turn leads to a third act resolution that is long on spectacle and short on sense. Without giving too much away, the effects-laden climax piles on the computer-generated whiz-bang to such a degree that it gives us more questions than closure. All of this in turn conspires to make the film's coda, what should be an emotional highpoint for the series, feel tacked on and arbitrary.

The question I was left with, more than anything about the ending, or the artifacts, or the various relationships between Indy and his supporting cast, was how, after two decades, this was the best that all involved could come up with. There’s a ho-hum, by-the-numbers feel here that, no matter how technically practiced, still feels emotionally hollow. One gets the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the filmmakers left it to the anticipation of seeing Indy again to entice most viewers, irrespective of what story was wrapped around him.

And, you know, they were probably right.

Ultimately this is all a very long way of saying that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a skillful and mostly mechanical summer blockbuster. It’s adequate, but not exceptional, and while that might be enough for any other movie, this is an Indiana Jones movie, and that can’t help but be a little disappointing.

B- (I just can’t bring myself to give this a C)


Andrew Wood said...

Terrific review, Zaki. You did a great job of reflecting a real fan's response to a movie that was not as good as we deserved but better than we should have expected.

Richard said...

Great review, Zaki. We actually bothered to see a movie in the theater for once and I can't believe it was this one. Don't get me wrong--it was a hoot! But there's nothing to it, no depth of feeling that makes me want to think about it afterward or see it again.

What a shame.

Paul said...

Well put, Mr. Z. I do agree with your thoughts on the creative team not coming up with the best story that could be told...

That being said, I don't want to tread into the whiny fanboy territory of spewing out all my great ideas for an Indy follow-up from my parent's basement...

...however, I don't think it would be wrong to expect a little better from Lucas and Spielberg.

Not to reneg on my review. I still thought it was great fun and I didn't have a problem with the alien artifact. I think a little more suspense and intrigue into the backstory is ultimately what was missing from this.

Anyways...I'm gonna end up retreading my review if I don't stop now...great review Z...I hope you churn out some more this summer as I always wonder when leaving the theater...I wonder what Zaki or Sean would think of this?

Don't forget about that OTHER project we discussed...

Victoria said...

Finally got around to seeing it today, and I'd have to agree with your review. There were some good moments and it was fun, but overall, it left me with a detached sense of the character relationships and asking "huh?" of the premise. Also, it felt a bit plodding. I haven't decided whether it will be gracing the shelves of my home cinema collection.