INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (Steven Spielberg, 2008)
The iconic character is back with his whip and fedora, albeit a little too late. Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (KOTCS) marks the 4th Indy outing after 19 years since The Last Crusade, and the hype and anticipation built up by the fans (me included) was obviously extremely high to the point that it is, in fact, impossible for the film to meet the expectations. Personally, I feel that it is truly unfair to expect Spielberg and Lucas to successfully repeat the magic that was Raiders Of The Lost Ark, which is the epitome of action/adventure filmmaking, a yardstick to which subsequent films of its genre are measured. The previous three Indiana Jones releases have always belonged in their own 'class', although some, or maybe a lot might argue that Temple Of Doom was decidedly considered a 'mess' compared to its two counterparts. But it's still a 'fun mess'. Therefore, there is a definitive standard that audiences can and should be able to expect on an Indiana Jones film, especially for one that is almost two decades in the making. There should be more than enough qualified material to be put forth with that amount of time for creative brainstorming. However, after the travesty that was George Lucas' Star Wars prequels (at least to most fans), there is fear that he would destroy another of his franchise. But, fortunately, the only difference for Indy's case is that Steven Spielberg is on the director's chair. So it could not possibly be bad, could it? We are talking Steven Spielberg, the master of Summer blockbusters here, right? Well, maybe if he would have shot a different script. But then again the film is also by far not Spielberg at the top of his game.
The film opens roughly 20 years after Indy's last appearance, in the 1950s to be exact when the US are at 'war' with Communism; hence the villains being Russians rather than Nazis. Our hero is held captive by Russian troops led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, in a hairdo much like Javier Bardem's in No Country For Old Men), in order to help them find an 'item' stored in a warehouse in Area 51. To be honest I couldn't help but feel giddy when Harrison Ford first appeared on screen, especially the first shot where only Indy's silhouette was visible. I smiled right up to my ears. For me it's because of the first time of seeing the character on the big screen, along with hearing the classic John Williams' theme, that broght the shivers in me. Yes, he's old but after 10 minutes I just didn't notice the age and even at some points he looked just like he did 20 years ago, which is darn amazing at 64. There's no denying that Harrison Ford is still Indiana Jones. And I can't help but feel nostalgic with the appearance of the Ark Of The Covenant (the 'McGuffin' in Raiders Of The Lost Ark); a clever inclusion in my opinion. The first act of the film in the warehouse seemed promising, I thought, though not exactly as awesome as I wanted to. Unfortunately however, the film descends into the ridiculous and dull after that. The latter being a word I did not expect to use to describe a Spielberg film.
The film has lost the wit and charm of the dialogues present in the previous Indiana Jones installments. To put it bluntly, they are terrible and totally uninspired. David Koepp's script is overladen with heavy expositions and dull banters between the characters, with several jokes plugged in that fall flat most of the time. After the rather exciting first act all the audience get is expositions, a chase sequence, and then more boring expositions pertaining the legend of the crystal skulls. Apparently Koepp missed the importance of 'visual storytelling', and the phrase 'show, don't tell'. Great character actors John Hurt and Ray Winstone are wastefully utilized, spurting one-dimensional lines and barely providing any weight to the overall film's plot. Even the reunion of Marion Ravenwood and Indy failed to bring back the chemistry again, because basically they didn't have any worthy exchanges to spark it up with. Surprisingly Shia LeBouf managed to hold his ground given the bad material, and certainly was not dwarfed even in the legend's presence. It doesn't help that the story itself equals the blandness of the script, with plot elements worth enough to only fill about 20 minutes of actual film.
According to IMDB, producer Frank Marshall is noted to have stated that the film uses CGI only when necessary. With all the CGI jungles and backgrounds, I doubt that there's much truth in that. Not to mention the CGI monkeys. The film seems to have lost a good part of the series' old-fashioned vibe by going digital. When it comes to visual effects, Spielberg always knows how and when to use them, but surprisingly not in this case. There's too much unnecessary CGI. It felt like George Lucas was looming over Spielberg throughout the shooting course, constantly bitching to use his visual effects toys whenever possible. It's either that, or Spielberg has started to show a dwindle in creativity. A sign he's already shown quite a bit in War Of The Worlds.
Another problem is that Indiana Jones never seemed to be in any real danger, a fault of CGI too I think. Chases after chases, in and out of waterfalls, it's not more than a scratch for Indy. This takes out the suspense and exhiliration of seeing the hero struggle his way out of obstacles. Yes, I know that it's impossible for him to die, but the previous installments still showed some vulnerabilities on the hero's behalf instead of depicting him as Superman. I think what started to kill the movie for me is the point where (spoiler alert!) Indy survives an atomic bomb explosion by hiding in a refrigerator, not to mention it being thrown off clear a few hundred feet by the said explosion, with him inside. And miraculously our 64-year-old titular character just came out of the refrigerator with only a few bruises. That's a serious "what the hell" moment for me. Hey, I can handle sequences that strain credulity to a degree, but not as over-the-top as "surviving a nuclear bomb in a damn refrigerator"! The scene doesn't even serve any real purpose other than to have another impossible situation for Indy to come out of. Yes the series is notorious for its over-the-top sequences, but they barely scrape the ones in KOTCS and plus they all have a fair share of genuine threats to balance out the goofy ones. KOTCS holds no reservation in going all out crazy. It has man-eating giant red ants that would climb on top of each other to have a reach at you, and not forgetting the candidate for most cringe-inducing scene of the year: the monkey-swinging. (spoiler ends)
To be fair there is some fun to be had amidst it all. It's not a complete disaster, but the film in overall gave off a feeling of a missed opportunity. I think if you can get past that nuclear bomb bit, you can get past everything else the film throws out; including the final resolution that is too ridiculous even for an Indiana Jones film. Apparently I can't.