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Wednesday, October 15, 2008
  DVD Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I actually wrote about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull back when it was released theatrically. It wasn't a proper review, but I'd just seen the film the previous weekend and I felt so strongly about it I just had to get my thoughts down. And when I say I felt strongly, I mean I hated it. It was just so...unnecessary. Not only did it come nowhere close to the quality of the first three Indiana Jones films, the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, had an ending that was clearly meant to wrap the series for good (he and his father literally ride off into the sunset, with the implication that both are now immortal). So just the fact that George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford were willing to go back to the bullwhip and fedora well suggested, to me, that someone somewhere had a great idea for a fourth Indiana Jones adventure.

That very well may be possible. But if it is, that great idea managed to not get into the Crystal Skull script. I was initially pretty excited about the prospect of a fourth Indiana Jones movie. As much as I felt Last Crusade was a pretty perfect finale to the films, I figured Spielberg's involvement would keep Lucas' worst impulses at bay (I’m a Star Wars fan, so I have my share of bones to pick with that guy). I was wrong. I love the original Indiana Jones movies. Like most people my age, they occupy a special place in my heart. So I went into Crystal Skull with an open mind, wanting to enjoy it. It’s just that what’s on the screen is just weirdly limp and lifeless. Nothing crackles like it does in the original films. It feels like a feature-length, fan-made YouTube video, only they somehow managed to get Steven Spielberg to direct it and Harrison Ford to star in it.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull picks up in 1957, and swapping the Nazi villains from the original films for Soviet agents (led by Cate Blanchett). Indy is kidnapped early on by the Russians, who force him to help them steal the mysterious titular crystal skull from Area 51. This brings up one of my chief problems with the movie, which is the laziness of the screenplay. I'm aware that the Indiana Jones movies traffic the fantastic – that's one of the reasons they're so much fun. But there's a world of difference between suspension of disbelief-type stuff like, say, the plausibility of Indy's escape from the temple at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the casually logic-free nature of Crystal Skull. For example, the plot makes much of the fact that crystal skull itself is highly magnetic; when it's introduced, it can attract metal objects from halfway across a huge warehouse while still sealed in a wooden crate. An hour or so later, its magnetism nullified by placing the skull in a burlap sack. This laziness is also found in the larger plot itself; pretty much the entire movie consists of the Soviets capturing Indy and friends, forcing him to help them find something or explain something (about half of Ford’s dialogue is plot exposition, a lot of it delivered to Blanchett at gunpoint), then he escapes in a big action sequence, only to be recaptured several minutes later in another big action sequence, at which point the Soviets once again force Indy to help them find something or explain something. This happens literally about three times in the movie, and the bulk of the film's bland, totally unthrilling action sequences take place in this escape/recapture/escape cycle. The film also hints early on that Blanchett's character, Soviet agent Irina Spalko (who talks suspiciously like Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle), has some sort of extra-sensory powers, only to drop that whole concept midway through the movie without explanation.

As I said, I'm a Star Wars fan, so much so that I actually enjoy the prequel trilogy films to various degrees (though I won't try toVariations of this scene are repeated 3-4 times defend them as good movies; they just push the right combination of nostalgia and genre buttons to entertain me, but I realize, objectively speaking, that they are bad). And like most Star Wars fans, I have long since come to terms with the fact that George Lucas is in fact a talentless hack. He wrote and directed all three prequel films, but after the original 1977 Star Wars, he wisely contracted out the screenwriting and directing duties to others (something he should have done for Episodes I through III). But dating back to the ill-advised "Special Edition” re-releases of the original trilogy, before he took such a hands-on approach to the new Star Wars movies, it became obvious to me and millions of others that somehow Lucas had managed to completely misunderstand exactly what it was about the original films that made people love them. We liked the tactile, real-world model effects of the first movies, but Lucas couldn't wait to replace as many of the wonderful, charming practical effects of the original films with as much CGI as he could fit into the frame. Sure, that alien makeup is cool, but isn't it cooler if there's four or five little CGI robots buzzing around in the background? No, George. It's not.

Where I'm going with this Star Wars­-related digression is, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a movie that has George Lucas' fingerprints all over it. And he still doesn't appear to grasp what it was about the original Indiana Jones movies that really resonated with audiences. Sure, Steven Spielberg is the director, and, to my mind, he shares a good portion of the blame for the movie's ultimate suckitude. But Spielberg has shown himself as an incredible craftsman and technician, even if the films themselves have been less than spectacular (I think War of the Worlds has some really wonderful filmmaking in it, but I don't care much for the movie as a whole), but even he can't shine through Lucas' mess of CGI gophers and surprisingly mediocre green-screen effects. I'm not usually the type to rail against CGI effects for their own sake, but Crystal Skull is the first Indiana Jones movie with computer-generated effects in it, and it just feels wrong. Indiana Jones shouldn't have computer effects, or if it does, they should at least look natural, and not cartoony and obvious like they are here.

One issue I did not have with the movie that I sort of expected to was Ford's age. He looks fine in Crystal Skull, but the script seems sort of self-conscious about it, with characters (usually Indy himself) stopping every few minutes to offer some quip or another about how he's getting too old for this stuff, etc. And the film's set in 1957, so it's not like Spielberg and Lucas are pretending he's still young.

The only actor who really acquits himself well here is Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf's an actor I still feel like I should dislike for some reason, but he's been utterly charming in every movie I've seen him in, and he's quite good here as Indy's wannabe tough-guy son. The ending sets up the possibility of LaBeouf's character officially joining the family business, a'I think I've found the script. It's...not good.'nd as much as I disliked Crystal Skull, if his character does indeed take over the franchise, it could still be good.

The rest of the supporting cast is a mixed bag. I think it’s fantastic they got Karen Allen back to reprise her role as Marion Ravenwood from Raiders – as Indy himself says here, none of the love interests from the subsequent films came close to matching her – and her banter with Ford, while not as great as in the first movie, gives the film a genuine energy and humour while the rest of the script's attempts at comedy generally fall flat. Ray Winstone and John Hurt are both top-shelf character actors who unfortunately don’t get much to do other than mug for the camera. Winstone’s character turns on Indy so many times the concept of the sidekick-turned-villain loses any meaning at the movie’s halfway point, and John Hurt literally just wanders around dazed, getting on the nerves of the other characters – and the viewers. But worst of all, Spielberg, screenwriter David Koepp and Lucas (I'm throwing him in there too, just because) actually manage the feat of drawing the first poor performance out of Cate Blanchett I've ever seen. If there was an emoticon for sarcastic applause, I'd put it here.

Everyone involved is doing their damndest to make Crystal Skull feel like an Indiana Jones movie, and superficially, they're largely successful. But the original films were enjoyable for reasons beyond the stunts and chases and ancient temples, and that intangible thing that makes them great is entirely absent from Crystal Skull, leaving it feeling cynical and put on. It seems like Ford, Spielberg and Lucas are just going through the motions here, and it's really too bad. I honestly wanted to like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I really did. But this movie's just running on nostalgia fumes, and it's just not the same.



Lucky for me Steven Spielberg doesn't do audio commentary, thus saving me from having to watch this a second time (though I'd be pretty interested in hearing him describe what it was like to direct Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett to pretend she's being swarmed by CGI monkeys). The rest of the two-disc Crystal Skull DVD is filled with bonus features outlining virtually every aspect of production, from the seed of the idea for another kick at the Indiana Jones can 10-plus years ago (Spielberg mentions an older idea involving flying saucers, only to feel the idea was trumped when Independence Day came out) all the way through post-production. It’s pretty in-depth and detailed, and I found quite interesting despite my feelings about the finished movie.

The real meat of the making-of stuff is the 12-part ‘Production Diary’ mini-documentary, which follows production from the first day of filming through the last. There are also separate featurettes on the visual effects and music, the creation of the actual crystal skull props, the makeup process, a nice little tribute the cast and crew to salute their hard work, and most importantly, the creation of iconic props like Indy’s hat and whip. None are long enough to overstay their welcome, and some are more interesting than others. There’s also standard stuff like a collection of trailers and still photos, as well as a playable Xbox 360 demo for the recent Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures game. And rounding out disc 2 is a set of pre-visualization animatics of some of the movie’s big action sequences.

The coolest extras were on disc 1. ‘The Return of a Legend’ is a nice little look at the legacy of the films and the character himself. For fans of the franchise, it’s good stuff. There’s also a featurette on pre-production, which covers all the interesting aspects of the production, like the genesis of the story (fun to watch, considering how weak the film actually is), and the mechanics of getting the original cast and crew back together. It’s here that Spielberg admits that he was the final holdout, which would explain many of my issues with the sort of half-assed nature of the finished product.

I must say I was pretty pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Crystal Skull DVD, even if the film itself is kinda sucky. The picture and sound quality on the film itself is excellent, and the two-disc DVD comes loaded with features, in keeping with Paramount's solid previous Indiana Jones DVD releases. Too bad the film itself in this case isn’t really worth it.

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