Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull Review
I'm not proud. That should be obvious when you look through my list of reviewed titles and such things as Bloodrayne, Bratz: Livin' It Up and a Michelle McManus fitness DVD - no really! - bubble up to the surface. Earlier this year when Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull was released, there was the kind of weeping and gnashing of teeth not seen since The Phantom Menace made its way into cinemas. Consider it anything but a coincidence that George Lucas was behind both but Indy 4, as it was known for many a year, seemed to have upset a lot of people when it was released into cinemas earlier this year. But it's hard to really understand why. It is, after all, a bit more of the same?
There are two kinds of Indiana Jones movies. Well, to be fair, there's Raiders Of The Lost Ark and there's the Indiana Jones And The... films. Raiders is the Saturday morning adventure par excellence. Its mix of Nazis, the occult and the Old Testament is a heady one still, a ripping yarn as good as any in the cinema. It remains frantic, funny and frightening and is surely the only family fare in which a man melts under the power of God. The sequels, fine though they are, reprise moments but they're only as good as sequels can be. Temple Of Doom has the horror and the thrills and spills while Last Crusade has the Nazis and a New Testament twist on the adventure but neither one is as complete an adventure as Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
The biggest change between this and previous Indiana Jones films is the lack of an opening sequence unrelated to the action that follows. Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull opens with a convoy of military vehicles driving through the deserts of New Mexico, in which they're challenged to a road race by a gang of teenagers. The meaning is clear. The Nazis have been defeated and though one war has been won, America is in the middle of another. And back at home, the old guard of jazz and swing has lost the fight against rock'n'roll. Times are changing.
Pulling off the road, this convoy stops at a military base. IDs are shown but the soldiers gun down those on duty, driving through the gates in the direction of a warehouse. Their accents are Russian and their officer in command is Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). There, they unload their cargo, being the archeologists Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his partner Mac (Ray Winstone). Opening the doors to Hangar 51, Spalko demands that Jones reveal the whereabouts of the remains of an alien creature that crashed in Roswell years before. It is believed that the skull of the creature holds great psychic power and is to be the basis for a mind control weapon planned by the Soviets. But grabbing his whip, Indy escapes. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, he leaves the gunfight and aliens of Hangar 51 to a fake town in New Mexico through which sounds a siren to herald the testing of an atomic bomb. The Russians scarper while Indy hides in a lead-lined fridge. It makes for a unique getaway.
Arriving back at college, Indiana discovers that he has been given a period of extended leave following Mac's defection to the Russians. But the adventure isn't over for Indiana. He hooks up with Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), gets involved in a knife fight between college jocks and some greasers and is chased through his college campus by the KGB. It's from Mutt that he learns how his old colleague Harold Oxley (John Hurt) has recently disappeared after apparently finding a crystal skull close to the Nazca Lines in Peru. Heading south, Jones and Williams find themselves in Oxley's room in a hospital, uncovering a map to the grave of conquistador Francisco de Orellana under the dust on the floor. It is the whereabouts of a crystal skull and both Jones and Williams and the Russians are in pursuit of it. And for Indy, some old friends have come along for the adventure.
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull gets the sound of its punches right. That's a small thing, I know, but there was proof enough in that to know that Spielberg and Lucas have gotten certain things right in their return to Indiana Jones after nineteen years away. There are others, not least a glimpse of the Ark of the Covenant, of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and of a statue of Marcus Brody that is no sooner seen than it is decapitated but what separates this from what has kept us entertained in the meantime is that come the first of those punches, the first sight of that fedora and the first sound of the crack of that bullwhip, one immediately feels very much at home.
The da Vinci Code, both the book and the film, were reasonably entertaining. National Treasure and its sequels were good fun. Stephen Sommers' The Mummy did well enough at raiding tombs, of scuttling insects and of mythology. But this is Indiana Jones and it's a whole lot better than any of it's pretenders to the action/adventure throne. At times, this pays homage to its own history. Like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Indiana Jones must come from behind in a convoy of, this time, Russians (and not Nazis) but proves himself as able to climb up the side of a truck, punch out the driver and take control of the vehicle now as he was in 1981. There are gags about snakes, glimpses of characters from films past in photographs in Jones' house and even a cameo appearance from the Ark of the Covenant. But while it's clearly Indiana Jones, it also plays with the characters conventions in such a way that Spielberg and Lucas haven't avoided the issues of age. Ford, in his mid-sixties by the time of this film, refused to dye his hair for the film and the decision is a wise one. He also looks to be breathing that little bit heavier after the action. And if he takes a back seat during one of the action sequences - actually taking the driver's seat while Mutt Williams crosses swords with Irina Spalko - it's probably because he is older. Ford was carrying a little too much weight even at the time of Temple Of Doom and while he can still throw a haymaker as well as any of the movie greats, Indiana Jones has aged well. That Jones has done so is good enough but the film is particularly worthy of praise in its bringing back Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. To have an ageing Jones is one thing. To have given him a romantic interest not so very much younger is quite another and what is most memorable about Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is the verbal sparring between Jones and Ravenwood, as though they'd never been apart these last twenty-seven years.
In spite of listening to the grumbling of others as regards the far-fetched nature of the alien artifacts, of extra-dimensional beings, of dead conquistadors, of living dead warriors and of giant fire ants, what it comes to is this is an Indiana Jones movie and it can only really be judged against the three films that have gone before. It has nothing so silly as the Nazi pilot, now without wings, overtaking Jones Junior and Senior in a tunnel in The Last Crusade and peering out at the Joneses as he passes. On the other hand, it doesn't have as memorable a villain as those of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. There is no standoff between Spalko and Jones that one might consider to be on a par with that between Rene Belloq and Jones. Again, its chase scenes are positively grounded when placed side-by-side with the mine-cart ride in Temple Of Doom while Shia LaBoeuf and Cate Blanchett clashing swords while straddling a Jeep and a DUKW don't have that same sense of fun as the sword fights of Raiders and Temple Of Doom. And if someone burns at the sight of the crystal skulls in a reprise of the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, well so be it. If Indiana Jones has taught us anything, it is that meddling in the supernatural exacts a high price, typically that of burning, exploding or melting.
So it's an Indiana Jones movie. It's not Raiders Of The Lost Ark but, like the relationship between most films and their sequels, that's only to be expected. But Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull holds its own against Temple Of Doom and The Last Crusade. Hell, I enjoyed it and I saw enough in my own children to think that this could be their Raiders Of The Lost Ark. "Woah...that was a class movie!" is what my six-year-old boy had to say about this. I probably said something similar back in 1981.
This arrived on a couple of check discs so there isn't the means to check if this comes with a THX-approved transfer. But it probably does. Unfortunately, that's not to say that this is any better than the DVD of any recent release. In keeping with Lucas and Spielberg's intention to have a common look between the earlier films and Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, this doesn't look so very different from what has gone before. But while that promises a return to the pin-sharp thrills of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is closer to the slightly softer Last Crusade, be this due to a change in Spielberg's use of equipment or in a need to disguise the digital effects.
The DVD is no great shakes. The picture is bright and colourful, if, looking at the DVD Beaver screengrabs, slightly different from those of the BD release. There is a small amount of grain but most of it is lost in a picture that is very far from being as sharp as it ought to be. Not that the film is at all realistic, at least not when it ends with aliens, a flying saucer and cross-dimensional travel, but the picture lacks realism. The colours just don't look quite right, being a little too intense. Some of that seems in keeping with the fifties setting, this being a Norman Rockwell painting brought to the movies, but the bigger problem is with the clarity of the image, which falls short of what I had expected. This may allow a more consistent look across the film, thus disguising the CG effects, but it does so by sacrificing the clarity of the DVD presentation.
On the other hand, it's difficult to complain about the DD5.1 soundtrack, which is terrific. Everything about it, from the dialogue, John Williams' score and the audio effects, including those Ben Burtt pulled out off the library for the original three films, is presented with clarity and, when needed, plenty of impact. The gunshots, whip cracks and punches all sound part of the Indiana Jones experience. Much of the success of this track is, I'm sure, due to Ben Burtt, with his mix picking out the clash of rapiers even as the action hurtles through the jungle. Even his use of science-fiction background bleeps and burbles seems right for the movie. Make-believe, of course, but still sounding great. Finally, there are English subtitles.
Without a commentary, the bonus features on the first disc begins with The Return Of The Legend (17m36s), which is a look back at how Indiana Jones returned after nineteen years away. The best interviews in the feature are with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford, particularly on their behind-the-scenes negotiations to bring the series back, such as Lucas being convinced that it ought to be about aliens in spite of Spielberg not wanting to go back there. There's also talk of Nazis, of moving Indiana Jones out of the thirties and forties into the B-movies of the fifties and of the development of supporting characters. The second feature on this disc is Pre-production (11m46s), which carries on The Return Of The Legend as the action moves onto the set. There are further interviews with the cast and crew, particularly Spielberg, with the feature taking us to the point where shooting is to begin.
The Production Diary (80m20s) is rather piecemeal in its approach to the making of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. It starts well, picking up exactly where the previous features left off. Here, it's to that part of Santa Fe that doubles for New Mexico and the strip of road outside the film's Hangar 51. What follows is presented in order, with the production moving from there to Doom Town and the atomic blast, to what doubles for Marshall University and to those bits of the jungle and sets that double for Akatar.
With this documentary moving on to the actual production, there's much less of Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas and much more on Steven Spielberg but it's actually very democratic in how it interviews so many of those behind and in front of the cameras. Stuntmen, costumiers and those concerned with make-up and special effects are interviewed but much of the time is given over to production designer Guy Dyas who's good when explaining the little details in the Akatar sets, including his tiles with ET, C3P0 and R2D2 on them, but less so when talking about boxes in Hangar 51. However, in finding out what happened on the production, from the first day's shoot (and Spielberg and Lucas driving off the set in the cruiser that opens the film) to the very last day of production, this is hard to fault.
What follows this long feature is a series of shorter ones on certain parts of the film, including one on the Warrior Makeup (5m36s), the Crystal Skulls (10m12s) and, being the best one, Iconic Props (10m02s). It's this last one that describes those things that have become iconic through their association with Indiana Jones, including the hat, leather jacket and bullwhip as well as the film's take on the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. We only see some of these props in passing, particularly those, like Moses' staff, that made only a brief appearance in the film but, mostly, they're all there.
This series of short features continues with The Effects Of Indy (22m44s), which, if you know anything about Lucas's in-house special effects company, features a lot of men (mostly men!) in front of workstations talking about digital effects. It also features those responsible for the model-work in the film, including the blowing away of Doom Town by a 100-gallon air cannon. But what, more often than not, it comes down to is that no matter what is filmed on location, ILM will have some hand in what we eventually see. This is followed by Adventures In Post-Production (12m46s), which sees Spielberg and Michael Kahn talking about the editing of the film, Ben Burtt (and son Benny) on the sound design and John Williams. Closing: Team Indy (3m43s) features glimpses of all of those on the cast and crew either on the set or in interviews after the making of the film.
Finally, the DVD features three Pre-Visualisation Sequences (3m53s, 5m49s and 4m30s), a set of Galleries and Trailers (1m47s, 1m50s and 1m08s).