May 26, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Review


Length: 124 min

Précis: Long awaited ‘uber-blockbuster’ crams all things Indiana Jones into a wobbly ride and hurtles over a cliff.

Review by Matt:

Nazis, Communists and general villains of humanity or archeology beware. Indiana Jones is back. And if he wants to foil your evil plot then he will death-defy, bullet-dodge and absorb all of your mightiest blows until it’s done. No really, shoot and punch all you like. That’s one slippery old archeologist right there.

But if you’re sitting in the theatre to watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, that is probably what you’re expecting to see, right? Crystal Skull is in the special category of ‘uber-blockbuster’. Everyone knows what it is, and what you get from it will probably depend on your expectations. If you’re going to the theatre saying “What I want is 100% impossible action and adventure of the Indiana Jones variety” then, you got it. Did someone say sword-fighting across two jeeps careening through the Amazon toward a cliff-top studded with nests of man-eating ants? Well, here’s your film. Beyond that though, there is some trouble. Crystal Skull is messy and clichéd and those things unfortunately make it a bit dull and annoying. So you’ll have to bring with you a willingness to forgive. Because it’s amazing how the film’s weaknesses can annoy you, even while the screen is filled with brawling Russians, archeologists and monkeys. What a shame to waste all those monkeys.

First though, the plot. It would have been heretical to millions of fans to suddenly alter the genre that the Indiana Jones series itself established. So the plot is familiar. Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones (the indefatigable Harrison Ford) is embroiled in the search for a powerful and magical artifact – “the crystal skull” – in an exotic land, Peru. Evil forces are on his tail. This time it is that terror of the 1950’s: the Soviet Communists. Nice to see them back as cinema’s villain (and nice to see that their head general looks just like Vladimir Putin – I’m sure plenty of patriotic Americans loved watching Harrison Ford sock Vladimir Putin in the face).

The baddies are led by Professor Irina Spalko (a delightfully steely Cate Blanchett), a comrade with a penchant for mind control (which is an interesting idea that is one of the many left unexplored). She wants to claim the power of the artifact for some kind of nefarious stealing-our-free-minds caper or something. You know – typical Red Menace. (Though note: although Indy is ostensibly battling the Commies, at one point he does recommend that one of his students read V Gordon Childe, who was a Marxist archaeologist – I say call McCarthy in to double-check Professor Jones’ patriotism).

Naturally, Indy is also accompanied by a sidekick who alternately helps and hinders the cause. This is “Mutt” (Shia LaBeouf), a young switchblade-wielding, hair-combing hood, whose Uncle “Ox” (John Hurt) disappeared while searching for the skull. And so it all unfolds in Steven Spielberg big-screen-adventure style, with many a thrilling action scene, a few laconic Indy once-liners, and an intriguing mythological premise.

Crystal Skull is a film that can’t really escape its magnificent place in history. It’s kind of like how Prince William can’t avoid the fact that the eyes of the world (or Britain’s eyes at least) look at him as part of the Royal Family. So this fourth installment of the famous series is self-aware, and it tries to ride with the audience’s expectations. But this self-consciousness seems to replace the free effervescence that the previous films had. And it also points to the problem at the core of Crystal Skull: it just overdoes it. It’s like they thought of everything an Indiana Jones fan could possibly want and tried to squash it in there. Ever tried to mash ten flavours of icecream into one bowl? How’d it turn out? Crystal Skull never gives full attention to any one idea, or to the characters, so they’re largely wearisome archetypes (bad luck Cate Blanchett – nice Russian accent though).

By the end, the plot-skimping has left things rushed and confusing so that it’s really just the crashing together of a few big ideas. Even when you think the film could be straightening out, it will be quickly knocked off course again by a swarm of “frightening savages” jumping out of the walls to try and pique your fear of “the other”. And I know that Indy’s bigger-than-life escapes are part of the genre, but I also found the constant impossible-factor a bit too much, especially since many action movies have proven that they can excite and thrill without becoming incredulous.

But hey, your payback is an outrageous action/adventure extravaganza with all the fight scenes, creepy crawlies, ancient temples and half-baked mythology you’d expect from an Indiana Jones film. I still thought it was spectacular and often pretty fun. But if you demand that it make sense, carry some realism, or resonate emotionally, then there is big potential for disappointment and, perhaps, pain. You’ll at least have to shoulder an onerous requirement to suspend disbelief and to suck up a super-sized portion of clichés. But maybe you’re like Indiana Jones himself, and you can take blow after blow and still have a good time. I came out pretty bruised and only half smiling.



  1. we’re going to see this on the weekend, so i thought I’d just have a very quick glance at your review to get a flavour of what might be ahead. in preparation, we have just finished watching the previous three indiana jones films, and to be honest – with perhaps the exception of the first one – i think your criticisms could apply to all of them! proportion and realism is not their purpose! so I’m still excited, and as far as outlandish movies go, it can’t be as bad as the original batman.

  2. Hey Frances. I’d be interested to know what you think of ‘Crystal Skull’, especially as you’re watching it right after having watched the first three films. When I watched it, it was the first Indiana Jones film I’d seen for at least a decade.

  3. It is always nice to watch Harrison Ford.

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