Friday, August 8, 2014

FlashBack Friday: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday! Yes, it's been a few weeks since I reviewed The Last CrusadeThere have been a few new releases that have taken up a lot of my writing time. Plus, if I'm to be perfectly honest, I wasn't exactly looking forward to setting aside two hours to watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull again. Not that I've hated this movie. In fact, my history with this film is a little weird, as I've seen it only twice before now and had fairly different experiences each time I've watched it. The first time was at a dollar theater in 2008, and I remember being more or less okay with the film as a whole, though I thought the ending was a little confusing. It probably didn't help that the trailer for The Dark Knight that played before the movie, making me wish I'd seen that instead. Still, I remember feeling pretty positive about the experience, though I knew it wasn't as good as the previous films in the series. Over the years it seemed like people became more and more bitter about this movie, some equating it to The Phantom Menace in it's mistreatment of the beloved character. This passionate backlash actually made me curious to see it again, so I rented it one weekend when my wife was visiting family in 2011. I was a little surprised to find it passably entertaining, though my negative feelings about the ending had intensified dramatically. Well, oddly enough I'm maintaining my trend of seeing this film every three years, and yet again my viewing experience this time couldn't have been more different.

Perhaps my tastes have changed over the years, or maybe I've just become a lot more analytical. Either way, I knew I was in for a long, gruelling experience the moment this film began. Unlike the classic, foreboding intros we got in the previous films (well, the good ones anyway), we begin with an Elvis Presley song announcing to the world that this adventure is taking place in the 1950's. This alone wouldn't necessarily bother me too much, however just like with Temple of Doom this musical scene of teenagers racing their convertible against a humvee (or the '50s equivalent) full of Soviet soldiers goes on way too long and adds absolutely nothing to the story. With Raiders and Last Crusade, the introductory scenes are pivotal, getting right to the point and establishing characters and relationships that actually draw us into the story that follows. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, they use the first half-hour of the film to set up things that never come up again.

Before I get too far into my complaints, I do want to point out that I actually kind of like how Indiana Jones is taken back to the warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was stored. That vast city of mysterious wooden crates that we saw at the end of Raiders was definitely something I wanted to explore in a future movie. The problem is that we see hardly anything that would make the long-awaited visit even worth our time. If all we're coming to this intriguing location for is to find some alien skull that ultimately has nothing to do with the actual alien skull that everyone's really seeking, then I would've rather had this be some random warehouse or underground facility that has no ties to the previous films. A better alternative might have been to take us to a nuclear waste disposal area of some kind, which would more organically tie in to those Russia vs. USA themes Spielberg's half-heartedly trying to force-feed the audience.

Despite the nonsensical nature of the setting, this scene is chalk-full of inconsistencies and technical errors. Never mind the fact that the crystal skull is only magnetic when the screenwriters want it to be, or that an army of Russian soldiers (and a back-stabbing colleague) can't seem to hit an aged Indiana Jones with a single bullet to save their lives. I was actually happy to see some moments of amazing stunt-work, with Indy jumping off the rafters, swinging on a chain and kicking a Russian through a sheet of glass in one continuous shot. But there are other times when the laws of physics are simply thrown out the window. The scenes that tend to work best in these movies are the actual in-camera special effects and stunts. What's truly unfortunate is that Spielberg and Lucas decided to smear digital effects over almost every action set piece in the film.

Everyone knows about Indy's miraculous (and ludicrous) escape from the nuclear blast. It's infamous with fans of the series, who casually refer to ridiculous coincidences in other films that result in the hero's salvation from insurmountable odds as "nuking the fridge". It is an unbelievably stupid moment, and one that Spielberg takes full blame for including. I won't harp on too much more about it, as it's the story that makes me more frustrated than the implausible cop outs that are taken to get Indiana Jones out of tough spots. For example, after Indy is brought back to some U.S. base and scrubbed down, he's interrogated by FBI agents who claim that he's some kind of suspect for treason thanks to his involvement with the double-crossing Mac. Indy is then fired from his teaching position as a result of their investigation, and then is lectured by the dean of the college about the heightened paranoia of the U.S. government. Thank goodness we got all that set up about the political climate of the period, because it's really going to come in handy when the story takes us to South American jungles in search of an alien temple... oh, wait...

Then, the story feels the need to force in a long-lost son (played by the controversial Shia LeBeouf) so that Indy doesn't have to do anything cool for the rest of the movie. By that I'm not saying that Mutt's swinging through the jungle like Tarzan is cool, but Indy just seems to sit back and let other people do the interesting stuff. While I still like Harrison Ford in this film, the screenwriters really give him nothing worth doing the entire movie. They get out of every difficult situation by simply pointing the crystal skull at whatever is stopping them, and even the clues to finding the hidden temple are being spoon-fed to him by the brain-addled Oxley. I really wish they had cut out at least half of the supporting cast and had this be more of an Indiana Jones film than an imbalanced ensemble of people we don't care about.

Ultimately, the themes this movie sets up in the first act go absolutely nowhere. The FBI agents are never seen again, there's no resolution to the Russian/American tension, and most of the back-story Indy tells us sounds infinitely more interesting than the actual adventure we were given. Instead, they give us almost an hour of the characters driving through a CGI jungle, fighting off giant killer ants, swinging with monkeys, and surviving three impossibly high waterfalls without so much as a scratch. Even the concluding epiphany after the UFO finally disappears into another dimension doesn't have anything to do with the previous two hours of footage. "Knowledge was their treasure." So, is that some kind of vague tie-in to Mutt dropping out of college...? When was treasuring up knowledge ever set up or even mentioned in this entire movie? I mean, sure the Russians wanted knowledge, but look where that got them.

To wrap this rant up, I just was to say that there actually are a few things to like here (Harrison Ford's performance, the occasional Indiana Jones theme, some nice call-backs to the other movies, and a few decent action scenes), but unfortunately this ends up being a completely garbled mess of a movie. I don't know if Ford has another film in him, but I do hope they pull something together to make up for whatever happened here. Maybe if they keep it focused more on Indy, try not to point out how old he's getting at every opportunity, and rely more on old-school practical effects, they can have a better chance at restoring some of the magic to this series - or at least send Indy off with some dignity. I didn't think it was going to get worse than Temple of Doom, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which is a terrible title, incidentally) is the absolute pits of the Indiana Jones series. My lingering affection for the character is going to result in a higher score than it probably deserves, but I've decided to give this movie two stars.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images

**What do you think of Indy's fourth movie? Do you think it's total trash or do you find yourself defending it to your friends? Let me know in the comments below!**