Paramount // 2008 // 122 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // October 14th, 2008
"Don't toy with me, Doctor Jones! What is the point of all this?" -- Irina Spalko
Expectations and excitement were running high for the midnight, May 22 showing of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I patiently waited a week, until I could make my way to New Hampshire so my brother and I could see the movie together, as we had we all three previous Indy adventures. Unfortunately, what unveiled itself over the next two hours proved to be a shocking disappointment.
It's been 19 years since we last saw Dr. Jones, his father, Marcus, and Sallah ride off into the sunset of The Last Crusade. During that time, much has transpired, not the least of which was his apparent decorated service with the U.S. military during WWII. But as the sun rises on this tale, Indy (Harrison Ford) and his sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) find themselves being used as tools in the Russian's plan to steal one of the legendary crystal skulls of Akator, the key to gaining mind control over their bitter enemies. Just as our hero seems to have wiggled himself free of yet another impossible situation, the government questions his loyalties, Marshall College terminates his employment, and a punk kid (Shia LaBeouf) comes looking for Indy's help in rescuing an old friend (John Hurt), all of which leave Indiana Jones as the world's only hope for stopping Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) and the Soviet Empire's quest for world domination.
"I have a bad feeling about this." -- Indy
Yes, I am one of those despised movie lovers who did not wet their pants in sheer glee over Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. For as glad as I was to see Harrison Ford in fine form and the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, a poorly conceived story undermined the skill and passion of both cast and crew in what might have been an otherwise enjoyable ride.
As detailed in the film's production diaries, George Lucas conceived the plot, Steven Spielberg fleshed out the story, and David Koepp was brought in to write the script. Here you have three incredibly talented guys who have given the world some wildly successful and entertaining films. So what went wrong? According to David, he approached Crystal Skull "as if the first three films never existed." Mistake Number One. I'm all for bringing Dr. Jones into the '50s and changing the sensibilities of his world from the 1930's action adventure serials to kitchy B-Movies of the time. But why change a proven formula? It's like Coke and New Coke. It's unnecessary. You have a rich universe to play in and end up making reference to much of what came before, so where's the disconnect? Believability. We never fear for Indy's well-being. He's more indestructible now at 60 than ever before -- surviving an atomic blast in a refrigerator, a motorcyle wipeout, hearty poundings from a handful of younger and tougher adversaries, plunging down three waterfalls, and walking away from all without a scratch? It's ridiculous. Look back at Raiders where he was shot and beaten to within an inch of his life, or Temple of Doom where he was poisoned and mind-controlled, or Last Crusade where his father was left for dead and the only way to save him was to find the chalice. If there's no threat to your hero(es), there's nothing for your audience to grab onto. So what happened, David? Where's the tension and edge-of-your-seat excitement of Jurassic Park, Panic Room, or Spider-man? You can have kitsch and still put you characters in danger.
Mistake Number Two was forcing too much invented nostalgia into the picture. The loss of Denholm Elliott as Marcus Brody was sad, but the story could have lightened up on the references. The portrait in the hall and Indy's discussion with Charles (Jim Broadbent) was enough of a nod, but tack on the flying statue head at the end of the motorcycle chase and the tribute goes too far. Same holds true for detailing Indy's adventures over the past 19 years during his FBI interrogation. One or two references would have been enough to tease us, but the more detail you go into, the more the audience sits there wondering just what the hell is going on? But the big misstep was the betrayal of Mac, a character we had never seen before, had no vested interest in, and whose big reveal held no significance whatsoever. He was a cookie cutter opportunistic sidekick lifted from a wealth of better films and Ray Winstone wasn't able to do anything to endear the character to the viewers -- "I'm your friend, I'm a traitor, I'm a double agent, no...wait, I'm not. Ha ha!" Whatever. Had the character been Sallah, as played by John Rhys-Davies, or a grown up Shortround, played by Jonathan Ke Quan, then you would have an instant emotional hook upon which to toy with your audience. But that didn't happen.
Mistake Number Three was the unbalanced supporting cast of characters, none of whom got the development they needed to make an impact. Shia LeBeouf did an admirable job with Mutt, a character who was more cartoonish than need be. Lucas and Spielberg's passion for the '50s went a bit too far with the Brando/Wild One entrance. The continual hair fixing and switchblade play grew old fast. And the vine swinging through the jungle alongside an army of monkeys put Mutt in a realm previously occupied by Jar Jar Binks. It's the quiet moments between Indy and Mutt that were the most compelling, playing on the father/son relationship that worked so well in Last Crusade and could have paralleled that development even more. Missed opportunities. I would have also preferred to see more of John Hurt as Professor Oxley, a character whose design was far more fascinating than what eventually wound up on screen. And with an actor like John Hurt on your team, you can't afford to waste that talent. Same holds true for Cate Blanchett as Dr. Spalko. Instead of doing the over-the-top Natasha Fatale impersonation, she could have taken a page from any number of James Bond's rich Soviet adversaries. They could have also expanded upon her previous paranormal research and personal drive to obtain the skull, beyond her mission parameters. Unfortunately, as executed, she just doesn't stand up to the likes of Belloq, Major Toht, or Molo Ram as adversaries to be reckoned with.
Mistake Number Four was sacrificing the journey for the gags and action set pieces. Some of the most memorable scenes in the three previous films were those quiet moments when Indy was faced with trying to figure out how to get past certain obstacles to reveal the next piece of information. Those opportunities in Crystal Skull -- translation of Ox's letter, discovering Ox's jail cell, entrance to the temple -- felt more rushed than need be, almost as if they were the filler to get to the next action sequence, instead of being the foundation upon which the mystery of the Skulls would unravel. There were also many moments that felt unusually derivative for a Lucas/Spielberg effort. The Indy pics have long been about taking us places we've never been before, but the skull repelling the killer ants was lifted directly from The Mummy Returns whose scorpion bracelet repelled the scarabs (also done by ILM), and the alien treasure room reveal was nearly identical to the Founding Father's treasure trove in Jon Turteltaub's National Treasure or the pharaoh's tomb in Stephen Sommers' The Mummy. Granted, these aren't make or break moments, but I didn't expect to find them here.
Criticism aside, Crystal Skull isn't a total waste of two hours. From the cemetery up to their arrival in the Peruvian jungle, Crystal Skull is a true Indy picture. In fact, the cemetery sequence alone makes the film worth watching, but there are many other elements throughout that worked exceptionally well. Steven's commitment to maximizing in-camera practical effects while shooting and editing on film is once again applauded. Guy Dyas's astonishingly brilliant production design, as lit by David Devlin, and shot by Janusz Kaminski (acknowledging the style of the late Doug Slocombe), make this yet another visual feast. And the seamless ingenuity of the folks at ILM, Stan Winston Studios, Kerner Optical, and WETA Workshop make even the squirreliest story elements look authentic...even the goofy prairie dogs.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, this standard definition transfer is top notch. The level of detail and color separation is magnificent, with both flesh tones and black levels maintaining solid consistency throughout. True, we've been spoiled by HD DVD and Blu-ray, but this is one of the finest SD presentations you'll find anywhere. The same can be said for the Dolby 5.1 surround track, another credit to the fine work of the Spielberg/Lucas team. They know how to envelope an audience in an adventure, be it through ambient effects or another wonderful John Williams score, filtered through all five channels.
The bonus features on this release, spread out over two discs, may just be the heartiest of all Indy adventures and shows without a shadow of a doubt just how committed everyone was to doing this picture justice. Return of a Legend is an 18 min retrospective on the rebirth of Dr. Jones, 18 years after what was to have been his cinematic swan song. The 12 min Pre-Production rightfully belongs to be installed as part of the 80 min Production Diaries, but may have been separated out for spacing issues. Together, this 92 min collection of behind-the-scenes footage rivals that of Paramount's recent Iron Man production backstory. Interviews with cast and crew, detailed principal photography coverage, costuming, makeup, props, you name it, it's all here. Several other small featurettes are broken out to detail the creation of Pre-Vis, the Temple Warriors, The Crystal Skulls, Iconic Props, Visual FX, Post Production, and the Production Team itself. We also get the obligatory photo galleries for conceptual design and production, as well as theatrical trailers, and a demo for the Lego Indiana Jones video game, of which many fans have long since completed.
You can question my sanity, my judgement, and my loyalty to the franchise, but I was disheartened to find that even after this third viewing of the film, my disappointment holds firm. There are flashes of the heart and soul of the original three films, in seeing Harrison back in action as Indy, his reunion with Marion (one of the film's highlights), the cemetery sequence, and many other small moments, but Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull comes in a distant fourth in the series. Since there appears to be enough momentum from everyone involved that a fifth installment is a near certainty, maybe redemption is close at hand. Until then, for all those who loved this film, you couldn't ask for a better DVD release. As for myself, I'll be over here waiting for the first three to arrive on Blu-ray.
Guilty for falling short of unreasonably high expectations.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "Return of a Legend"
* "Production Diary"
* "Warrior Makeup"
* "Crystal Skulls"
* "Iconic Props"
* Theatrical Trailers
* Lego Indiana Jones demo
* Official Site
* Sock Puppet Tube: Indy 4