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.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
by Steve Habrat
After taking the freaky detour into cult territory in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg retreated back to the winning formula that they had with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, once again pitting our fedora-wearing hero against the dreaded Nazis. Sadly, they seemed really half-hearted about that return, almost a bit reluctant and preoccupied. There is quite a bit to like about 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the addition of Sean Connery as Indy’s father is a brilliant one, but the action and storyline do not seem as spry as they did in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom. It appears that the franchise is a bit winded and in need of a breather, much like our hero after doing battle aboard a tank full of Nazis. With a slightly dull storyline, the true hero here is without question Connery, who is wonderfully effortless as Indy’s father. The two argue, squabble, and work on their relationship all while bullets fly overhead. The plus to all of this is that we get to know just a little bit more about the whip-cracking Indiana Jones but the downside is the film is relying a bit too heavily on the father/son relationship and not enough on the task at hand: Finding the Holy Grail.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade picks up in 1938 with Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford) in search of an ornamental cross that he has been looking for every since he was young. After recovering the cross, Indy returns to the university he teaches at where he finds himself approached by Walter Donovan (Played by Julian Glover), who tells him that his father, Professor Henry Jones (Played by Sean Connery), has vanished while searching for the Holy Grail, which he had been obsessed with finding his entire life. After mysteriously receiving his father’s diary in the mail, Indy sets out to locate his father with the help of his colleague Dr. Marcus Brody (Played by Denholm Elliot) and the strikingly beautiful Dr. Elsa Schneider (Played by Alison Doody). As Indy’s search for his father continues, he discovers that the Nazis are also in search of the Holy Grail and if they obtain it, they are guaranteed world domination.
At the time of its release, The Temple of Doom was met with mixed reviews from critics. While The Temple of Doom was a step down from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film was a bit too exotic for some tastes. Lucas and Spielberg were hell-bent to get the franchise back on the familiar path that won fans over in the first place. While the familiarity is welcome, I still enjoyed the exotic flavor of the second installment a bit more than the third chapter. The Last Crusade feels a bit too Hallmarky at times, like it is playing things too safe. The tone here isn’t nearly as dark as the previous two films and certainly not as violent. It is clear that this is for a much younger audience unlike the adult oriented Raiders and The Temple of Doom. It is obvious that Lucas and Spielberg don’t want to cause too much of a stir after producing a film that was responsible for creating the PG-13 rating. With playing things safe, Lucas and Spielberg seem to have little heart in the project, almost like they are just cranking it out so the fans will shut up. This doesn’t mean that they disrespect the character of Indiana Jones, giving him even more depth than before, doing away with the macho personality established in the second film, and giving him a proper send-off into a blazing sunset.
In The Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones was a flexing superhero that looked like he could have run alongside Rambo. In The Last Crusade, he is back to the Dr. Jones we knew in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Maybe this is due to his father’s supervision? In this installment, he isn’t knocking every single bad guy clean off his feet or ripping off his shirtsleeves to show off his biceps to Elsa. This is a much headier showdown than the battle of the brawn in The Temple of Doom. Here, Indy has to use his wit and intellect to stay one step ahead of the Nazis who stop at nothing to make sure he doesn’t get to the Grail before they do. I did not see Temple of Doom Indy getting swept up in the beauty of Venice and lusting after pretty blonde bombshells. Also enjoyable is the glimpse of a younger Indy (Played by River Phoenix) at the beginning of the film. In it, we get to see that the love of the chase began at an early age and that his relationship with his father was a on the rocks.
Professor Henry Jones end up being the salt that The Last Crusade is in desperate need of. He’s downright hilarious with precise comedic timing. You’ll love his reaction when Indy mows down a handful of machine gun toting Nazis or how proper Indy becomes when addressing his stern father (he calls him “Sir”). Their interactions turn out to be the highlight of The Last Crusade and watching them repair their relationship is a real treat. Connery also gets memorable interaction with bird-brained Marcus Brody. Alison Doody is a scorcher as the flip-flopping Elsa but she serves basically no purpose other than being another thorn in Indy’s side and a wobbly love interest. Glover’s Donovan, who early on reveals that he is working with the Nazis, is probably the nicest villain of the Indiana Jones trilogy, never really making us chew at our nails. He is very similar to the character of Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Michael Byrne steps up to the plate to play the real nasty General Vogel, the guy who gets to trade punches with Indy. John Rhys-Davies also returns as Sallah, who isn’t really given much to do outside of add a bit more comic relief to the action.
There are a few action sequences that do manage to capture some of the adrenaline pumping thrills of the first two films. A battle aboard a tank has some edge-of-your-seat moments but is thrown off by too many laughs and “how convenient” moments. The strongest two action scenes end up being a boat chase and Indy and Professor Jones trying to outrun Nazi fighter planes. Unlike The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade dashes all over the world, jumping from Nazi occupied Berlin to Venice to Jordan. Of all the Indiana Jones films, The Last Crusade is without question the funniest installment, more concerned with making us chuckle rather than filling us with that sense of adventure that Raiders and The Temple of Doom were keen on. Overall, I think that is why I favor Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom to The Last Crusade. This film feels like a dry rehash without the iconic moments to spice things up. That is not to say that I think that The Last Crusade is a bad film. The Last Crusade is a nice wrap up but it was time for Indy to retire the fedora and hang up the whip for a while. All that globetrotting and saving the world really wears a guy out.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is available on DVD.