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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

May 22nd, 2008
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I just returned from a midnight showing. What follows are my spoiler-free thoughts.

Boy.

They did it to me again.

I have never been more disappointed walking out of a movie theatre than I was after sitting through Star Wars: Episode I back in 1999. It truly never occurred to me that Episode I would be bad — and I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined just how awful it turned out to be.

Going into the first new Indiana Jones movie in 19 years, I tried my best to lower my expectations. The Star Wars prequels proved that George Lucas has lost quite a bit of his once-magic touch, and even Steven Spielberg has proven to be fallible (Anybody watched The Lost World or AI: Artificial Intelligence recently?). But still, I couldn’t help but be excited, and optimistic. It’s a new Indy movie!!!

Well, there’s nothing in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that approaches the mind-numbing tedium of Star Wars Episode I, or the sheer inanity of Jar Jar Binks.

But it is, I’m afraid, an exceedingly mediocre film nonetheless.

What’s good? Well, Harrison Ford shows more life and charisma than he has for well over a decade. I’ve had a habit of declaring to my friends that Harrison Ford hasn’t been in a good movie since The Fugitive (1993) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). (Do you disagree? Check out this list: Sabrina, The Devil’s Own, Six Days Seven Nights, Random Hearts, What Lies Beneath, K-19: The Widowmaker, Hollywood Homicide, Water to Wine, and Firewall. Yikes!) Not only have those movies stunk, but Ford has seemed rather lifeless in most of them. But here the Old Harrison Ford seems back, as if he’s delighted to be playing this iconic character again — and that energy really shows through in almost every scene.

What else is good? Wellll…the jungle landscapes of Peru, in which much of the movie is set, is an excitingly different environment than the settings of the first three Indy movies, which is fun. There are some great moments of action. And (OK, this is a tiny spoiler but anyone who has seen or read ANYTHING about this movie knows this already) its really great to see Karen Allen back on screen as Marion Ravenwood. Her smile is every bit as beguiling as it was back in 1981 in Raiders.

So what’s bad about the movie? Where do I begin. The whole tone of the film is way off. Moments that should be dramatic and emotional (such as Marion’s revelation to Indy in the quick-sand pit), or moments that should be suspenseful and dramatic (such as Indy’s escape from the catastrophic event — that I won’t reveal here — at the end of the opening sequence), are played for yucks. Even the traditional opening shot of the Paramount logo dissolving into a mountain shape (that opened the 1st three Indy movies) is played for a joke in this one. Every time I started to settle in and enjoy a sequence, it’s interrupted by a stupid joke (with the Shia LaBeouf Tarzan bit in the middle of the film being the most egregious).

Whereas the other Indy films (Raiders in particular) unfolded with a clock-like precision, in which one exciting sequence lead logically to the next as the jeopardy escalated and Indy was led through ever-growing obstacles, this film is a puzzle of questions. Why did the Russians need Indy in the opening sequence? How does Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) find Indy, and why does this rebellious youngster suddenly seem so eager to follow him around the globe? How exactly do Professor Oxley’s (John Hurt) scratchings on the dungeon floor lead Indy to an important location? What happens at the end to Indy’s blacklisting by the government? I could go on and on. There are some fun scenes, but they don’t really connect with one another, and I was often confused about where characters were, or how (or why) they’d gotten from one place to another.

The film really fell apart for me when I realized that, ultimately, it’s all been building to Indy and the gang having to re-trace the steps of one of the other characters. This takes all the adventure and excitement out of the narrative! No more is Indy visiting places no one has ever been, or discovering things no one has ever seen (or at least, haven’t seen for thousands of years). No, here’s he’s just going back to someplace someone has just been. Where’s the excitement in that for the audiencve?

And finally, there is the ludicrous ending. I’m trying desperately to give my comments without ruining any details for those of you who will be seeing the movie. Maybe in a week or two I’ll revisit this in my blog in greater detail, after more people have seen the flick so I can worry less about spoilers. But remember what I wrote earlier about my feeling that the whole tone of the film was off? Nowhere was this more on display than in the last 20-30 minutes, in which it felt like our characters had wandered into the X-Files movie.

I wish I could report otherwise, but while there is some fun to be had, overall the movie is a bust. To me, the Indy saga ended with the gang riding off into the sunset at the end of The Last Crusade back in 1989. This new bunch of characters with some familiar names off on a new adventure? Don’t much recognize ’em.

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