Movies: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

No film in recent memory has received as divergent reviews from my friends as Indiana Jones and the [inhale] Kingdom of the Crystal [inhale] Skull, having been declared AWESOME or AWFUL, but rarely anything in between. And so, while I hadn’t intended on seeing it, it clearly fell to me to make a Definitive Ruling on the quality of the film.

Thus, having viewed and contemplated the film, I am ready to render judgment: Indiana Jones and the etc. etc. Skull is … AWESOME! Mostly. Except for the five minutes of every 20 that were apparently set aside for AWFUL.

I could recap the plot, but what’s the point? If you guessed that the film would contain ancient artifacts of purportedly mystic power, a multi-stage globe-spanning quest, boatloads of nazis russkies, guns that fire an inexhaustible supply of bullets that never strike the protagonists, a big red line zig-zagging across a gargantuan map, a John Williams score, and lots and lots of leaping and punching and dodging and whipping and driving and running and wisecracking–well, then, nice guessing there, Tex.

Unfortunately, Crystal Skull also contains something that the previous films did not–scenes so beyond the realm of believability that they jar you completely out of the narrative flow. And I’m talking scenes that are incredible even by the standards of an Indiana Jones film, events that abuse your willing suspension of disbelief. A third of the way into the movie it is essentially established that Indiana Jones is invulnerable; two-thirds in it’s implied that his companions are likewise impervious to harm. By raising the dramatic stakes in these scenes (and then letting the characters walk away without adverse effect), Lucas robs subsequent events of their tension. You’re, like, “well, if he didn’t even sprain an ankle before, he sure as hell ain’t gonna die now …”

And while the Indiana Jones franchise has always been a homage to the Saturday morning serials, they go overboard in trying to honor them here. By throwing in elements from pretty much every adventure subgenre–from armpit slicks to war to science-fiction to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs–the Crystal Skull sometimes feels like the “Scary Movie” of pulp, filching recognizable scenes from earlier works instead of minting new ones. (Lucas even manages to sneak in a fair amount of American Graffiti.)

So what’s good about the movie? Pretty much everything else–including, to my surprise, Shia LaBeouf as Indy’s protege. Lucas has a terrible track record of picking young actors (as the Star Wars prequels attest), but I quite enjoyed LaBeouf’s performance, and wouldn’t mind seeing him in future films as well.

And oh yes, there will be more installments in the series, a fact the film makes clear. Curiously, this has generated no end of grousing from the fanboys on Teh NetarWebs. The same people who popped a boner two years ago when Indiana Jones 4 was announced and held it until they attended the special 12:01 AM showing on opening day are the same ones bellyaching about the possibility of sequels–go figure. Apparently it is best to leave those films we enjoyed as children as pleasant memories rather than to mine them for OH SHIT DID YOU SAY GREMLINS III DUDE I AM SO THERE!!!!

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31 comments.

  1. Awful, completely and utterly awful… from the horribly obvious green screening to the very odd Cate Blanchett role.

    If they do make more with Shia I hope they are far better.

  2. Exactly. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie as a bit of escapism but too many scenes were unbelievably violating the laws of physics – and common sense.

    A bunch of bad guys with terrible aim I’ll tolerate. A hero with reflexes like an olympic gymnast I’ll accept. But falling from 500 feet multiple times and walking away, being blasted through the air a 1/4 mile and walking away and a dean giving up tenure are all outside the realm of reality.

    It was the same thing in Ironman, the first time he crash lands. I’ll believe you can build a complex robot in a cave in Afghanistan, you were an MIT wunderkind after all, but don’t ask me to believe that you can crash into the ground from 1 mile up in a big metal suit and survive.

    And also, you never nailed Pepper Potts? I call bullshit!

  3. Allie, not that I am defending this movie at all but pointing out “obvious green screening” isn’t really fair. ALL the Indy films have had obvious green screening.

  4. Great review. That’s exactly how I felt about the movie. I enjoyed it, but at the same time I was laughing at how bad it was.

    Lucas/Spielberg Indy 4 brainstorming session – comic.

  5. i just cant agree with you on this.. i had to see the movie while at work.. so atleast i got paid to see it.. but it was completely missing the charm of an indiana jones movie. it had the look and feel.. but was missing the charm of the old ones the whole time.. imho

  6. Keith.. true, but the swinging with the monkeys? I can’t remember anything that bad in the others.

  7. I’m deeply divided on this one. Yes, the principles of physics were attacked as never before (even including Temple of Doom) . . . but while the action became cartoonish, the characters themselves did not become cartoons. The story didn’t simply cheapen Indy’s age with jokes — he was also accorded a certain amount of dignity, such as when several of his same-age cohorts addressed him, sans irony, as “Henry.” His father’s recent death was treated with some tenderness, as was Marcus Brodie’s — and Marcus even got to hand out a smackdown from beyond the grave.

    But what really got me, other than Karen Allen’s smile (and wonderful performance overall), was this line: “Ox, they’re going to kill Abner’s little girl.” Both the emotion in that line and the history behind it beckon us to still take these people seriously, even if we throw up our hands at what they’re supposedly able to survive.

  8. > I enjoyed it, but at the same time I was laughing
    > at how bad it was.

    That’s exactly how I experienced it – with the nuclear blast they telegraphed that Looney Tunes physics were the order of the day, and I was able to enjoy the goofiness. Unrealism doesn’t bother me if the movie isn’t aiming for realism.

    Sure, the first movie was far more consistently witty, etc., but
    the third and fourth film are far, far closer in tone than most reviewers appear to be remembering.

    Raiders – this one is in the classic pulp adventure mold, with the dashing adventure in foreign lands (though ultimately focused on the Nazis as a “familiar” enemy)

    Temple of Doom – this one hearkens further back to the victorian colonial tales told “from uncivilized lands”, with a “savage” enemy (veering pretty darn close to outright racism)

    Last Crusade – this one sets the adventure in familiar territory (mostly Europe) and has a much jokier approach (the set-pieces exist as much, if not more, for joke set-ups between Ford and Connery as they do for excitement)

    Crystal Skull- this adds 50’s ‘weird tales’ SF set-up to the old-school jungle-adventuring of the first film, but plays off the familiar character interplay more than it works to create exciting action set-pieces.

    And for the record, Temple of Doom is my favorite – for the note-perfect opening sequence followed by stratospheric ascent into crazy-land – human sacrifice in a kid’s movie? Hell, yes!

  9. I haven’t seen Crystal Skull yet, but Shia LaBeouf would be the most likely reason I’d go see it… after reading and hearing all the reviews. And nope, I’m not a teenie-bopper fan (I’m 48, and thus can use words like teenie-bopper). LaBeouf is awesome. Have you seen Disturbia? or Holes? Both excellent, I thought. The dude can act. (OK, I confess, I would go see just about any movie with Harrison Ford in it. The old fart still has it. I did say I was age 48…)

  10. I think I enjoyed your review, more than I’m gonna enjoy the movie.

    I think Harrison Ford jumped the shark when he started wearing an earring. Why Harrison, WHY?

  11. What’s an armpit slick?

  12. The ants were the only interesting element of indy 4.

  13. I’m with M.O. What’s an armpit slick? (What’s that, you say? I could’ve saved a bunch of keystrokes by typing “armpit slick” into Google at the top of my browser? AND HAD NOTHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO?)

    Also Gremlins II was among the best sequels ever.

  14. Thanks. That’s the most helpful review I’ve read so far! I think I’ll compromise and wait for the DVD.

    BTW, Shia LaBeouf was a good choice because he was Spielberg’s choice – but indeed it was lucky that Lucas agreed, as you say, he hasn’t a clue!

  15. Well said. Exactly what I was thinking, but written better than I wrote it.

    Also, I hadn’t picked up on the homages to serials until you mentioned them. I definitely see Edgar Rice Burroughs…especially with that damned swinging through the trees. Sigh.

  16. I agree! Fun and awful at the same time.

    And Indy was way too invulnerable. Remember the great scene in Raiders where Marianne is looking for a non-banged-up part of Indy to kiss? In this one he never even seemed to have a scratch. Or when Indy broke the other guy’s nose? In every scene afterwards, it wasn’t broken anymore. Sigh.

    Can someone explain to me what was in the box that the russkis took in the first scene? Not a skull, because we found it later, and established that it was the only one. So what was in there?

  17. lynn,
    SPOILER///
    It was an alien in the box. She said that they had others that had crashed in Russia, so it’s unclear to me why they had to go to such lengths to get another of what they already had.

  18. Loved the movie, if you want to be entertained it is just that… entertaining. However as a map/geography buff it made me a little crazy that one of the maps had Belize and not British Honduras.

  19. Yep, pretty much what I thought.

    Then again, my eight-year-old really enjoyed it despite not following what was going on 90% of the time: ‘Who are they? What are they doing? Where are they now? What are Russians? Why’s there a really big mushroom? Is that a spaceship?’ Etc.

    Maybe I’ve just got old since the last one…

  20. You’ve made some fine points, but I still think the AWEFUL outweighed the AWESOME. I thought LaBeouf’s performance was fine; I just couldn’t stand his ‘badass’ character. I thought they spent too much time and energy setting up the time period. We get it. It’s the 50s, Daddy-O.

    Aliens? whatever. Overly-acted Russian villians? whatever. Insanely impossible fight scenes, jumping from car to car at high speeds on freshly-groomed jungle roads? whatever. Mutant, flesh-eating fire ants?..actually, that was kind of awesome. The final straw for me, though, was ‘Indy Jr.’ swinging from rubber vine to rubber vine, Tarzan-style with hundreds of monkeys screaming and cheering him on. Really? I’m suprised he didn’t dismount directly onto his motorcycle, say a one-liner, and varoom off to save the day. That would have been aweful enough to make it awesome.

  21. i loved it, i found it just as unbelievable as the rest of the indy movies. they have all been far fetched thats the beauty of them. if they had made it more believable everyone would be bitching about how far they moved from the originals. damn old people can’t please them!

  22. I enjoyed it! I also enjoyed Speed Racer, so there :P I am not some slack jawed yokel that is entertained by talkies, either. Glitzy CGI, yes, talkies, not so much.

    You simply cannot go into a movie any more – at our age *ahem* – and expect too much. Just go for the fun. Sure, Shia LeBeouf swinging on the vines was over the top, but the monkeys were into it! And we all know that the monkeys rule.

    Cate Blanchett was awesome. Ok, so the end of her character was kinda dumb, but can you name a decent movie that *didn’t* end in an apocalyptic destruction of the area that demands the protagonists flee for their lives? Even Terms of Endearment had Jack Nicholson blasting his way out of the cancer center with a couple of MAC-10’s, and if it didn’t, it should have. Since I didn’t see it.

  23. When Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News gushed over Star Wars Episode I: The Midichlorian Menace, it was a clear sign that sci fi fanboys are as deluded as those masked gymnasts on al-Qaeda training videos. Both are fanatics with no artistic taste whatsoever.

    I haven’t seen Crystal Skull, but I did hear the ending was a rip of Close Encounters and the unnecessary last half hour of AI.

    CGI is a great substitute for lack of plotting, acting chops, and general screenwriting talent. See George Lucas’s career.

    (No, I’m not as rich as George Lucas, but I also won’t be remembered as that idiot who came up with the Midichlorian idea to explain the Force.)

  24. Wasn’t Indy made at least semi-invulnerable by drinking from the Holy Grail? I know true immortality requires multiple quaffings, but surely a chug or two gives some benefit.

  25. That was pretty fair and spot on.

  26. Gremlins III, sure, but I’m holding out for the sequel to Goonies!

  27. You’ve heard of plausible deinability. Indiana Jones has always been about deniable plausability. If you can say “that could totally happen in real life!” then it probably isn’t an Indiana Jones movie.

  28. Where have you gone, Matthew Baldwin? The Internet turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo. Woo. Woo.

  29. FYI, Spielberg cast Shia LeBouef, not Lucas. Lucas wrote the story while Spielberg directed/produced and had final say over these kinds of things. Spielberg’s been grooming LeBouef for this role for years. It’s the only reason he went from Even Stevens to movies like Disturbia, Transformers and Indiana Jones.

  30. Screw Shia Labeouf. Harrison Ford is a hottie.

  31. Shia LaBeouf is a good actor. I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t in a lot more films very soon.
    I first saw him in Holes, and then in the Project Greenlight series (Battle of Shaker Heights).