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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

by Steve Habrat

After the fatigued but fun Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, Indy took a long, much needed break from saving the world. For years, audiences begged for another installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, loosing their minds over the smallest hints dropped about a possible new film. In 2008, fans finally got their wish with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a CGI heavy blockbuster that had an aged Indy battling Russians in the atomic age. Opting for science fiction shenanigans over biblical trinkets, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brings back Harrison Ford as the fedora-wearing hero, has him joining forces with fan favorite Marion Ravenwood, and facing some of his most outlandish action scenes yet. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is littered with the fingerprints of George “Overkill” Lucas, who I’m fairly certain is responsible for some of the low points of this half-good installment. Returning director Steve Spielberg does his best to hold the project together and he does direct the film care, but it is so painfully obvious where Lucas took over as his input sends Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into a violent nosedive that Spielberg has to quickly right.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull picks up in 1957, with a much older Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Ford) and his partner George “Mac” McHale (Played by Ray Winstone) kidnapped by Soviet Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (Played by Cate Blanchett). She brings Indy and Mac to Area 51, demanding Indy locates a mysterious box that contains the alien remains from Roswell. Reluctantly, Indy begins helping her and then makes a daring get away. Indy narrowly survives a nuclear bomb test and is picked up by the FBI, who accuses him of working with the Soviets. Indy is forced to take an indefinite leave of absence from the University he teaches at but soon finds himself approached by a greaser named Mutt Williams (Played by Shia LaBeouf) who tells Indy that his old colleague, Harold Oxley (Played by John Hurt), has mysteriously disappeared after he discovered a crystal skull in Peru. Mutt also reveals that his mother has been kidnapped and that he needs Indy’s help to find her. Indy agrees to help Mutt find his mother and Oxley but as their search continues, they discover that Colonel Dr. Spalko is also after the crystal skull, which if obtained could allow the Russians to wage psychic warfare on America.

The rumor behind The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that there was another script that Spielberg wanted to make but Lucas insisted on this one. While there are some awesome moments in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the good is overshadowed by the extremely awful. In this film, we see Indy survive an nuclear bomb blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator, narrowly escape a sea of giant killer ants, Mutt swinging through the jungle with monkeys, and a climax featuring a huge UFO rising up out of the ground. It is these moments that make The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feel more like a Star Wars film rather than an installment of Indiana Jones. The film does marvelously weave perhaps one of the most interesting eras into the franchise, using the Cold War as the backdrop for all the action. Yet this all feels even more like child’s play, more than The Last Crusade did. The scene with Mutt swing through the jungle on vines with a slew of cute monkeys will make the kids giddy. There is also the weird prairie dogs that are constantly shown in the opening moments of the film, a touch that I still to this day do not quite understand other than to add a cutesy family touch.

The major positive here is the presence of the fervent Ford, who gladly dusts off the famous fedora and wears it proudly while searching for the crystal skull. Spielberg and Lucas enjoy playing up the joke that he has aged and not at his heroic best, having Indy make mistakes and urging Mutt to call him “Gramps” every chance he gets. Yet when Ford is asked to be tough and throw a couple of right hooks, he is more than willing to give it a try. Ford still has it as an action hero and he ultimately carries this overly polished moneymaker across the finish line. Giving him Karen Allen to work with also puts some spring in his step, reigniting the feisty flame the two had in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. They once again argue about Indy’s fear of commitment and by now, you know that Mutt turns out to be Indy’s son, which causes Indy to really erupt. This dysfunctional family ends up being a real winner even if it is an attempt to sell a family movie. I especially like watching Indy and Marion once again discover their feelings for each other, which allowed The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to win points for familiarity.

There has been quite a bit of controversy over the character of Mutt Williams, who at times seems to be there to allow for future installments. He’s likable enough but I hope that Spielberg and Lucas have the good sense to not pass the whip and fedora to him. They do a clever little fake out at the end but I still fear the worst with his character. He ends up being a character that the kiddies can root for while Mom and Dad are cheering for the winded Indy and Marion. John Hurt gets to have a little fun playing off-his-rocker with Harold Oxley. He is another character that is there just to provide a few little chuckles. Winstone as Mac is a pretty useless character, there to be the typical side nuisance Indy has to constantly deal with. The star next to Allen and Ford is without question Blanchett, who enjoys playing the vampy Spalko a little too much. She is slightly sexy and cartoonishly menacing when swinging around a sword. She truly is a character that looks like she was ripped out of a long, lost comic book that has been stashed away in your grandpa’s basement. Next to Raiders’ Arnold Thot and Temple of Doom’s Mola Ram, she is one of the best villains of the Indian Jones series.

If Spielberg and Lucas would have cut back on some of the excess and maybe removed the silly CGI alien at the end, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have been a much smoother roller coaster ride. Many have lambasted Spielberg for some of the mistakes here but I am firmly convinced that Lucas is the one to blame for the more asinine moments of the film. In a way, I sort of feel bad for giving this film an average grade because there is so much heart and dedication on display, especially from Ford and Spielberg, who seem to be right at home with this material. There were moments where I was totally engulfed by the rousing action, mostly the ones that weren’t cluttered with CGI trickery. If Indiana Jones does return for one more adventure, lets hope that Lucas steps away from the special effects and focuses more on giving fans a film that is worthy of their fedora-wearing hero rather than just being a greedy cash grab.

Grade: C+

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

by Steve Habrat

As a kid, I absolutely loved producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved getting swept up in the adventure, hanging on every action scene, and being hypnotized by the sprinkling of horror that boils over at the unforgettable climax. To this very day, I credit Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as one of the films that made me fall in love with cinema and pursue a deeper understanding of the medium. Each and every time I watch the film, it feels like I am seeing it for the first time all over again. I’m sure my anti-Spielberg film professors would be chocking on their own vomit if they read that! To this very day, I still absolutely love this movie and love the fact that it is a tribute to the serials from the 1930s and 40’s. I can honestly say that I really can’t find a single thing wrong with Raiders of the Lost Ark, every actor perfectly cast, every line of dialogue spoken with extreme care, and every action sequence wildly iconic. Right from the beginning, Raiders of the Lost Ark establishes itself as a classic film as Spielberg gives us one of the most thrilling opening sequences to a motion picture and from there, he refuses to let up for two hours. How can you argue with that?

Raiders of the Lost Ark introduces us to out hero Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford), an archeologist who gets himself into one tense, death-defying situation after another. The year is 1936 and the Nazis are currently exploring ways to make their army invincible using occult powers. Two U.S. Army intelligence officers approach Dr. Jones about the Nazi’s quest to find the Staff of Ra, which would reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant. The intelligence officers ask that Dr. Jones locate the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis get a hold of it and unleash its devastating powers on the world. This quest forces Dr. Jones to enlist the help of his old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Played by Karen Allen), and old pal Sallah (Played by John Rhys-Davies) to help defeat his nemesis, René Belloq (Played by Paul Freeman), ruthless Colonel Dietrich (Played by Wolf Kahler) and the sinister Gestapo interrogator, Arnold Toht (Played by Ronald Lacey).

Never attempting to be anything it is not, Raiders of the Lost Ark exists solely to entertain all who choose to watch it and entertain it does. This movie is so damn fun, it is hard to believe there are those who resist it. It’s pure popcorn-munching fun that is one of the definitive summer movies. In addition to a light but gripping story, Spielberg packs his film with so many memorable moments, its absolutely unbelievable. Released in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark refuses to conform to what was all the rage in the 1980s, which were flexing heroes with absolutely no emotion whatsoever (the Stallones and the Schwarzeneggers). Spielberg chooses to give us a much more vulnerable hero, one who has a few love demons scratching at his heart and one who can get hurt (both physically and emotionally). Dr. Jones isn’t always perfect but he is proud to be flesh and blood. It always seems like the odds are stacked against him as he is relentlessly backstabbed and duking it out with forces that we are sure will overwhelm him. A giant rolling boulder chases him, he is dropped into a pit of poisonous snakes (he hates snakes), and trades blows with a hulking Nazi mechanic all while dodging the propellers of a fly wing. This guy goes through Hell to protect the world.

A heaping amount of credit should go to Ford, who is a revelation as Indiana Jones, wonderfully capturing this vulnerability and imperfection. His cranky humor and irritation with his current situation (whatever he may be encountering: hulking Nazi, snakes, Belloq, etc.) is always on point. You practically hear him go “GULP!” when staring down some obstacles he comes across. He is even more fun when he is dealing with the griping Marion, who is constantly giving him a hard time for wronging her in the past. There is a spark between Ford and Allen and we do root for their love for each other to be rediscovered. We know that Dr. Jones wouldn’t be getting as far as he is without the help of Marion and we know that Marion would fall into the clutches of the dreaded Nazis if it wasn’t for Indy swinging in at the last second to save the day. They are like an old married couple that has yet to get married.

Raiders of the Lost Ark packs a trio of despicable villains to torment Dr. Jones and Marion. The best one here is Lacey’s Toht, who is a vaguely perverse, mouth-breathing freak with a nasty burn on his hand. He speaks slowly, allowing each one of his words to hit the victim he toying with. He wishes that he had the charm of Belloq, another slippery snake who snarls and smirks at Dr. Jones from a far. He loves getting the upper hand on Indy—usually leaving him in hopeless situations that will have you drying off your palms. Completing this trio of terror is Kahler’s Colonel Dietrich, the man leading the operation to secure the Ark. They all get their moment to kick Dr. Jones while he is down, only striking when he is down because none have the muscle to throw down with good old Indy. The other baddies that will stick in your mind is Alfred Molina in his debut role as the backstabbing Sapito who leaves Indy to be crushed by a giant boulder and various other booby traps and Pat Roach as a burly Nazi mechanic who gets a prolonged fight sequence with Indy.

Despite being PG, Raiders of the Lost Ark does have a few moments that wander into the horror realm. The climax of the film is nice and ghoulishly nasty, complete with melting antagonists and terrifying demons laying waste to tons of Nazi soldiers. The film is surprisingly violent and does contain some moments that may scar young children. Overall, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a globetrotting blockbuster that made globetrotting action cool. With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg set the bar so high for action/adventure films that he couldn’t top himself. The three sequels, while good in their own right, pale in comparison to this installment. Also notable is the easily recognizable score by John Williams, one that compliments the rollicking action like peanut butter does strawberry jelly. While certain aspects of it are showing its age, Raiders of the Lost Ark still stands as the definitive action/adventure film, one that is always imitated but will never be duplicated and one that can outrun the spry CGI blockbusters of today. This is an undisputed classic and absolutely flawless film.

Grade: A+

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is available on DVD.