A Study in Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

26 Apr


Okay, let’s see if this got any better in eight years . . .

So here it is, in my travels through “A Study with Spielberg,” I have finally arrived at the most reviled movie that this great director ever made, the most hated sequel since The Phantom Menace.  In the past eight years  I have both defended this movie for what it is, and reviled it for what it ain’t – and I’ve had fun doing both.  But now I’ve come back around again to see which is actually the case.  Is it the barnacle that history has made it out to be, or is it a basically good movie that just got soured by a swirl of buzz?  Actually . . . it’s both.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a prime illustration of the destructive power of internet buzz.  Back in 2008 the movie received critical praise and critical gnashing both at the same time.  The public didn’t know what to think about it, until they started talking on the internet and everyone decided that this was one of the worst movies they’d ever seen.  Based on what I heard from film fans just after seeing the movie at the time (most of it being lightly positive), I have a feeling that its troubled reputation came less from the movie then from the commonality of negative air floating through cyberspace.  That doesn’t make the movie great, but I definitely think it made the movie worse in some people’s minds.  Is that fair?  No, but I took another look at the movie just to see for myself.

Sitting down to watch the movie again – I hadn’t seen it since 2008 – I watched it with fresh eyes.  I wanted to focus completely on the story, the characters, the goals, and the action without the hype getting in the way.  For the most part I think the movie does work.  It isn’t nearly as bad as its historic reputation, but I can’t call it anywhere near great.  It is deeply problematic and this time I think I understand why.

The whole movie is a downward slide.  It starts out brilliantly and then slides downhill, gets worse and then arrives at a wrong-headed conclusion that still has me shaking my head.

What did I like?  Well, the plot has something at stake that I think feels palatable – the commies want the crystal skull so it can twist our minds and bend the world to their will.  That’s a pretty nefarious goal, and one that is cause for concern.  I felt that this had more urgency than the Nazi’s  desire to find the Holy Grail.  I liked that the villains are Russians because, in the 1950s, who else would America have a problem with?  I liked Cate Blanchett as the ice-blooded Irina Spako, a Russian she-beast who stops at one point to suggest, just suggest, that she might rip out Indy’s heart.

Of course, I also liked Indy.  This is a character that I’ve grown up with.  Like James Bond, he’s a character that gets knocked around while dealing with the most powerful forces on Earth, but unlike Bond he seems far more vulnerable.  Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas obviously love this character and what Ford brings to the role this time is experience.  We sense a man, now in his 60s, who has seen it all and done it all but he’s not done with the unforgiving whirlwind of bruising circumstance.  In a lot of ways, his young counterpart Mutt Williams is a mirror reflection of himself, a kid of inexperience with a bad temper and a nose for trouble.  I’m not going to say that Shia LeBouf gives a good performance, but I approach his character with a kind of ‘take it or leave it’.  He’s . . . OK, I guess.

I feel, however, that there should be a bigger deal about the return of Marion.  Of all of Indy’s girlfriends, she was the one that everyone remembers, a gutsy broad who was probably tougher than he was (remember that when they reunited in Raiders, she greeted him with a clip to the jaw).  Here, I think she’s underused.  We’re happy to see her but she seems to exist on the sidelines.  She’s here to dispense some important familial information but that seems to be her only function.  If I’m being honest, I think that the reunion between Han and Leia in Force Awakens had more weight . . . and they had far fewer scenes together!

The action works.  Despite massive internet growling, I didn’t mind the opening scene.  The warehouse was a bit too much fan service, but I liked the idea of Indy running head first into Boom Town.  It was a nice signal that his adventure had landed head-first into the 1950s.  I liked the idea that he escaped a nuclear blast inside a lead-lined refrigerator.  It’s just as silly and improbable as escaping an airplane in a rubber raft or escaping from a tidal wave in a mine car.  It’s just the kind of think I expect from this series.

However . . .

The plot goes off the rails once it hits the jungle.  There’s an exciting chase once the skull has been found but the plot goes haywire as the movie reaches its destination.  When the story gets back to Peru, this is where the plot should get more exciting.  The three previous films all had great final acts but this one stinks of desperation, as if no one on the writing staff had a clear idea of how to end it.

I’ll say it, The ending is just stupid.  I mean, come on!  Aliens?  Inter-dimensional beings?  A flying saucer?  The spaces between the spaces?  That’s not part of the legacy of Indiana Jones.  It’s like we’ve been on a journey to find a mystical skull and then the movie throws us into a lousy science fiction movie.  With 19 years and so much time available to the script, I think someone could have come up with an idea better than this.  The series up until now has always had a smashing conclusion.  What happened here?

Basically this is a decent though problematic movie with an opening that I love, a midsection that I can’t complain about, a kid that was so-so, a female lead that was underused and an ending that I hated.  On balance I think this is a much better movie than it’s reputation would have you believe, but I’m still not able to get around its problems to spend another evening watching it again.  I guess that’s . . . a compliment?



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