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Saturday, 21 December 2013

CLASSIC INDY: 'INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL' FILM REVIEW (2008)

Indy discovers he's chosen the wrong friend... again! Images: PARAMOUNT/LUCASFILM

Reviewed by Scott Weller

I could go on all day about what a long gap nineteen years has been between films, and the very long road taken to ensure his return. I could go into detail about how he was originally conceived after its two creators built sandcastles on a beach inMauiHawaii. I could talk about the way the character and his screen adventures have been perceived by his many fans.

But I can’t be bothered to do stuff like that-it’s already been done to death by the press writing hacks in the last few weeks. The simple truth of the matter is: INDIANA JONES IS BACK! And boy, am I glad to see my old friend again, returning with a veritable bang on the big screen, back where he has always belonged.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL starts with an inspired new variation on the PARAMOUNT MOUNTAIN LOGO, which is pretty good fun in a Rock Wart outside Jabba’s Palace eating RETURN OF THE JEDI type comedy moment-though, right from the start, this probably proved too much for the serious die-hard INDY fans to swallow- I found it an imaginative and different way to begin the movie, and it made me laugh in a positive way-plus I’m assuming it is getting harder and harder for them to find new mountain superimposition gags! As with the other films in the saga, the movie perfectly captures the time period that it’s set in. And the 1950’s proves a much better grounding for the story than I was expecting, with just as much interesting historical material and menace (McCarthy-ism, the Atom Bomb, Russian mind control experiments, Roswell) to be used as there was when the films were previously set in the 1930’s (and if you don’t know some of the Fifties references, like “I like Ike” and McCarthy-ism, then go and check them out for yourself on GOOGLE). The Russians (or film term: “Ruskies”) fill in well for the now done to death original comic book villain Nazis (who were far WORSE in their evil and inhumanity of reality than anything seen in these movies!! Though I’m sure if Spielberg ever did want to use them again, however, he could-most of the leaders fled to the jungles of Panama and South America, so I’m sure another villainous Indy evil-doer, with dreams of launching a Fourth Reich, could always be created!). The Red Menace's entrance is strong and, despite their relentless appearances to challenge Indy and friends during the film, there are also good opportunities to mine them for comedy-especially during the later Jungle chase. 

Older but not any wiser...thankfully! Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones.


The AREA 51 sequence that follows the jovial rock and roll start is a welcome one, again, as previous films, coming in half-way to an unseen adventure- with lots of invention and excitement, with well realized shifts of high action to high comedy and back again (I loved the look on Indy’s face when stuck on the front of the accelerator with his knocked out Russian adversary), followed by an eerie sequence in an Atom Bomb test site that wouldn’t have looked out of place in THE X-FILES (a sequence once more ending with great humour, though soon proving deeply controversial, as Indy escapes the blast site whilst locking himself inside a fridge-only an INDIANA JONES film could get away with this!). Some critics have complained that the film doesn’t introduce Indy in a more spectacular fashion-I have to disagree with this because by doing that it makes it look as if Indy’s been away-from us as cinemagoers perhaps, but in his own universe within the film, even though we haven’t seen his past adventures since LAST CRUSADE, he’s been pretty active these last nineteen years-the idea of him up to his old tricks, now captured by Ruskies and thrown out of the back of a car, worked well for me as both a set-up for the movie and bringing back our friend in an in-character way- as did the silhouette image of his picking up his hat-just as iconic an introduction as anything we’d seen before.

Indy goes in reluctant search of a top secret artefact.

And it is in this early sequence that we, as an audience, discover whether Harrison Ford, now aged 65, can pull off his return from a nearly two decade absence, and carry all of this movie, successfully (the subject of Indy’s age, having been much disputed by fans and critics over the last two years, and especially in the months leading up to filming, would often be unfairly directed towards the actor when deciding to resume the role). Amazingly, as if we really should have ever doubted him in the first place!, he certainly does live up to our expectations. And with bells on! I too have to confess that, at first, I was slightly worried that Harrison might not be able to convincingly pull off the action (and seeing action scenes on a small screen on your computer is not the same as a 70mm film screen). The first part of the well-made sequence at AREA 51 may have briefly showed that he couldn’t quite throw his whip as high as he could when he was forty (however, I’ve also discovered that a different whip expert was behind the new style-Anthony De Longis, who also trained Michelle Pfeiffer for BATMAN RETURNS), but it really didn’t matter-what was important was that he could still use it better than most people on the planet! And once he was starting to climb the boxes and scaffolding in AREA 51 and swing about with relentless gusto, his enthusiasm in the part, and the “smoke and mirrors” to which Ford had previously referred to in film-making, had soon helped me forget all about his age, though some nice gags about his physical condition would later be referenced throughout the film (mostly via the new character of Mutt). By the time of the jungle chase an hour later, the question of his age had now completely disappeared from my mind- I just wanted him doing more of it! Indy was back-the familiar glint in his eye, the scowl he gives the baddies, the almost world weary charm and humour, and the trademark improvisational edge he gives to fighting his enemies. The world has changed in 19 years but, fortunately for cinema audiences, Indy, and Ford’s unique interpretation of the character, has not. In real life and as the character, Harrison Ford, and Indiana Jones are above being natural phenomenon. They are icons as solid as Mount Rushmore. In the nicest possible way, seeing Indy again was like wearing a nice pair of easy comfortable shoes and I cannot stress enough just how good Harrison was in this movie. Though he never needed any help to guarantee an audience-everyone the world over loves him as Indy- Ford continued to do me/us proud in the role, still creating such a warm resonance with the audience, and giving a healthy two fingers up to AGE CONCERN at the same time!

Mutt (Shia LeBouef) is soon caught in the adventure...

Probably conceived to help Indy out with the action sequences (in case Harrison wasn’t able to do most of them-WRONG!), the archaeologist gains a new travelling companion in his newly initiated search for the Crystal Skull, and rising star Shia LeBouef has a great chunk of film time as Mutt-his first appearance is a memorable one, coming out of the mist of a train station atop his bike in a homage to Marlon Brando in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and his scenes alongside Harrison show that this young star, who has lots of charisma, will continue to rise in ascendancy. Though he must never replace Indy as the lead star (more on this later...), I’d certainly like to see him teamed up with his “family” one more time-no, I’m not going to spoil it, even though everyone probably knows by now! 


Cate Blanchett as the enigmatic and dangerous Irina Spalko.

Like every good equation, with every hero there must be an equally strong villain, and in this film Indy has a great one to tackle. Cate Blanchett, the ever talented chameleon actress, brings dedication, respectability and fun to what could have been a very cartoony part as the mind controlling, Russian military version of Belloq from RAIDERS-and despite her severe looks I thought she was pretty sexy in it, too! She brings the right amount of seriousness and wry “I’m in a fun movie” mentality to her playing of the part. Her physicality as a villain, immersed in much of the film’s middle action sequence, was also nice to see in comparison to the lack of action previously shown by villains in the other films. And she’s mean with a rapier too! Fans have bemoaned that she has little to do in the film and that her villainess is a just a caricature. Yes, she is a caricature, but so have many of Indy’s other past villains-Walter Donovan, Mola Ram- they are all cartoon villains in the best INDY tradition. Irina Spalko is an excellent addition to the roll call and miles better than Alison Doody ever was in LAST CRUSADE. Adding to the boo-hiss roster, though a little bit more could have been done with the part of Mac, Ray Winstone is also good as the continually turncoat “friend” to Indy-it was a little strange at first getting used to Ray in this style of film, and with his south London accent alongside Ford, but within five minutes he seemed like a part of the movie’s furniture. Also a special mention to Igor Jijikine, who played the vicious Ruskie thug Dovchenko, providing the strong muscle to fight Harrison in the way that the late Pat Roach did in his three classic INDY appearances.


With Karen Allen back for action, more humour is mined from Indy and Marion's reunion.

The idea of bringing back the ultimate female foil to Indy, Marion Ravenwood (believed to be by one of the films original writers, Frank Darabont), was an inspired one-we as fans had always wanted her back: the ideal fiery and determined woman for Indy’s character. Though older, Marion
, like Indy, is not any wiser, and Karen Allen gives the part as much spunk and charm as she can within the limits of the screenplay, and she still has a terrific, cheekily adventurous smile. Sadly she's not in the film as much as I would have liked but what there are good, though obviously not enough, between her character and Indy as the later comes to terms with the fact that he has some new complications-for better or worse-in his life.

Despite his characters importance in the film, John Hurt (who also introduced the film at the press screening I attended in London), though excellent as ever, doesn’t get much chance to shine as the missing, mentally unhinged archaeologist Oxley-which is a bit of a shame. Any hopes of his being Abner Ravenwood-father of Marion, with possible links to the Ark, sadly never materialized either. The ever amiable Jim Broadbent-who has come a long way since the TV comedy days of ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES- also appears briefly and does what he can with material originally conceived for Sean Connery, who declined an approach to return as Henry Jones Senior.


Our heroes with Professor Oxley (John Hurt) and the Crystal Skull.

On the subject of Connery… I was sad that he didn’t return for the final movie (he could have done it y’know-surely a brief moment, a few filming days away from the Marbella beach golf course, wouldn’t have been too much of a problem for the great man!), but ultimately I think his presence, if it had been beyond a cameo, would have added problems to an already very large main cast at the film’s end. I was also equally disappointed that Lucas and Spielberg elected to kill his character off within the missing years of Indy’s off-screen life. A little bit of me still thinks that, having drunk from the Holy Grail, he and Indy should be living forever! Despite this, the script intriguingly and effectively makes the most of the somber-ness of the news of Henry and Marcus Brody’s passing, with Ford, in a well played moment that brought a lump to my throat, telling the audience what a bad couple of years its been in his life in the run up to his new quest: a situation that leads to a resolution that makes his characters final scene with his new “family” all the more poignant and important both to Indy and to the audience.

And as for cameos, what about that General Ross, as played by Alan Dale from NEIGHBOURS- that actor pops up everywhere-24, ULGY BETTY, LOST and now INDY. He must have one helluva terrific agent!

As well as the steady ship of Harrison Ford as the titular hero, we all knew that the party wouldn’t be the same without the equally familiar faces behind the scenes that we’ve come to admire over the years- that same team that have always guaranteed that we’ll see a quality new adventure for our hero. Adding to the overall success of the film for me was that the films style, it’s feel, was exactly the same as it had been before-it was like it had never been away- all thanks to their film-making attitudes from the three previous INDY films (though Robert Watts, we missed seeing you at the party!)-there was no mucking about with a format that already worked so well and no changes were made to our wonderful hero-he was the same smart-ass, funny, adventurous and stubbornly defiant hero we’ve always loved and wanted to be like. Its pace was also pretty similar to the other films, though fans have quickly hated the way that the last half of the new one becomes a group sprint spectacle. To the defense of the film-makers, as if they really need it, I say think back to 1984- do you remember what the critics said about TEMPLE OF DOOM-believe it or not, many of them at that time thought the finale half four sequence of Indy fighting the Thugees, then the mine car chase, followed by the bridge, was too fast paced at the expense of the plot as well. And that was 1984! Funny how things have come full circle... Years later we got used to TEMPLE’s fast pace. Now it’s regarded as fine and classic INDY, and, with the benefit of time and repeat viewings we’ll eventually get used to this one as well.  

We must also mention some of the nice touches/references to earlier INDY films, too (I loved the Ark of the Covenant moment-the greatest weapon you could have to take over the world and they all missed it!)), and the way that our hero echoes the same I am not amused face to Shia on his bike that his dad did to him in LAST CRUSADE.

Double of triple crosser? Even Mac (Ray Winstone) isn't sure!

As is tradition, no INDY adventure would be complete without were some very effective, genuinely creepy moments that will linger in you and your children’s imaginations for a while yet-the skull faced poison dart wielding assassins at the grave site soon spring to mind, as do the cannibal CGI realized ants (in an excellent homage to the classic Charlton Heston adventure film THE NAKED JUNGLE)-proving a worthy addition into the pantheon of nasty critters that have loitered throughout the INDY films from the beginning. And the final scene with the transdimensional alien, which I thought was pretty scary just in its skull form (alongside some effective scary mood music by John Williams), literally sucking the mind and life-force from Cate Blanchett is just as nasty and equally good a death as any we’d seen before.

Despite the vast types of different movies he has made over the last nineteen years, Steve Spielberg’s work on the INDY films will continue to be all-defining to me, and age hasn’t affected his approach to this new adventure at all. He once again proves what a master of the craft he is, with beautifully composed shots, a keen eye for detail and characterization, a strong talent for creating strong action sequences and with a skill in editing, alongside regular colleague Michael Khan, that is almost second to none. I’d never trust anyone else with an INDY film-George Lucas may have created the character but Spielberg, alongside Ford, is what gives it the lifeforce that we know and love today. Spielberg was born to make these movies. Though his trusty regular collaborator, Janusz Kaminski, can’t quite capture the cinematography from the previous masterful eyes of Douglas Slocombe, it is still nonetheless impressive and not as stark and silver looking as some of his earlier films with Spielberg. And all of the cast are well photographed, too. The all-important set design, by Guy Hendrix Dyas (who previously worked on the equally challenging, almost retro look of SUPERMAN RETURNS), however, more than matches those of Norman Reynolds and Elliot Scott from years before- the atmospheric, trap ridden ruins of Eldorado, the sanatorium and graveyards of Akator, and the return of the Marshall University of Yale (which is shot once more in the same directorial style by Spielberg as he did in RAIDERS and LAST CRUSADE), plus a new look home for Indy (with reminisces from previous films and artifacts from adventures sadly never to be seen-except in our imaginations) are all brilliantly realized.

Other returning faces such as Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy are also great to see, and on the Sound Design front, it’s equally warm to have Ben Burtt return to the LUCASFILM family after his defection (and I mean that in a nice way) a few years back to PIXAR (look out for his work on WALL.E coming soon). Some familiar sounds from RAIDERS return, as well as the iconic Wilhelm scream. One terrific new audio concoction I particularly enjoyed was the scene where the guardians of the temple could be heard before their arrival-the sound of their deadly bolos reverberating in the air as they get ready to capture Indy and the gang.

Marion and Mutt encounter are caught in an unfriendly social gathering!

Even more important as a returning cast member-the true “soul” of the film-composer John Williams- returns with his usual enthusiastic gusto and remarkable ability to capture how we should be feeling about the movie, and it was nice to see him revisiting his older themes from previous movies-the RAIDERS march is as hummable, downright exciting and definingly nostalgic as ever, Marion’s theme is as beautiful today as it was in 1981, and there are equally good new themes-despite CINEMA RETROS comments that Williams was just phoning in his score! I’d like to see you do it, guys!- such as the eerie and haunting Call of the Crystal Skull melody, the cheerful and energetic theme for Mutt (almost a hyper orchestrated version of the RAIDERS theme) and the sublimely confident “I believe in Mother Russia”- esque theme for Agent Spalko. And his action music sequences have never been better, with this exciting, thrill-a-minute score for the chase through the jungle.

Supposedly a mixture of ideas from three to four different scripts over the last six years, David Koepp’s scripting, considering all the previous difficulties in getting the project off the ground, is full of good ideas and sharp dialogue but true depth in the screenplay is not there in the same way it was in Last Crusade. He does character well for the first half of the film before action and incident take complete precedent over for the second half-an unbalanced situation that may not be to everyone’s tastes. It’s a shame that Lawrence Kasdan couldn’t have come back to book end this last (?) film-it would have been perfect, but who knows if he were ever asked. For the most part, though, Koepp has pulled victory from what could have been the jaws of defeat-it’s still better than most modern blockbusters I’ve seen in the last twelve years, and does a good job of introducing Indy to a younger audience that might not know who the character is from the eighties, whilst hopefully giving enough solid story/inventive new action sequences material to keep us fans of old happy (though how much of which was improvised as shooting began by Ford and the cast/crew is unknown). It’s also nice to find out snippets of what Indy has been doing in the last eighteen years-as well as naturally serving his country during the Second World War (and a numerously decorated war hero at that!), he has continued to be an adventurer. There’s also some nice referencing to past films and the YOUNG INDY TV series which makes the latter more linked cannon-wise to the film series.

As referred to almost like one of the famous Hitchcock-inspired McGuffin’s, the inter-dimensional alien skull idea for the film proves interesting, tie-ing in well with the rest of the 1950’s era and it’s increasing penchant for all things Roswell and flying saucer men, and the quest for it proves actually stronger in this movie than the hunt for the Grail was in the previous LAST CRUSADE’s first half (though everyone knows that the character relationship between estranged father and son took prevalence over that actual quest anyway).


Indy shows some disappointment with Mutt as the action rages on.

CRYSTAL SKULL shows the world that action continues to play an important part in the INDY universe, breathing up new sequences that other film-makers now have to try and top all over again!! Past the ambitious AREA 51 sequence, the film also boasts a quirky, though perhaps a little over-long, bike chase through the streets of the Universities (and the end scene with the head of Marcus Brody buried in the lap of the Russian drivers is great fun). Additionally, the Jungle truck chase that follows later in the film proves a superb sequence worthy of the INDY name, well edited, exciting and full of incident-I loved the scene of Spalko and Mutt sword fighting whilst Indy was taking on six Ruskies on another jeep (and continuing to punch Ray Winstone’s traitorous Mac every chance he could!), the latter scene of Spalko hanging onto the front of Marion’s jeep trying to machine gun anyone and everyone else standing in her way to retrieve the skull, and the final full on punch up between Indy and Dovchenko (as good as the plane fight in the original RAIDERS) whilst the area around them is plagued by killer ants. Adding to the new talent mixing with the old guard, and with his excellent reputation for stunt work with Daniel Craig for CASINO ROYALE, British co-ordinator Greg Powell generally follows well in the tradition of Glenn Randall and Vic Armstrong, solidifying his already excellent reputation with this new work for CRYSTAL SKULL and it’s all defining last three-quarters of an hour of wall to wall adventure and escapades-his stunt arranging totally in synch with what physical action Harrison is given.

Adding to the spectacle prevalent to an INDY film, the use of CGI in the film is much bigger than Spielberg and Lucas had previously hinted at, but, for the most part, its good and fits well into the story-there is the terrific aerial shot of the Russian task force cutting through the jungle, the magnificent temple vistas in Peru, the gravesite, parts of the Jungle- all of these effects would have been in done in the old days with matte painting and models anyway, and these shots have been created just with updated technology. The major use of CGI is reserved for the end of the film...more on this later. Digital animals also come to reality here, especially in the jungle chase, though the audience may feel that Lucas and Spielberg have stretched credibility a bit thin with this TARZAN-esque homage scene involving Mutt and the chimps as they attack the Ruskies-many critics and soul destroyed die-hard INDY fans may feel the disappointing shades of the Chewbacca swinging across the vine sequence from RETURN OF THE JEDI all over again.


I have a bad feeling about this...

And as for more controversy, what about THAT ending? Well, it’s gonna be a very controversial one-you could see and feel the mixed reception with the press audience I first saw the film with. Lucas had warned people with the VANITY FAIR feature that the flying saucers hinted at in the film’s story might not go down well with a lot of people, and that he knew the critics were ready to swing their axes and sharpen their knives in that respect. And his instincts were proved right. So far, that sequence has received a mauling. I’m okay on it. In some ways, the discovery of the Saucer is the ultimate end to Indy’s quests (if this is indeed the last film). Not only has he found the greatest archaeologists in history with the Temple’s Custodians, but he has also solved one of the greatest mysteries of our time-do aliens exist? Against this fifties backdrop, the saucer appearance scene just about works. They could have played it safe- they could have just showed the final spectacular disintegration of the temple rather than the following shot of the flying saucer- but they (Lucas/Spielberg) chose not to. With the alien shown, for good or bad, they made a brave choice (and it was nice to see Spielberg still doing the reverse of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T., and keeping in line with his previous WAR OF THE WORLDS nastiness!). How film history/INDY fans eventually perceive that sequence, only time will tell...


Finally hitched...

Regarding the final wedding moment, well… I’m an old softie at heart so I really liked it- again, the audience will probably think it’s all too sickly sweet but I thought it was a nice touch (well...another ending after LAST CRUSADE’s original sign off into the sunset ending). And I loved the scene when Marion takes the initiative in making the first move in smothering Indy with a kiss! As for the possibility of Mutt taking the reins from Indy, well… as the final moment deliciously demonstrates, I don’t think Ford, or Indy for that matter, will let that happen…

So, in final analysis, how does CRYSTAL SKULL fit into the worthy pantheon of the INDY films? Well, as a book end to the first film, it would probably have been considered a stronger finale if LAST CRUSADE hadn’t previously existed and already wrapped the saga with Sean Connery and the aforementioned sunset finale previously conceived by Spielberg. No matter what the critics and the die-hard fans think, who once again bitterly moan that their childhood has been so-called “raped” by Lucas/Spielberg in the same way that Lucas did to their STAR WARS Prequel dreams (Yes, nothing will ever top RAIDERS-it was the first- it was unique), in just two hours of running time, CRYSTAL SKULL, alongside those two previous precious jewel-like INDY sequels, is still superior to most other recent action films. It's a more than worthy Indy sequel despite its faults. It still has its heart in the right place
 and wasn’t just contrived by a movie studio to make lots of money (I genuinely believe the trinity of Ford, Lucas and at first wary Spielberg ultimately made it because they wanted to!). You can take your second rate imposters like THE MUMMY RETURNS, and your NATIONAL TREASURES and put them in the cupboard-the real masters of the family action genre were back in business this year! 


Ford with Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas (note the infamous T-shirt!)

Lucas, Spielberg and Ford did their very best within a strict timetable window/opportunity to please fans and cinemagoers with this one more INDY film-we asked for it for years and they gave it to us (but why did it have to take soooo long..we could have had at least two more films in those gap years!) And yet, with all their dedication to us, the fans/audiences, from so many of the notices I’ve read over the last few days, are so upset after their mighty anticipations have been let down by the film-makers. Lucas, as with his experiences on the Prequels, and Spielberg are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Me, well I enjoyed every god-damn minute of it-I came out of the cinema smiling (and I don’t do that very often these days). It was nice to see Indy back, and truly back he was-age will not stop this man, nor will his thirst for adventure. And if there’s a chance, just a chance, of getting another Indy film within the next three years up to the quality of this one, fully starring Harrison Ford in action once more (before he reaches seventy), and alongside the same as ever production team, then I’d jump hoops to see it...

Steven Spielberg presents his cast at the 2007 Comic Con.

AFICIONADO REVIEW RATING: An enjoyable return to adventure for Harrison Ford as Indy: 8 out of 10.


RATINGS IN COMPARISON TO PREVIOUS INDY FILMS


AFICIONADO REVIEW RATING: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: Still the best and cannot be topped for its strong characters, rip-roaring action adrenalin rush excitement: 10 out of 10

AFICIONADO REVIEW RATING: INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM: Dark and daring, yet still in the best RAIDERS tradition: 9 out of 10

AFICIONADO REVIEW RATING: INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE: Humour and action mix well together, with fine charisma between Ford and Connery, in this original last hurrah for the Jones's: 8 out of 10. 

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