Monday, May 26, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull / ***½ (PG-13)

Indiana Jones: Harrison Ford
Mutt Williams: Shia LaBeouf
Irina Spalko: Cate Blanchett
George ‘Mac’ McHale: Ray Winstone
Marion Ravenwood: Karen Allen
Professor ‘Ox’ Oxley: John Hurt
Dean Charles Stanforth: Jim Broadbent

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by David Koepp. Story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson. Running time: 124 min. Rated PG-13 (for adventure violence and scary images).

There is a magic to the filmmaking skill of Steven Spielberg. No matter what the subject, his camera tells its story in a special way. There’s the way he zooms from a close-up of a hand, a face, or just an object to an even tighter close-up. He can tell little stories within the story with just shadows and light. He’ll follow a car chase with his camera at ground level so close to the tires that you think at any moment you could get sucked under the treads and shredded. His sweeping boom shots give his audience the sensation of grandiose flight.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”—the fourth installment of the adventuring archaeologist and the first in almost twenty years—is so ripe with material for Spielberg to sink his magical camera into that it drips with his unique directorial style. It is also filled with thematic and topical materials that have become signatures for both Spielberg and series creator and producer George Lucas. The opening moments give us Lucas’s obsession with the cars and music of the late 1950s, Spielberg’s recollection of the landscape of the American Southwest from his childhood, the terror that came following the world’s inauguration into the atomic age, the paranoia and blacklisting of the anti-communist movement of McCarthyism, and eventually the entire film finds itself in a plot straight out of the pulp fantasy magazine stories that must have informed two of the greatest science fiction filmmakers in history.

The film opens at Hangar 51 in Roswell, New Mexico. Embracing the Lucas signature of starting the story after the action has begun, we discover that a group of Russian KGB infiltrators, lead by the uber-cold Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, “I’m Not There”), have already kidnapped Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, “Firewall”) and his current sidekick ‘Mac’ McHale (Ray Winstone, “Beowulf”) to use Jones’s expertise to find a particular unidentified item at the large storage facility. Echoes of the music from the closing passages of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” let us know that we’ve seen this warehouse before. The scene explodes into a glorious escape sequence and establishes Mac as a typical Jones sidekick, never doing what Indy asks and generally getting him into greater trouble than he bargained for.

After an FBI debriefing, Indy finds himself a victim of the Red Scare and decides to leave the country. Before he does, he is tracked down by a young greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, “Transformers”). Spielberg and Lucas engage in a little hero worship of their own when LaBeouf enters on a motorcycle garbed exactly like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”. Mutt comes to Jones with a proposition to help rescue his former mentor Professor Oxley (John Hurt, “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”) and his mother from the very same Russians who used Jones to steal the item from Hangar 51. Oxley claims to have discovered the much-sought-after and feared Crystal Skull of Akator. The search for the skull and its purpose lead Indy’s team and the Russians on a chase through the jungles of Peru to an ancient Mayan temple.

While Ford’s hair is now grey and his voice filled with a little more gravel, he still retains all the spirit of the Indiana Jones character. Is it hard to buy a man entering the geriatric set as the centerpiece of such an action-oriented adventure? Well, if the plausibility of Ford pulling off the stunts he uses to escape certain death is going to be a hitch for some audience members, it is the least of the film’s believability problems. But to harp on the credibility of the action in this movie is to grossly miscategorize its purpose, which is to push the bounds of plausibility in honor of the grand extremities of popular entertainment.

LaBeouf makes a good foil for Ford in scenes where he acts as Jones’s sidekick but also provides the confidence of a full-fledged protégé of the durable archaeologist. And Blanchett makes for just as formidable a foe with her saber-wielding psychic as any male antagonist has ever been in the series. Only Karen Allen (“When Will I Be Loved?”) seems slightly out of place in the cast, reprising her role as Marion Ravenwood from the first installment. She adds a good deal of humor to the proceedings, but is never given the well-rounded treatment needed to reestablish the strength her character originally carried.

I read an early review from the Cannes Film Festival, which claimed that while the filmmakers tried their damnedest to recreate the adventure aspects of the first three Indiana Jones films, this one was devoid of humor. That writer must have had a very bad day before his screening of “Crystal Skull”. The movie is as rich with all the classic Indiana Jones humor as it is with the overabundance of signatures from Spielberg and Lucas. One scene exploits Indy’s well-established fear of snakes to gut-wrenching hilarity. And Ford still has the magic touch when delivering his down-to-earth take on all the ridiculous developments which surround him.

This story does travel a little farther into the land of the bizarre than the previous episodes, but when you’re talking about a series that has already brought you a box that melts people’s faces off, a man who can reach into the chest of his victims and pull out their still-beating heart, and a 400 year-old knight guarding the cup of life crafted by Christ himself—really, where are you gonna go? Spielberg and Lucas have created a worthy extension of one of the greatest film franchises ever to grace the screen. And it is indeed delicious.

1 comment:

Alan Bacchus said...

Great review Andrew.