Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.
Starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Shia LaBeouf.
LVJeff's Rating: 10/10
Photo ©Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.
A Reliable Friend Returns
Do I have to review Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Some movies are beyond opinions and analysis. I love the Indiana Jones movies -- they exist to me as a fact of life, not as individual entities of entertainment. Their collective snap and dazzle are beyond my criticisms; they are exuberance personified. So ingrained are their very essences within my psyche that my only fear for Crystal Skull was that the new movie might not get the spirit right. But what was I worried about? Steven Spielberg and his crew haven't missed a beat. The movie feels so "Indy," it's as if the 19-year hiatus in making these films never even existed.
Well, maybe that's going a bit too far, since, after all, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is also that much older. The movie timeline thus updates about 20 years as well, the last adventure being in 1938 and this new one taking place in 1957. It's not the time of Nazis anymore; instead, the Cold War is in full force and we soon discover that Indy has even taken part in espionage missions for his country. But because we've only just now caught up with him, it's as if he and we are stepping into a brave new world together, well-displayed in an opening act that culminates in our hero staring up at a mushroom cloud (yeah, you'll just have to watch to see how that happens).
The franchise thus updates to the spooky '50s, all Red Scares and sci-fi paranoia. It's quite interesting for the movie to juxtapose Indy's rough-and-tumble matinee serial adventure style to a plot involving the possibilities of E.T.'s and close encounters (this is practically a Spielberg self-class-reunion, if that makes any sense). It's a daring direction, one that allows the series to stretch and the movie to distinguish itself at the same time. It's not exactly your father's Indy.
Well, it isn't, but it is. Didn't I say these guys haven't missed a beat? The Indy movies have always been about rollicking action -- not the kind with guns or martial arts, but something more analog, more dirt-encrusted, with lots of sweat, stunts, stamina. The set pieces are attached to a mystery/discovery plot that keeps us involved; meanwhile, the main characters' relationships are what keep us invested. None of this formula has changed, and Spielberg and his crew whip up (pun intended) a new adventure as if they'd been doing them forever, with John Williams's music and iconic theme blazing, Janusz Kaminski's shots reflecting the original cinematographer Douglas Slocombe's angles, pans, and tracking, and Michael Kahn's zippy pacing balancing exposition and action.
So it's a new Indiana Jones movie, and it gives us what we like while also giving us something new. It gives us a comfortable Harrison Ford, likeable again after a few recent dud outings. He's never so right as when he's delivering Indy's smirk, his smart-aleck-ness, and his fierce determination. This time, Indy also has some sadness -- time has moved on and taken some dear people from him -- but an encounter with a new kid (Shia LaBeouf) and an old flame (Karen Allen) shows that new rewards can be just around the corner -- and they're not necessarily made of gold. That's part of the lesson, always -- the quest for fortune and glory may be how it all starts, but those two things have nothing to do with the true treasures found at the end.
Perhaps I should say something of more substance about Crystal Skull. Maybe I should mention how the movie assuages our political sides, because Indy is a just patriot (having battled Nazis, now he faces Russians) who values knowledge and possesses identifiable humanity. Maybe I should mention Spielberg's father-son issues again. Maybe I can put this into the film's context of a changing world, emphasizing how unpredictable tomorrow is and how that relates to Indy's interest in the past, i.e. the knowable.
But then I'd be ignoring the loudest side of me, the one that understands this movie, along with its predecessors, is what defines "movies" for me. Fantasy adventures are a preference of mine, but I'm also quite picky about them. Something about their worlds have to feel just right, and the Indiana Jones movies have always felt just right. They feature believable people in extraordinary, perilous situations, but the emphasis in their adventures and escapes has always been on thrills, adrenaline, and humor delivered with earnestness. That tone is harder to nail down than most people may want to believe, but don't tell this to Spielberg and his crew. They might reply that it's child's play.
©Jeffrey Chen, May 18, 2008