Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
directed by Steven Spielberg
(Paramount, 2008)

I felt a tremendous surge of anticipation as the familiar Paramount logo came onto the screen -- and, even though this time its trademark transformation was into a lowly prairie-dog hill in Nevada instead of a lofty mountain in some exotic and archeologically rich site far away in the world, I couldn't resist a shiver of excitement to know that my first view of Indiana Jones in two decades was mere moments away.

Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a long time coming. Mixed reviews had me worried that it might not have been worth the wait. Would Indy let me down this time?


The timeslip, from the 1930s of early installments to the late 1950s of this new model Jones, was easier to take than I'd expected. Elvis, belting out "Hound Dog" as some young teenyboppers drag-raced in their jalopy, cemented the era for the audience and made sure we all knew that 20 years had passed since Indiana Jones had last dusted off his fedora.

And that's how he makes his first appearance in the film, dusting off his well-worn hat after being unceremoniously dumped from the trunk of a KGB car on a U.S. military base deep in the Nevada desert. A test of the atomic bomb might have been the big news of the day, but the KGB, led by Soviet archeologist Col. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, coldly beautiful and rapier sharp), is more interested in the contents of a nearby warehouse. Not the Ark of the Covenant, mind you -- although it's winking at us there among the endless expanse of crates -- but the mummified corpse of something highly magnetic and seemingly ... alien?

Well, do bear in mind that, even if we're not in Roswell, we're near Roswell.

But all that backstory pales before the appearance of Our Hero, Indiana Jones, a role Harrison Ford was born and bred to play. Weathered by years of ill use and hard traveling, the archeologist, adventurer and part-time professor stands proud, tough as old leather and as unyielding as a mountain. God, I've missed that man!

Of course, he finds the artifact with implausible archeological ingenuity, and he escapes the KGB with hard-to-believe but amazingly fun violence and mayhem. And if you find it hard to accept that he escaped death by atomic annihilation in a lead-lined refrigerator, well, you couldn't very well kill off the hero in the first bloody scene, could you? (Kids: Don't try that at home. Hiding in refrigerators is bad. My wife had a conniption over that scene, despite the friendly admonition by a jocular general a few seconds later telling Indy just how dangerous hiding in the fridge can be.)

Soon enough, we meet Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent), who fills in for the late, lamented Marcus Brody (played in previous films by the late, lamented Denholm Elliott), at Marshall College, where agents of the commie-crazy federal government have just managed to blacklist Indy out of a job (after several tantalizing clues to Indy's covert activities during World War II). Then greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) arrives with the message that Indy's old archeologist pal Harold "Ox" Oxley (John Hurt) has been kidnapped by the Reds, and Indy is off to South America to save the day, rescue Oxley and Mutt's missing mom, foil the villains and make astonishing archeological discoveries along the way.

Take that, Lara Croft! In your face, Ben Gates!

Let me say honestly that I was prepared to hate Mutt, the young punk filmmakers brought in to do all of the Indy stuff that Indy, at age 65, could no longer do. But he was legitimately fun to watch, and LaBeouf made him the perfect sidekick for Jones (who, let it be said, didn't let two decades get in the way of some pretty incredible stunts).

I did miss Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), who has made such a great sidekick for Indy in the past. I also missed Pat Roach, the big guy who faced off against Indy in all three previous films, but the Russian bear Dovchenko (Igor Jijikine) filled those king-sized boots nicely.

But all that paled when compared to the joy of seeing Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, as cheerful and feisty as ever) back at Indy's side. That, my friends, is something we've been rooting for since they first got together in Raiders of the Lost Ark back in 1981. Theirs is one of the great romantic pairings to come out of Hollywood, bickering, scuffling and all.

And then there's George "Mac" McHale (Ray Winstone, whose real-life physique is nothing like you might believe from his animated alter-ego in Beowulf), a fellow archeologist whose motives and loyalties will remain a mystery 'til the end.

OK, back to the story. Rather than the mystical forces of early Christian and Hindu legends that inspired the first three Jones films, this one delves into ancient and 20th-century lore of alien contact with Earth. And, while the Nazis of movies #1 and #3 are the awesomest archetypal villains of the 20th century, I must confess some nostalgia for the Soviets, who were the big bad guys during the Cold War of my youth. In this case, they're after artifacts from a race of extraterrestrial or pandimensional beings who might hold the paranormal key to psychic world domination.

The movie certainly provides all of the chills, spills, thrills and carnage we've all come to expect from an outing with Indiana Jones. Fans will love the snake, the triple waterfalls and a breathless drive through the rainforest, and who can forget those "big damn ants" who made one chase/fight scene so spectacular?

As always, there are amazing special effects to take your breath away, but -- unlike so many movies coming out of Hollywood today -- the effects are driven by the story, and not vice versa.

Ultimately, an Indiana Jones movie is what it is. If you like this sort of thing, then surely you already realize that nobody does it better than Indiana Jones -- especially when you get Ford together with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and the whole crazy gang. Arguing if Crystal Skull is better or worse than the previous films in the series is a waste of oxygen; they're all varying degrees of great. This one is, too.

I feel like we waited too long for this movie, and now that it's here, it was over too soon. For a moment there at the end, I thought they might be passing the hat ... but Indiana kept hold of it all the same. Let's hope this amazing team pulls one more Indy film out of their collective headgear before it's too late.

by Tom Knapp
19 July 2008

My friend Gretchen in California had very simple tastes. Whenever we were browsing in a video store she'd say, "What I really want is to see Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time again."

Gretchen wasn't much of a fan of the next two Indy movies; she thought they were just noisy and derivative, and I tended to agree with her, although the derivative part is pretty much a given when you're re-creating a popular art (?) form such as the Saturday afternoon adventure serial.

Alas, Gretchen is no longer around, but I think she'd enjoy Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as much as I did and, after all, who's reviewing this movie, Gretchen or me?

I'm not a big fan of Steven Spielberg, except when he's not taking himself seriously. (I still think Jaws is his best movie.) And in Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- a jawcracker of a title -- believe you me, he's not taking himself seriously.

This has been a problem for some of my younger friends, who hate this movie because they find the whole thing totally unbelievable. Heck, I could have told them that about the first three, but some of them weren't born when The Last Crusade came out. This may make some of the period references in Skull, such as the opening sequence of clean-cut teen-agers on a hot-rod joy-ride to the sound of "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog," less accessible, but I'm perfectly comfortable with that.

The fun stuff in Crystal Skull bounces off that very fact: it's been 19 years since the last Indiana Jones movie, and it's been 19 years for Indy, too. He's 65, and things aren't as easy for him as they used to be, but he's still up for extended action sequences. We're told that Harrison Ford did SOME of his own stunts. Frankly, I wouldn't have tried ANY of them, and I've got four years on the guy. But he's still got enough punch and stamina to impress Mutt, his young sidekick (Mutt?), a greaser on a bike who's a dead ringer for Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Yet another period reference, or perhaps a homage.

Indy's readiness to jump back into peril is balanced by his sense of loss, and that's one of the things that makes this episode appealing.

"We've reached the age when life stops giving us things and starts taking them away," says the college dean, appealingly played by Jim Broadbent. Indy's old pal, Marcus Brody, along with Indy's father, has died in the past year. Denholm Elliot, who played Brody in the last three movies, did in fact die recently, and Crystal Skull contains three references to him, one a brief but touching mention, one an actual portrait on the wall, and one a piece of just dreadful slapstick. This fine actor couldn't have asked for a more memorable tribute from his peers.

Everything else is precisely in place, including the Saturday morning stupidities: Indy uses gunpowder to find a highly magnetic artifact, and exactly which of gunpowder's three ingredients are ferric? And exactly who, and why, are the Inca Graveyard Ninja Attackers of Nazca?

It seems silly to avoid spoilers now that the movie has opened, but there was so much secrecy surrounding the production (the credits actually list a Confidentiality Coordinator) that it would seem churlish of me to give things away, so here is a vague idea:

In the mid-1950s Professor Jones loses his job during the Red Scare, even though he's a national hero. Young Mutt brings news that an old friend of Indy's has been kidnapped by Russians in South America because of a crystal skull that can confer Ultimate Knowledge. Indy, of course, hares off to rescue his old friend because he's already run afoul of these Commies at a test site at Area 51, where agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, having more fun with her Russian accent than the law allows) forces Indy to find the magnetic residue of the Roswell incident, looking for Paranormal Military Applications. Of course Indy escapes, only to run smack into an atomic bomb test. His survival, in a refrigerator, is one of the things my young friends didn't buy, and herewith today's sermon:

Statistically, most everybody in the audience these days is too young to remember the Saturday afternoon serials. I barely can (cough), and believe me, credibility was not thick on the ground. I have recollections of standing around on the sidewalk after the matinee, arguing vehemently that the Tonga Ray couldn't possibly penetrate a Daikon Shield, and that the Dumbo Leaf could protect you against the Neuschwanstein Ear Spell. Or something.

So what if your hero survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge? He survives, doesn't he? And that gets you to the next episode. And that, essentially, is where you're going to have to meet Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- somewhere in the realm of the preposterous.

Another friend of mine absolutely HATED the Mummy movies with Brendan Fraser -- "They have NOTHING to do with ancient Egypt!" he fulminated, and I agree with him entirely. But the Mummy movies have a sense of self-awareness that's charming because they don't mistake irony for affectionate parody, and that's just about where the latest Indiana Jones movie is poised. Preposterousness is something that is frequently undervalued in movies of this ilk, and the preposterosity of Crystal Skull is something anyone can enjoy, no matter their age.

One more thing about the movie that's only a TINY spoiler, and then I'll shut up: Marion Ravenwood shows up, at last, finally, not seen since Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it's what we've all been waiting for.

Kate Capshaw's rendition of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" in Cantonese was a show-stopper in Temple of Doom; unfortunately it started the show, and it was all downhill from there. And I can't even remember the name of the poor blonde chippy from The Last Crusade, and neither can you. But when Karen Allen arrives (and I won't tell you where or why, though anybody could guess it), we audience members breathe a sigh of relief, and realize that It Will All Work Out.

She says, "I bet you had plenty of women!"

He says, "Yeah, but they all had the same problem."

She says, "What problem?"

He says, "They weren't you."

And, gloriosky, that's the truth: Marion Ravenwood is back, and that's what makes the whole movie so satisfying. Sequel? Who cares?

The May/June 2008 issue of Archeology magazine (you can find it at the library) has an article discussing the evidence about crystal skulls from (maybe) Mesoamerica. They're fascinating artifacts, but it seems they're mostly 19th century fakes. Sorry.

by Dale Hill
19 July 2008

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