Dir. Steven Spielberg
Viewed: In the Balcony
Generally speaking I'm a fan of Mr. Spielberg. No other filmmaker made such an impression on my childhood imagination and my budding love for film. From Duel to Jaws to ET to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc, Spielberg was mainlining fascinating stories and rich wonderful characters into my most precious of memories. And not only that, but he filmed these stories in a striking fashion that was unrivaled in mainstream film at the time; creating images along with those stories and characters that are forever burned in the minds of a generation of film fans. For these early movies of his, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Empire of the Sun, Spielberg gets a pass on some of his many missteps of the past 20 years or so. It's not that I overlook such botched efforts like Hook or A.I., or turn a blind eye to the problems they have, but I can forgive him and easily dismiss the movies so that I can continue to look forward to his next one -- which at his rate probably won't be too far down the line. For every Hook there is a Munich, every Terminal a Shindler's List.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull falls short of being a smashing success, but it's entertaining enough to just avoid being one of his clunkers. Keep in mind that this is coming from a guy who sat through a marathon of the original trilogy at the Wang Center many years ago. I will say that I'll happily watch this one any day over Temple of Doom. That one is painful, Crystal Skull on the other hand is simply awkward and convoluted at times and never really gets off the ground. It starts and stops in a lot of places -- giving you scenes and sequences that promise to get the boulder rolling only to have it trail off to the side, awaiting the next push. Like Lucas said long before the movie was released, it's neigh impossible to live up to 20 years of anticipation. But there are some glaring issues that make this movie fall short of expectations.
We start off in the desert, Area 51 circa mid 1950s, about 10 years after the Roswell incident. After Indy and his colleague are pulled from the trunk of a car by Cate Blanchett's team of Russian goons we find out that he was on the ground crew in charge of cleaning up the Roswell crash site and now he's being forced to help the Russians find one of the objects pulled from the crash so they may use it for their nefarious means. And so it goes for a little over two hours. Indy gets captured, figures out some piece of the puzzle, escapes, gets captured again, etc. It seems Blanchett's been globe trotting in search of alien remains that contain super psychic powers that she wants to use to give the Red Scare even more menace. One problem is that the sought after crystal skulls don't really offer much in the way of menace or the inherent awe that comes with religious objects like the arc of the covenant or the holy grail. There is of course age old theories about some of our oldest wonders being given a hand in creation by extra-terrestrial (or extra-dimensional?) visitors, but as well as that idea being the lynch-pin of an Indiana Jones story might sound on paper, it comes off a lacking on screen. I can buy the premise for the sake of the movie but I can't help wishing they'd gone off in search for Atlantis or something with more thematic heft than crystal skulls.
But that's not to say there isn't some great moments to be found here. There's a beautifully executed chase sequence early on that winds through the streets and corridors of the university where Indy teaches. It's the sequence of the film that comes closest to sustaining that feeling you get in the best moments of the first three films, when you want to let out a hoot and a holler and run off afterwards to buy a Fedora. There's a few fleeting moments before and after this sequence and they're enough to keep you invested until the big finale. Harrison Ford is still fun to watch in the role, especially when he gets that long lost twinkle in his eye when he cracks some elaborate code or riddle. Shia LaBeouf actually helps the movie rather than harm it like some fanboys had worried. As hollow as Transformers is, I think he did ok there too. But he offers some actual humor and soulful moments in the movie and manages to fit in quite comfortably surrounded by Ford, Blanchett, Ray Winstone and John Hurt -- an intimidating cast a less experienced actor could easily get lost in.
Not that anyone's really given a scene to show off their goods. It's fun to see Karen Allen back in her Raiders part, and she appears to be having a blast judging by the wide grin she has on her face even when she has a machine gun blasting apart the windshield of a jeep she's driving through a jungle, but in her case that's her only contribution to the plot (unless you count giving birth to Indy's kid some 16 years ago as a plot point). Winstone's character seems to only be around to make groan inducing plot twists while Hurt plays crazy old guy strictly from the book.
I'm not going to compare this to Raiders. I don't think anyone was really thinking that this movie was going to top the original. So if we compare it to the scope of The Last Crusade it's easy to see why this one falls short. Not only was the dialog for Last Crusade written by Tom Stoppard, who's wit is sorely missing from Crystal Skulls, but part of the charm of these films is the globe trotting -- seeing that red line zig-zag across the map. In The Last Crusade we get taken to Italy, Germany, Spain -- throughout Europe -- when they're in those rat filled catacombs of Vienna and racing through the canals, I believed it. In Crystal Skull our two exotic locales are the Nevada Desert and the Amazon jungle -- both of which did nothing to prevent me from thinking that they ever left California. I know this series is supposed to be an homage to the B-movie serials of the past but they were always the classy, bigger budgeted extreme of the genre. I don't want to think that they're hanging out on a set in Burbank, I want the movie to take me to South America and make me feel like I can almost smell the sweat coming off of Indy's hat -- not the caft-service table just off screen and Harrison Ford's can of Ensure just out of reach. These back-lot sets also mean you have more boxed-in framing and no natural lighting. It's like they were hedging their bets from the very beginning and trying to keep the budget as low as possible. I guess some of the blame should be directed at George Lucas since Spielberg's only really been a director-for-hire in this series. I'm sure Lucas pushed Spielberg a bit towards his love of shooting everything in front of a giant green screen and filling in the rest later.
Well, hopefully Spielberg is saving his frequent flier points for Tintin. Crystal Skull won't make The Unwatchable's list but comes closer than I care to admit. I'm sure it won't be the worst movie I see this summer, and maybe coming off of the funny, witty excitement of Iron Man set the bar too high. It's enjoyable enough as summer movies go, but unfortunately you have to judge it as part of a series, of which it ranks a solid 3rd.