Monday, June 02, 2008
The View from the Tank: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
I came into this movie with the lowest of expectations. When I first heard they were bringing back Harrison Ford to do one more Indiana Jones, I was immediately dubious. Why would they do this now, nineteen years after the Last Crusade (1989), with a guy that is now into his Social Security golden years? It's not like bringing back Star Wars, where you do a prequel with a totally new cast of young actors. How would this action movie work with a lead preparing to turn 70 in a few years?
The previews did not help. They looked like a mess of CGI, graphics people off the chain with too much money and too little restraint. Throw in Shia LaBeouf, as Indy's spunky sidekick (paging Short Round, Scrappy Doo) and things were looking pretty bleak.
The movie won me over with its opening sequences. Cate Blanchett was delicious (every review describes her this way -- and when, if ever, is she not the best thing in a movie?) hamming it up as the Russian baddie, Dr. Irina Spalko. The fantastic scene in the fake town set up at an atomic testing site, featuring a nuclear family of mannequins watching Howdy Doody in a model American home of the fifties, was one of the best and most provocative Spielberg scenes I've seen in years.
Much of the stuff that comes later is formulaic and familiar, sure. Weirdo natives with blow darts? Check. Cryptic dead languages only Indy can read? Check. Jokes about archaeologists needing to get out of the library? Check. European-accented baddies in uniforms lusting after the weird powers of the paranormal? Check. That's why we're at the Indiana Jones sequel after all, right?
Age has taken its toll, and that's undeniable. As other reviews have noted, Ford appears to have lost much of his range. He's aged into a somewhat rigid, frozen version of his prior swaggering, wisecracking self; he now delivers his lines in a clipped and terse, often overloud manner that makes him seem like a bastardized hybrid of Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston. Gone is the wide and rich range of facial expression, the twinkling eyes, the impish humor, of his salad days in the early 80's (see, e.g., Bladerunner, Star Wars, Raiders, etc.).
Still, he is pretty spry for 65, and his action sequences and fight scenes, to his credit and Spielberg's, are not laughable. LeBouef somehow defies my reflexive best efforts to dislike him. Perhaps the most courageous casting decision, and the one that ultimately won me over to this movie, was the decision to bring back Karyn Allen as Indy's old flame, Marion Ravenwood. She is not botoxed up or pancaked in make-up: she looks her age, and looks fantastic at that. She is a real joy in this film. Sean Connery does a decent job showing up in a photograph as Indy's late father.
The chase scenes were expertly done, as one would expect. They are cheesy -- but lest we forget, that's what this series is supposed to be: it's a homage to the cheesy popcorn flicks of the thirties. It's supposed to be a bit cornball, a bit over the top. The Russians and Nazis are supposed to be scary and weird, and the lost ruins and legends are supposed to be creepy and bizarre.
In the end, I couldn't find much to fault here. I found that the two hours went by quickly and I was entertained pretty much throughout. Sure, the CGI gets a little out of control near the end, but so what? I think many have forgotten that though Raiders was fantastic, one of the greatest films of the last thirty years, the sequels, Temple of Doom, and Last Crusade, were nowhere near as good. In fact, those sequels were pretty embarrassing at times. The movie could've slowed down here or there, between action sequences, to let us take in the characters a bit more -- there is a bit of a rushed, theme park ride feeling to this at times -- but given Ford's diminished range, that's probably okay.
So I don't agree with the raft of critics that have panned this movie. Crystal Skull is as good, if not better than the previous Indy sequels. I would have to say it's even better, considering how long it's been since the last installment. In the end, though, I did have a lingering feeling of lost opportunity: if only these guys had gotten it together and made this film ten years ago. We can't get the Harrison Ford of old back again. As Indiana's friend Oxley notes at the closing of the film -- perhaps in the filmmakers' mea culpa that they had waited too long to make this film -- "How much of human life is lost in the waiting." Indeed.
3 1/2 tentacles