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Saturday, May 24, 2008


"Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite movie!"

-- Chris Knight while shaking hands with Steven Spielberg
August 2nd, 1989

So here it is: my review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A review that for various reasons I never thought that I'd find myself writing.

And all this time y'all thought the Star Wars movies were tops on my list. Well, the Star Wars saga remains my favorite film series. But so far as individual movies go...

No other movie before or since has influenced my life as much as Raiders of the Lost Ark did. I was seven years old when my family went to see it on the night before New Year's Eve in 1981. The next day I was on my bedroom floor surrounded by opened volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia and our family Bible, looking for every scrap of information that I could find on the Ark of the Covenant: my first-ever research project. Before 1982 arrived I'd already figured out that Lucas and Spielberg might have "taken some liberties" (as I found out years later is what you call it) with the real story of the Ark. Like, nowhere in the Bible did I find that the Ark could "level mountains". Still didn't keep me from wanting to see the movie again though...

That was the beginning of my life-long interest in history: one that would ultimately see me earning a college degree in the field.

I'm sharing all of this to let y'all know what the Indiana Jones movies mean to me, and the profound impact that they wound up having on my life. And that's been the most consistent thing that I've been able to come up with so far. Usually I spend a lot of time composing my thoughts for a movie like this, and just as much writing them. And since yesterday evening I've started writing a proper review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull no less than four times.

I saw it yesterday afternoon at the Grande Stadium 16 in Greensboro, along with my wife Lisa and my father. Dad and I have seen every Indiana Jones movie together as each was playing in the theaters. We've been talking for months about seeing this one too, and I could have caught it during the midnight premiere on Wednesday night or opening day Thursday but nope: this is something he and I had to do together. Figure in Lisa and that's two of the people who matter most to me that I wanted to share this with (I would have asked Mom if she wanted to come but she's still grossed-out by memories of what happened to Belloq, Toht and Dietrich when they opened the Ark).

So... what did I think of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?


No, I'm not just saying that either. I seriously thought it was a very, very good movie. And it only gets better the more that I think about it since watching it yesterday afternoon.

The movie takes place in 1957: nineteen years after the events of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (but chronologically it's seven years since we last saw Harrison Ford in the role during his cameo in a 1993 episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles television series). The film begins with a convoy of U.S. Army trucks driving through the Nevada desert. The vehicles arrive at an Air Force hangar. The soldiers disembark, shoot the base personnel and then drag two men out of a car trunk: George "Mac" McHale (played by George Winstone) and Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones Jr., looking none the worse for wear in spite of two decades and hints of action in World War II.

It turns out that their assailants are Soviet soldiers under the command of KGB agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). And the building they have arrived at is none other than the now-famous government warehouse shown at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spalko has brought Indy and Mac here because Russian intelligence has discovered that in addition to all of the other U.S. government secrets (including the contents of a certain crate... which we do get to see again) there is something in the warehouse pertaining to an incident that Indy was called in to consult upon in 1947.

Of course, Indy escapes (in one of the most outrageously fun sequences that I've seen in an action movie in many years). But the circumstances of what went down in Nevada leave Jones academically black-balled at the height of the Red Scare. En route to teach elsewhere, Indy is approached by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a "greaser"-type in love with motorcycles. Mutt shares with Indy the news that an old colleague named Harold Oxley (John Hurt) has gone missing after discovering a crystal skull in Peru. The new team of Indy and Mutt are soon en route to South America (and the classic Indiana Jones-style map and red line is back!) to unravel the mystery. It's not long before Indy once again runs afoul of Spalko and the Russians, who are holding as their captive Mutt's mother and Indy's old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, looking as great as she did in Raiders of the Lost Ark!).

And yeah there's much more to this movie, but that should be enough to tantalize folks who haven't seen it. And they really should go see it in theaters if they can, 'cuz I honestly can't remember the last time I saw a movie quite like this and had that kind of enjoyment. Maybe not since the Nineteen-Eighties even...

You see, to me at least there are three things that one should realize to fully enjoy Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The first is that this is an Eighties movie, made two decades later. In terms of style and tone it's not at all what we've come to expect from a modern blockbuster. So in that respect, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is something of a "love letter" to the original Indiana Jones movies and other films that my generation grew up with.

If that bothers some people, then maybe it would also help to understand what it is that, I believe, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were doing when they set out to make Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Remember how they said that Raiders of the Lost Ark was intentionally a homage to the classic "Saturday afternoon serials" of the Thirties and Forties? Well, I believe that just so, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is best appreciated when it's understood that this movie is a homage to all of those Nineteen-Fifties science-fiction films, including so-called B-movies. All of the classic elements are there in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: aliens and flying saucers, atomic warfare, Communist spies, psychic powers, heck even a cheesy-sounding title! This is an Indiana Jones movie that George Pal, Gordon Douglas and Joseph M. Newman would have made back in the day... and for that reason alone, I love it!

And the third reason why I thought Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a great movie: this film represents at long last the return of "the old" Steven Spielberg. When I met him in 1989 at the National Boy Scout Jamboree, that was the Spielberg that was still making Indiana Jones movies and stuff like Back to the Future, and went on to make Jurassic Park. A lot of of other people at the time commented that Spielberg in person really did act like "a big kid having fun".

But then a few years later Spielberg made Schindler's List. One of the stories I've read is that while visiting Auschwitz, Spielberg found a strange puddle in the ground and stuck his hand into it. Only then did he realize that it was a pit of human ash and bone debris.

How does something like that not affect a person? Spielberg was never the same after Schindler's List. I know people who've met Spielberg in the years since and as one put it "he's creative, but haunted". Even when his next movie The Lost World: Jurassic Park came out, it seemed as if Spielberg was a rattled director. At least since A.I.: Artificial Intelligence he's been trying to "come back home" to the kid he once was, but it's been a hard road.

With Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I think that Steven Spielberg finally has returned, and maybe to the point in his life that he wants and needs to be at. A few years ago I heard John Rhys-Davies comment that he thought Spielberg was still "a young director" with potential to grow even greater. With this latest Indiana Jones movie, we see that "the kid" Steven Spielberg is still alive and well. He's been there all along: he just had to go on his own "Grail quest" and come back a little wiser for it.

As for the plot of this movie: having followed the development of a fourth Indiana Jones movie for fifteen years now, I caught a lot of elements that had been suggested in that time. At one point Indy jokes about "saucer men from Mars", and indeed Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars was the title of a proposed fourth Indy script from the Nineties. I thought that I could also pick out more than a few things from the Indiana Jones and the Sons of Darkness script (just one of the wackier things that happened on the way to making a fourth Indiana Jones flick). Maybe it's just the Indiana Jones "geek" in me coming out but I noticed what could have been nods to Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (considered the best Indiana Jones video game produced to date) and even Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, which also pitted Indy against Soviet goons. At one point Indy tells Mutt that he rode with "Pancho" Villa, which is more than a passing reference to the events of the two-hour pilot episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. And although Marcus Brody and Henry Jones Sr. have sadly passed away (Denholm Elliott died in 1992 and Sean Connery is enjoying retirement) they are still a strong influence in Indy's life. It was very neat to see them acknowledged, particularly how Marcus is remembered around the Marshall College campus.

It might have been a maddening melange of MacGuffins. But Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brings home the goods in classic Indy style.

I thought the acting was terrific, the action intense and the humor was just right. Spielberg, Lucas, Ford and the rest of the crew no doubt had some laughs playing around with this "new" era of Indy's life, and it shows. Ford as the older Indy shows some poignancy we haven't seen in the role before, but he's just as quick with his mind and wits... and his fists... as he ever was. The biggest surprise in terms of cast was LaBeouf as Mutt: I thought he was the perfect Fifties-era sidekick to Indy, and by the end of the movie he's becoming something of an apprentice, which is perhaps something that Jones has needed more than he knew. Karen Allen is a delight to watch as Marion again. Blanchett brings the right balance of menace and humor to Spalko. I enjoy Winstone as Mac (and I hope we get to find out more about what happened between Mac and Indy during World War II) and James Broadbent in his all-too-brief appearances as Indy's friend and Marshall dean. The one criticism I kinda have is that it would have been good to see more of John Hurt as Oxley. But even there, I have to wonder: Harold Oxley reminds me greatly of Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett: an English archaeologist who also went looking for lost cities of gold deep in the Amazon basin. Fawcett disappeared in 1928, and there were stories that he was spotted years later in the jungle having "gone native" and screaming mad. Was Oxley based on Fawcett? Seems little doubt that he was. So in that regard, I have to believe it was inspired casting to put Hurt in the role.

The special effects of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are outstanding, but it is not a movie as bereft of digital enhancement as I was expecting. The early publicity was almost enough to make us believe that Spielberg and Lucas would shoot this with the same level of technology as the three original movies. There's CGI galore in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull but I never thought it was as overwhelming as, say, one of the Star Wars prequels (didn't all of those Clonetroopers as a whole look more than a little un-natural?). The stunts are, so far as I can tell, still all physical... including Harrison Ford, who seemed to impress everyone at our screening with the fitness he shows for a 65-year old actor. The man has definitely been keeping himself in great shape all of these years while waiting to do this movie.

John Williams' score for this movie complements the action nicely, but curiously I can't recall any single theme that resonates as well afterward from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as much as, say, the Ark's theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark or the music for the Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I did buy the soundtrack CD a few days ago though for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and have been playing it a lot while I work. There is a lot of repetition of previous movements, but otherwise I think it's okay for an Indiana Jones soundtrack. Not at all "outstanding" like the one for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but still good in its own right.

I could go on writing about how great a movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is. But you know... it all comes down to the experience I chose to have watching it with my wife and my father. Lisa and Dad loved it. Especially Dad: he admitted that parts of it were "weird to me" (especially the stuff toward the end) but it was pretty obvious to both Lisa and I that he was thoroughly enjoying this movie. It was also enough to make Lisa want to watch our DVD of Raiders of the Lost Ark when we got home.

And as for me: I've been watching a new Indiana Jones movie writhe and linger in turmoil for a decade and a half now. I've said for months that I wouldn't believe this one was really happening, until I sat down in the theater and saw it on the big screen for myself.

Well folks, that's just what happened yesterday. I saw a new Indiana Jones movie at last and I enjoyed every minute of it!

And if you can buy into the notion that this is an old-fashioned Eighties blockbuster, you will too.

(And if you want another, although very different take on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, my good friend Phillip Arthur has posted a review also :-)


qemuel said...

Good review, Chris! I am very pleased that you had such a good time, especially knowing how important Indy is to you.

It's kind of funny; I spoke with my friend Cavin about the film after he saw it, and his thoughts on the film were virtually identical to yours. We compared and contrasted our feelings on the movie, seeing and understanding one another's POV's (not that anyone would know how I actually felt by my "review" aka rant; I was extremely tired and kinda angry when I wrote it).

We came to the same conclusion: I was not in the frame of mind that night to be able to get past the things that bothered me (which were almost completely technical), and fixated on them rather than just watching the movie. So who knows; I may have a completely different experience when I see it again. Won't be the first time that has happened.

Unknown said...

I totally agree with you Chris. The movie was AWESOME!!!!! I think one of the best ever. I had heard some disparaging reviews before I went in, but I think they are all wrong. Its great!!! I love how they tie a lot of the previous movies and elements together. It felt like they were tying up some lose ends. And the ending to me was just so perfect. Did you notice the ark in the warehouse scene? Great tie in too. Also I love how the hat rolls to Mutts feet. I truely believe that is an official passing of the torch. I've heard rumors that they are planning another movie where Mutt takes over and Indy is just there as a cameo or side role. After seeing that scene I fulling believe that is what they are setting us up for. It would be great to see it continue.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't sure at first that I liked this movie either but your review has me thinking that in the end I liked it very much.

You got to meet Spielberg? Lucky dog :)

Anonymous said...

I watched it with friends today and one of them asked a good question. Does the warehouse and everything in it including the Ark survive the nuclear blast?

Chris Knight said...

That is a good question. I think that when Indy and the Soviet thug were on the rocket sled, that it took them WAY out into the desert, far away from the warehouse. And presumably far enough away from the nuclear blast too. The warehouse was likely not close to the blast at all.

So don't worry: the Ark didn't get melted into holy slag or anything :-)

Anonymous said...

What was your favorite scene in IJATKOTCS Chris?

Chris Knight said...

It's hard to say Pete. But the one image from the movie that I can't stop thinking about is after Indy survives the nuclear test, he gets out of the fridge and onto his feet, and he gazes up at that mushroom cloud...

Even without a word of dialogue, the meaning couldn't have been more clear: this is a whole new age we're seeing Indy in. One in which mankind has at last harnessed a power that dares to rival that of the Ark. I couldn't help but wonder what was going through Indy's mind as he saw that.

If there's an iconic moment for each of the Indiana Jones movies (boulder chase in Raiders, Indy on the bridge in Temple of Doom, maybe Indy on horseback against the tank in Last Crusade), then the sight of Indy juxtaposed against a mushroom cloud has to be the one for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Anonymous said...

Saw it today and loved it. I wish Lucas and Spielberg and Ford could make another one.