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Spielberg's Skill Saves 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Icons earn their status by never changing. What they represented the moment they gained said mythos remains steadfast and sturdy, with only occasional minor alterations along the way. This is why it’s never wise to revisit a symbol, cinematic or otherwise. The moment you do, the carefully constructed barriers you built around the legend start to shatter. Unless you’re out to really revise (or even implode) the idol, what was once beloved is never quite the same. For many, this is exactly what happened when George Lucas decided to go back to his Star Wars universe. Well established - and beloved - characters like Darth Vader and Yoda were systematically reconfigured to fit a new, and not necessarily complimentary, ideal.


The good news is that everyone’s favorite action adventure archaeologist, Indiana Jones, manages to make it unscathed through this fourth installment of the long dormant franchise. Even with the massive passage of time - it’s been 19 years since Last Crusade saw our hero ride off into the desert sunset - Harrison Ford and his famed fedora are rock solid. Sadly, the rest of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not so secure. Swinging wildly between popcorn pomp and cornball circumstance, this mostly unnecessary sequel tries to update the character by bringing him into an ‘I Like Ike’/Red Scare timeframe. Yet for every element of obvious nostalgia - both internal and external - there’s an ancient astronaut plotline that gets in the way.


In the middle of the Nevada desert, Indiana Jones and his British spy sidekick George “Mac” McHale have been captured by Russian agents. Brought to Area 51, the baddies want the famed finder of antiquities to locate an object he retrieved as part of a mission for the government in Roswell. Under the steel-eyed guidance of psychic researcher, Irina Spalko, Jones locates the artifact. Soon, he’s back at the University of Chicago and under scrutiny by the FBI. When a young thug named Mutt Williams approaches him about his mother, Marion, and a mentor/friend named Professor Oxley, Jones finds himself headed to the Amazon. There, he hopes to locate one of the fabled Crystal Skulls, a relic with a link to the Lost City of Gold. Oddly, enough, Spalko and her crew are there as well, looking for the same thing. This won’t be the only surprise for the aging archaeologist, however.


Here’s the biggest problem facing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - and it’s not Shia LeBeouf playing a ‘50s era juvenile delinquent with a boarding school education. No, the main problem facing our famed archaeologist is that this third sequel is, yet again, NOT Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course, it never had a chance. It can’t be as fresh as when that 1981 gem first fired moviegoer’s action imagination. It can’t replicate the novelty of bringing the ‘30s/‘40s era serial into the post-modern film world. It doesn’t have the kind of cosmic import that drove the original narrative (Commies don’t make good Nazi substitutes) and it can no longer get away with being a really good romp. No, what Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s audience mandates is nothing short of a bigger, badder, broader, more ballistic and bombastic take on their favorite part-time grave robber, and not even the majesty of Steven Spielberg can fulfill those unreasonable requests.


Nor can the narrative’s inherent wistfulness satisfy said cinematic itch. Seeing Karen Allen back as Marion Ravenwood Williams is a treat, but her entrance is handled clumsily, given little chance to resonate. Similarly, the opening sequence at Area 51 (where we eventually learn the Ark of the Covenant was taken) recaptures the prior installments’ magic, but it quickly peters out the minute the FBI shows up and declares Indy a Red. In fact, a lot of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like an old jalopy, starting and stopping, racing and then stalling until it can get into a settled sense of story. Yet the script (by David Koepp, with direction from producer George Lucas) is too enamored with its genre-jumping tendencies to stay grounded. One moment we’re back in butt kicking territory. The next, it’s the X-Files circa 1959.


Still, Spielberg is not one of the greatest moviemakers of the post-modern era for nothing, and his undeniable brilliance brings Kingdom of the Crystal Skull back from the brink time and time again. The opening sequence shifts seamlessly from a familiar backdrop to an amazing moment with a mushroom cloud. It stands as one of the director’s most masterful stunts. Similarly, a motorcycle chase through a crowded university campus has the old fashioned zing we’ve come to expect from the series. Certainly there is very little the auteur can do with page after page of expositional muck, but thanks to the evocative cinematography of longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, we love looking at the conversational backdrops. Even the finale, filled with enough CGI to choke a Jedi, gets by on the standard Spielberg shimmer.


Not everything works out as well. For all his UK bluster, Ray Winstone’s character is ill defined and rather pointless. He’s a conflict catalyst, that’s all. Equally problematic is John Hurt as Professor Oxley. While he’s always a welcome addition to any film, he’s stuck supplying the odd moment of forced insanity funny business. Perhaps the most disconcerting though is the wasted opportunities surrounding Cate Blanchett and her cool KGB dominatrix, Irina Spalko. One thing Indy villains never lack is a clear cut motivation, be it greed, god-like powers, or everlasting life. Here, the Russian’s plan seems unclear, and even worse, slightly ridiculous. We never see Spalko really use her supposed power, and the ending does little to confirm her ability of authority.


Yet none of this will really matter to an audience primed to revisit an old franchise and friend. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is clearly a movie geared toward anyone under the age of 30 who memorized every moment of their Raiders VHS. It’s not out to revamp the series of say something significant about the aging of an action icon (Ford’s ‘maturity’ is the butt of some jokes, nothing more). By harkening back to the first film, Spielberg spends its goodwill wisely. Even Lucas’ madcap story suggestions aren’t quite as lame as all that mindless midi-chlorian business. When it was first announced that Indiana Jones was coming back, the mix of anticipation and trepidation was understandable. To paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, it’s hard to go home again. Thankfully, this return leaves our hero unharmed. 


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