Sunday, June 15, 2008

Movie Review: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

Starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent and Shia LaBeouf
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Official Web site

Nearly two decades have passed since Indiana Jones hung up his fedora and whip, for what was thought to be the last time. But consistent urging from fans (and no doubt, executives at Paramount Pictures, the studio that has released the entire series) has brought Indiana Jones out of storage and reunited star Harrison Ford with director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas. Having long struggled to find a script suitable enough that the entire creative team could agree upon eventually led to “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” And while the fourth installment in the series is a welcome return to the big screen, it’s also the least satisfying of the quartet.

That’s not to say that the movie is a dud. Quite the contrary, as “Crystal Skull” features another winning performance from Ford as the history professor/archaeologist, along with a suitably wicked turn by Cate Blanchett as the primary villain this go around. There’s plenty of action set pieces on display here, with the opening sequence inside and out of a giant warehouse in the Nevada desert a particular winner. Spielberg even manages to find time to interject some humor into the early going, as Indy finds himself unknowingly seeking refuge from the Russians by hiding out at a nuclear testing site.

In fact, the first 20 minutes are generally so enjoyable that the remainder of the movie struggles to maintain that energy level, once the central story is unspooled. The script by David Koepp is, at times, overly convoluted, as it involves the search for a crystal skull that will give untold power to its possessor, along with the discovery of an ancient city in South America made of gold guarded by the undead (no, not zombies), and assorted otherworldly mumbo jumbo.

Set in 1957, the story tends to bog down whenever the characters have to stop to explain to each other (and by extension, the audience) what is going on and/or what they are attempting to do. After having spent the previous three films seeking out the Ark of the Covenant, a mystical stone taken from a peaceful village, and the Holy Grail, maybe Indy’s simply running out of interesting artifacts to find. But the crystal skull introduces an extraterrestrial element to the story that seems out of place in the Indiana Jones universe.

The movie fares much better with the interaction of its characters, including the introduction of Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a young biker who handles his comb as much as his switchblade. He comes to Indy with the request that he help him find his mother and Professor Harold Oxley (John Hurt), who turns out to have been a mentor for both men. Oxley disappeared while seeking the crystal skull, and Mutt’s mother also went missing after going to find him. The Russians, led by the icy villainess Irina Spalko (Blanchett), have tracked Indy down after being foiled by him in the desert, and are also in pursuit of the skull.

Making their way to South America, the heroes eventually find Oxley and Mutt’s mother, Marion (Karen Allen, clearly having fun with her role), who both have been captured by the Russians. It’s fun to see Ford and Allen back together after their good chemistry in “Raiders,” but there’s not as much interplay between the two as there should have been. The action sequences in the script largely push that aspect into the background, especially by the busy and overly CGI-reliant third act. It’s no secret that Lucas is a big proponent of CGI, but the movie makes too much use of it, rather than the old-fashioned stuntwork that was such a big part of the earlier films.

There’s still plenty to like in the fourth (and not necessarily final) installment of the series, as the story has no qualms about making cracks at the age of Indy, and this was certainly not an example of rich men going through the motions to collect a big paycheck. But approaching the film with tempered expectations would be advised. In interviews leading up to the film’s opening, Spielberg and Lucas had even said so, in a roundabout way. Still, it’s a bit of a pity they had to be right this time.

Grade: B-
(Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.)

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