Friday, November 16, 2012

Retro Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation. With the release of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, here is a look back at a film that...well, let's just say it's not one of the director's best, which is made even more disappointing by the fact that the first three films in the series were some of the director's best.  Anyway, here it is.

*************

When you have a film series as iconic as Indiana Jones, there is bound to be a sense of apprehension when it comes to the latest installment.   Put that together with the nineteen year gap since the last film and the idea of a sixty-five year old action-adventure hero bull-whipping his way around the Amazon rain forest, and no matter how giddy one may be at the mention of this long-awaited sequel-to-a-sequel-to-a-sequel - and some are quite giddy indeed - there is still quite the powerful sense of trepidation that creeps along the ole cerebral cortex.   Can Spielberg pull it off after all these years?   Can Harrison Ford do the same?   Will it be, like the second (or is it first?) trilogy of Star Wars films, nothing more than a ridiculed shadow of its true self?   Will they be able to get back that old-time movie magic one more time after such a long wait or will this be the death knell for the coolest archeology professor to ever strap on a whip and fedora?

I can tell you this for sure - I left the screening humming John Williams' iconic (there's that word again) theme music and am even doing it now, a day later, as I write these words.   What does that mean?   Well I suppose it means that old-time movie magic is still there, but unfortunately it seems rather old and tired this time around, almost as if no one - director and stars both - is really trying all that hard.   I suppose the humming is more nostalgia than zest for the new.    Granted, no one would rightfully expect the latest to be able to stand up to the original Raiders of the Lost Ark (renamed Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark for DVD release) with its original bravura and Ford's Bogart meets Errol Flynn chutzpah - especially since neither Temple of Doom nor The Last Crusade could do so in their time (without a near twenty year gap) - but I suppose I was hoping for something a bit, I don't know, a bit more.

Perhaps, as I stated earlier, Crystal Skull is a bit on the tired side (though the sexagenarian Indy does still get around with quite the florid mix of machismo and aloofness) and sometimes feeling as if everyone is just phoning in their lines, this fourth (and last? - doubtful considering the obvious foreshadowing of a new Shia LeBeouf-helmed future franchise) Indiana Jones flick does have its moments.   Unfortunately these moments (an army ant feast du jour, LeBeouf and an army of CGI monkeys Tarzanning their way through the Amazon, a nuke-thumped refrigerator catapult) never give the kick one would hope for in such a movie.   The suspension of disbelief is there as always in the genre, but the danger we are meant to perceive for the characters is not.  

Ford, though aging quite Hollywood star-like, seems as if he just wants to go home to his waifish girlfriend and his trillion acre Wyoming ranch, while Karen Allen, whom the years have not been so good to, has no other purpose it would seem than to smile adoringly at the fedora-topped adventurer that got away and all the while Shia LeBeouf, who seems quite the dynamo when contrasted with the rest of the listless cast, is merely the triflist of sidekicks as Indy's heir apparent.   Then we have Cate Blanchett as the most mildly inoffensive (and quite unintimidating) villain Indy has yet to come up against.   Looking completely lost in her dominatrix bob and bondage and quipping in silly borscht-accented coyisms, one hopes her paycheck is substantial enough here to finance her in doing about a baker's dozen more I'm Not There's.

Much has been said of Spielberg's lack of soul as a filmmaker (much of it by this very critic) but this is the kind of mega-mastondonic movie where the auteur - and sans soul or not, Spielberg is surely one of - can shine his movie-making lights upon.   Where other filmmakers of his generation (Scorsese, Coppola, Cimino, Bogdanovich, Rafelson) studied Renoir and Chaplin, Welles and Griffith, Powell and Minnelli, Spielberg was busy building then blowing up toy trains in his basement and filming it all on his Super-8 camera.   Perhaps this doesn't make for a filmmaker capable of Raging Bull or The Godfather but it does make for quite the old-timey pulp genre smoke and mirrors illusionist that Spielberg has become.   Much like his vaunted Cecil B. DeMille, Spielberg is more showman than filmmaker, and it shows here.

Though he has done better (Jaws, the original Raiders, Jurassic Park, Minority Report, the oft-maligned and somewhat flawed War of the Worlds and even my own secret shame guilty pleasure 1941) and he has done quite worse (Always, the dreadful Hook and his dismantling of Kubrick's A.I.) I suppose, even with its flaws (some of them quite glaring) and that nagging sensation that the title sounds a bit too much like a never-completed Hardy Boys Mystery, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - the fourth installment in the series - manages to wallop a few popcorn punches during its 124 minute running time.   Too bad those punches seem pulled throughout.

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 05/21/2008]

No comments: