OMG, Judge Clark Douglas totally nuked the fridge with this review.
Our reviews of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull: 2-Disc Special Edition (published October 14th, 2008) and Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures (Blu-ray) (published September 18th, 2012) are also available.
The adventure continues…
"You know, for an old man, you ain't bad in a fight. What are you, like 80?"
Facts of the Case
After years of faithfully serving the U.S. Government, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, Air Force One) is being treated like a criminal. Indy was betrayed by his close friend (Ray Winstone, The Departed), who was apparently working undercover for the Russians. Now the government is suspecting that Indy may be a Communist, and his reputation is being threatened. To make matters worse, the Russians may have kidnapped Professor Harold Oxley (John Hurt, Alien), one of Indy's old associates. With the help of an impetuous young fellow named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf, Disturbia), Indy plans to track down the Russians and save his friend. What exactly did Oxley discover that made the Russians want him so badly, and what is the secret of the mysterious crystal skull that he found?
After 19 years of waiting, Indiana Jones fans such as myself were finally treated to a fourth installment during the summer of 2008. Despite attaining great success at the box office, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was regarded by a large portion of critics and audiences as a disappointment. I guess I'm in the minority. I have now seen the film four times, and each time I have only grown to love this movie more. As far as I'm concerned, it is very much a worthy entry into the Indy canon. Call me crazy, but first permit me to give you an idea of where I am coming from.
The Indiana Jones films have always been about goofy, over-the-top fun. Somehow, as time has gone by, viewers have granted too much significance to the films. I am not meaning to imply that they should not be considered to be great films. I mean that we are starting to take them too seriously. The Indiana Jones films do not represent the pinnacle of cinematic drama or storytelling. They represent the ultimate height of giddy joy. Think of that moment in the map room during Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy discovers the location of the Ark of the Covenant. That's what these movies are all about.
Joy is a quality that is severely lacking in far too much of modern cinema. Audiences today tend to like their action movies grim and ominous. Now, I've got nothing against the Jason Bourne films or the current version of the James Bond franchise…but by golly, it's nice to have an action flick here and there that is better described as "fun" or "delightful" rather than "hardcore" or "gritty." This movie is jam-packed with the kind of B-movie excitement that infused the other films in the franchise. Just look at the way it opens, with a group of 1950s teens roaring down the road while blasting Elvis Presley's "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog." The teens come across a pack of American military vehicles and challenge one of them to a race. That giddy moment sets the tone for the film, and it never lets up over the course of the entire two hours.
Some have complained that this Indy film is much too silly. The scene most frequently referenced is the funny moment in which Indy survives a nuclear blast by placing himself inside a lead-lined refrigerator. That's absolutely preposterous, certainly. But Indy's inexplicable ability to survive impossible situations is part of what has always endeared him to me. Consider that sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in which Indy and his friends manage to survive a long plummet from an airplane using an inflatable raft, and then manage to survive yet another enormous drop into a raging river. If a cheap inflatable raft can help someone survive a fall of thousands of feet then a lead-lined fridge can get someone through a nuclear blast. Of course, if you think that both scenes are equally obnoxious, then I simply have no case to make with you. Your view of what an action movie should be is obviously different than mine. But it's frankly hypocritical to attack this film for silliness while defending the other three. Has this era of hyper-realism ruined us? When I saw the movie for the first time, I had a nice long laugh at the action scenes in the film, which were obviously intended to be funny and over-the-top in a goofy manner. I was frankly startled when I came home and discovered that internet message boards were whining about all the ridiculous scenes in this movie. You may say that Shia LeBeouf swinging through the trees with a bunch of monkeys is a terrible travesty of an idea. I say that it's so blatantly outlandish that it's somehow inspired.
In some ways, it seems like this is a film that Steven Spielberg was always destined to make. It takes all of his favorite themes and concepts and blends them together into an immensely entertaining stew. Yes, like Spielberg's other three Indy films, it is a throwback to B-movie of the 1930s and 1940s. Actually, this one is also a throwback to the sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s (the era in which the film is set), which is responsible for the slight change in tone from the previous three outings. That also allows Spielberg to continue to explore his alien fetish (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., War of the Worlds), though to be fair, that portion of the film was proposed by George Lucas. As if that weren't enough, Spielberg also tosses in some good old childhood abandonment issues. It should feel like a vanity project, but it doesn't. That's largely because Spielberg, Lucas, Ford, Koepp, and everyone else have no greater goal in mind than to make the viewer grin from ear to ear. If that's not a worthy goal, I simply don't know what is.
As with the previous Indy outings, this one features loads of exciting action sequences in a wide variety of locations. There's a frantic scuffle with some Russians, a wild motorcycle chase across a college campus, a spooky encounter with some South American natives, and a comically-organized car chase through the jungle (yes, you heard that correctly). Like the Bond movies, the Indy films have their beguiling conventions. In previous film, we have slimy encounters with rats, snakes, and bugs. Here, we get some giant killer ants. There's also the usual set of obstacles that must be braved in order to reach an important goal. As always, the reward at the end of the journey is peculiar and bittersweet at best.
Many doubted that Harrison Ford would be able to successfully play the role at this point in time. The actor may be in his sixties, but he's as terrific as ever here. Ford's low-key, grinning, growling charm is in full force in this movie. The actor has seemed bored with many of his recent roles, but here you can see that glimmer of delight back in his eyes. At long last, he is joined again by Karen Allen (The Perfect Storm) as Marion Ravenwood. There have been other women, but we all knew that none of them counted. For Indy, there has only ever been one woman, and at long last the filmmakers have realized that. Allen hasn't been onscreen too often in recent times, and it's a thrill to discover that she's as wonderful as ever. Twenty-seven years later, the chemistry is still there. Shia LaBeouf actually manages to be pretty likable in the role of Mutt, Indy's young sidekick. John Hurt manages to seem as if he is always hiding some sort of delightful secret, and Ray Winstone reprises his sleazy double-crossing role from Ripley's Game. I loved Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal) as a relentlessly determined villain. Blanchett pushes the role so far that she ceases to be frightening and starts to become appallingly funny, which is precisely what she should be. I would go so far as to say that she is the finest villain to grace an Indy film to date. The previous films have all had a "champagne" villain and a creepy heavy. This movie only has Blanchett. That's okay. She has enough vigor to fill both roles, and maybe a couple more.
The hi-def transfer here is absolutely fantastic. This is a very good-looking film, and this Blu-ray disc gives viewers quite an appreciation for the look of the things. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is really just gorgeous, and his memorable images are treated wonderfully here. The level of detail is jaw-dropping, both in those huge long shots and in tight close-ups. Blacks are very deep, colors are well-balanced…this is really a rich-looking transfer. The sound is excellent here, though I will admit that this is one of the areas where modern filmmaking techniques have changed things a bit. In the previous movies, composer John Williams was handed numerous moments to carry with his music. Here, Williams has to compete with sound effects pretty much all the time. His score is quite fine (and he provides several new themes that are a lot of fun), but he rarely gets to take the spotlight. Still, the elements are well-balanced and immersive, with a few particularly solid action scenes that will give your speakers a workout.
This two-disc set turns in a pretty generous batch of special features. As usual, there is no commentary from Spielberg, but the featurettes are pretty in-depth. Disc one kicks things off with a series of timelines that offer quite a generous amount of trivia. One timeline cover's Indy's history, one covers historical events that occurred during the films, and one covers the production history of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Normally I'd dismiss such a thing, but this is actually quite in-depth and worth checking out. The theatrical trailers for the film are also on disc one. Two of the featurettes are on the first disc: "Pre-Production" (11 minutes) and "The Return of a Legend" (17 minutes). The former focuses on things such as Shia LaBeouf learning how to swordfight, while the latter is a discussion of returning back to such one of cinema's most iconic characters.
The majority of supplements are included on disc two. The meatiest of these is the "Production Diary: Making the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" documentary. This runs about 80 minutes, and follows Spielberg, Lucas, and everyone else as over the course of the entire shooting schedule. It's very engaging stuff, and features a lot of cool behind-the-scenes footage and interviews. Spielberg always proves to be an interesting interview subject, and that is the case once again here. Everyone involved with the film participates, and few people come across as boring or overly hyperbolic. Even George Lucas is a little more interesting than usual here. After this, we have a series of featurettes that focus on technical stuff. "Warrior Makeup" (5 minutes) is a breezy little look at the work that went into making the natives that appear at the end of the film look authentic. "The Crystal Skulls" (10 minutes) offers a little history on the real-life crystal skulls that have been found, and also talk about deciding on how the skulls should look for this film. "Iconic Props" (10 minutes) is an overview of some of the knives, swords, accessories and other items that were created for the film. Special effects and CGI stuff is covered in "The Effects of Indy" (22 minutes). "Adventures in Post-Production" (12 minutes) gives us a look at the editing, sound design, and the music. I must say, Ben Burtt and John Williams are two of the coolest people in the movies. "Closing Team Indy" (4 minutes) is essentially a montage of all the major players who put the film together. After this, we get some pre-visualization sequences, galleries, production photographs, and portraits. All of this stuff was put together by the ever-reliable Laurent Bouzereau, who once again manages to put together a very informative and entertaining batch of supplements. I only wish we could clone him so that twice as many DVDs would benefit from his professional touch.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After defending the movie as much as I have, do I have anything to complain about? Well, only one major thing comes to mind. I want to know who was responsible for the wacky groundhog reaction shots. I can handle Shia LaBeouf playing Tarzan. I can handle aliens from another dimension. I can handle nuked refrigerators. But I draw the line at wacky groundhogs. Fie, fie!
I hope there are some of you out there who love this film as much as I do. The film is a love letter to Indiana Jones fans, and it contains everything I've ever loved about the movies. As for the rest of you…well, take heart. I hear they're making a prequel to 300.
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Scales of Justice
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