Film/TV » Film Features

Indiana Jones Rides Again


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull starts perfectly. A group of teens are crowded in a jalopy tearing across the Nevada desert, Elvis' "Hound Dog" blasting on their radio. The car veers onto a highway and starts teasing with a convoy of army vehicles traveling there. The sequence climaxes with a minor battle of speed between the hot rod and the lead army car.

Then the scene just ends as the convoy turns off the road toward a military base. The kids are never seen again, and nothing plot-worthy ever comes of their appearance.

What a way to start a movie fraught with astronomic expectations -- released 19 years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the hugely successful capper to what was, at the time, a trilogy. Long in development, with major plot points rumored, debated, and over-thunked by legions of fans, Crystal Skull was a risky movie move. If it failed, it threatened to sully the reputation of the original trilogy, just like the Star Wars prequels to an extent did to their cinematic siblings.

So the message sent by director Steven Spielberg in the opening: Sit back and relax. Have fun. Come along for the ride.

And that’s exactly what Crystal Skull is: a thrill ride. With the exception of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the newest Indiana Jones most successfully captures the spirit of matinee serials from the 1930s and '40s, one of the primary cultural references of the films.

But, the setting of Crystal Skull is 1957, and herein lays a major tonal shift from the previous Indiana Jones films. Crystal Skull reflects and is totally immersed in 1950s culture, just as the original trilogy was steeped in the 30s and was full of pre-World War II significance.

Crystal Skull wades in the paranoia of the Cold War in the throes of the Red Scare, the science-fiction literature and film of the '50s, and the teen spirit buoyant in the nascent rock-and-roll age.

In Crystal Skull, the Nazis of yesteryear are traded in for Soviet villains, with rapier-wielding Russian psionics warrior Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) as the head baddy. Harrison Ford reprises as Indiana, but this time even the all-American hero can't escape being an FBI "person of interest," suspected of un-American activities.

The character Indiana is re-introduced in the middle of a bad jam. He and a fellow archaeologist/adventurer, George McHale (Ray Winstone), have been captured by Spalko and her Commie henchmen and ordered to help locate a mysterious artifact kept under lock and key in a warehouse at Area 51.

Soon enough, though escaping from the Russkies, Indy has jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire: He stumbles unsuspectingly across the desert onto an atomic proving ground. The set piece -- with Indy stuck in a mannequin town in the Nevada wastes as a nuclear bomb is detonated -- is one of the best things in the whole damn movie series.

It's great to see Ford again in the defining role of his career. Crystal Skull notably takes place 19 years after the setting of Last Crusade, so the character and actor have aged at the same speed. When Indiana says, "It's not as easy as it used to be," there's no questioning the fact for the action actor. But Ford gamely does most of his own stunts, as usual, and if you see Indiana limping from time to time, well, it's all the more poignant. (And Ford's acting, when Indiana reacts to seeing a major character from a past film for the first time in years, is absolutely priceless.)

Blanchett works pretty well for the most part as the villain. Though Spalko and Indiana don't have much character chemistry, she's a formidable presence by herself. And listening to Blanchett’s accent as she curls uber-Russian consonants is a thing of joy.

Shia LeBeouf co-stars in a part that could have wrecked the whole ship. He's Mutt Williams, a Wild One wannabe who comes to Indy to enlist his help in tracking down Professor Oxley (John Hurt), his missing mentor and a former colleague of Jones’.

Though he's often used for comic relief, LeBeouf is no weak link -- he’s no Short Round (or Jar Jar Binks, for that matter). Though Mutt -- who pulls out a comb to fix his hair when he's not flashing a switchblade -- could easily have fallen into parody, LeBeouf plays him straight. He doesn't undermine the character for cheap laughs or force the anger brimming below the character's surface. He's a rebel with a cause.

The only real disappointing aspect of the film is that the archaeological hook isn't very sharp. It could just be personal preference, but mysterious crystal skulls aren’t near as fascinating as the other artifacts we've seen sought after before. Raiders and Last Crusade were especially great because the mysteries behind the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, respectively, were as interesting in and of themselves as they were effective in serving as MacGuffins. I'd put the crystal skulls neck and neck with the glowing rocks from Temple of Doom in terms of intrigue.

Overwhelming everything, though, is the entertainment value of the film. Spielberg tightens the swash buckle to 11, proving again why he’s one of the great directors of the age with boisterous, dynamic visuals. In fact, a film that could have been a throwaway or money grab, like Crystal Skull, may say a lot more about his skill as a director than his much more serious-minded efforts such as Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple, or Munich. (Schindler's List is a directing masterpiece and an exception to my theory.)

Crystal Skull harkens back to an age when the Foley artists got paid overtime to make punching sounds, and the stuntmen got to risk their necks without a CGI net. I've hardly stopped thinking about it once in two days.

by Greg Akers

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