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SpielBLOG: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – A Steven Spielberg Retrospective

I have to be honest. When I first saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I thought it was okay. I had been prepared to hate it, and it was okay. Not terrible. Harrison Ford was likeable in the role; there was running and jumping and some of the ideas – like the mushroom cloud pictured above held a real pathos. But it is not a good film. And indeed in the context of this blog, I’d say it is Hook bad.

The terrible ideas begin almost at once. The Paramount mountain becomes a molehill in a visual pun, the weakness of which is only matched by the instantly dated CGI rodent. Then we get a road race that links to George Lucas’ American Graffiti roots. And before we know it we are in Area 51 with the Ruskies and a captured Indiana Jones, who without much by way of persuasions helps them to locate an item from a government warehouse. He tries to escape but is partly foiled by Ray Winstone’s turncoat Mac but eventually manages to escape, employing a fridge in the process.

The film then steadies itself with a trip to university, the introduction of Shia LaBeouf’s Marlon Brando in The Wild One clone Mutt and a story about a South American city and a missing former colleague. In order to set up Act Three surprises the actual information and motivation is fairly limp. Who are these people? What exactly do you want?

There’s a shot as Indy and Mutt travel to South America that sums up the film’s many many problems. They’ve taken a passenger plane and now they’re on a smaller charter flight. And on the plane they have Mutt’s motorcycle. Okay, so there are many problems with the believability of this. How expensive is that? How did they get it on the passenger place? Do they really need it? Of course, we’re assuming there’s going to be a set-piece that relies on it later but no. It disappears from the film entirely. Can you imagine Luke Skywalker bringing his landspeeder to the Death Star and then not bothering with it?

Perhaps this is an inevitable flaw given all the drafts of the screenplay – Frank Darabont wrote one as did M. Night Shyamalan among others. There are lots of other weaknesses in the plot, but let’s move on because there are a lot more problems with the film as a whole.

This is by far one of Spielberg’s ugliest films. All of the outdoor shots seem to have been filmed with a few exceptions on green screen laden sound stages. The lighting is bright fake. Even the stills look fake. Raiders was dusty and sweaty and sunny. Here there is no weather. Just bright digital irreality. I detect the hand of a post prequels Lucas calling the shots. There isn’t a single place that looks like a real place, except perhaps for the fake town in Nevada ironically.

And likewise, none of the characters feel real. That doesn’t so much matter with the villains and Cate Blanchett seems to be the only performer who can strike the right balance between camp exaggeration and some attempt to create a real person. Ray Winstone is saddled with zero development and glib plot necessity. His relationship with Indy should mean something. They’re supposed to have backstory history, but it’s all burnt in the prologue. John Hurt is wasted playing comedy madman in the style of Ben Gunn. Karen Allen is so ridiculously happy to be working she can’t get a ludicrous grin off her face long enough to deliver a decent line. And Harrison Ford might be familiar with his role, but here his line readings are so tired that one wonders if he was on too much back medicine.

Once more I have to be honest and say at least Shia LaBeouf is trying something. It doesn’t succeed and like everyone in the film, he is forced to deliver some forced comedy beats that are totally out of character. The monkeys that look like him and the swinging through the trees again feel like they come from the same mind that brought you Chewbacca delivering a Tarzan yell in Return of the Jedi. The film also betrays him somewhat by setting the story up as the passing of the torch and then whips the hat away from him at the last moment. It’s a failure of nerve, similar to the whole conception of the movie. The last Indiana Jones was called The LAST Crusade for the love of God. Father and son reunited. And you had an excellent script. And they rode into the sunset. Leave it be.

It is easy perhaps to exaggerate how bad it truly is and forget that there are some moments that work. Some decent lines. But the bar is not The Mummy Returns. The bar is set with Raiders, Temple of Doom and Last Crusade and this falls so far below it the bar must be invisible to the naked eye from down there. Even the wonky model roller-coaster that finishes Temple of Doom is more exciting and interesting than the CGI chase scenes and quicksand and the snake rescue and the everything that this film represents.

If you want more detail and you want something back from having watched this turgid stuff, then watch Mr. Plinkett’s review below which is excellent. Spielberg has made some poor films in the past – Always, The Terminal and Hook – but this is the first time he’s made a film where you don’t even feel he is trying.

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