Sunday, 25 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Screen Fever Score: 7/10

Harrison Ford returns to the role of his life with solid-gold movie star style, but Steven Spielberg can’t quite match him, making a film that’s too much whizz-bang visuals and not enough heart. It's fun, but not a patch on Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Full review:
I should really have learned by now, after a good few decades of movie watching, that the biggest of blockbusters will most likely fail to live up to expectations. Especially if it’s a long-time-coming sequel to a much-loved series. Still, I couldn’t help hoping that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might just break the mould, and actually be the Best Movie Of All Time. It’s probably not surprising to you to hear that it isn’t. In fact, it’s not even the best film of this year so far, and by my current reckoning it will probably end up fighting Temple of Doom in the film annals for the dubious honour of “least-good Indiana Jones film ever made”.

So that’s the hard part out of the way, but thankfully, it’s not the end of the story; because even though Indy 4 isn’t a classic, it does offer a lot to enjoy in the way of old-fashioned action thrills – at least in the moments when Spielberg keeps away from his pesky box of digital effects trickery.

The story begins, after a scene-setting credits sequence, in the usual Indy style, at the tail-end of an adventure we never see the start of, with Indy, 20 years older than we remember, being dragged out of a car boot in the Nevada desert. Time has moved on since his wartime adventures, so now the baddies are Russian, and our grizzled but still instantly recognisable hero is their captive. By his side is a new colleague, Ray Winstone’s cowardly Mac, and in his face a new nemesis, Irana Spalko, a fantastic Cate Blanchett boasting a severe haircut and a ridiculous Ruski accent. The stage is set, and the action kicks off. The story that unfolds incorporates old and new characters; Shia LeBeouf cements his movie star status as young rebel Mutt, Karen Allen makes a welcome return as Raiders’ Marion Ravenwood and John Hurt and Jim Broadbent have small but significant roles as key characters (although ‘plot devices’ would be a better description of their impact in the film).

But even with its glowing cast list, Indy 4 is really a one-man show, and it primarily reminded me why Harrison Ford really is a world-class movie star. He is Indiana Jones, and even after 19 years away he is in complete command of the role. His performance in Crystal Skull offers up a plethora of iconic moments that confirm why we love these movies: a moment in his study with Mutt when Indy’s eyes light up at the prospect of a new adventure; a hilarious exchange with old flame Marion as they face certain (ahem) doom in a sinking bog; and of course, trading punches with a pesky Russian soldier who will just not give up. Ford convinces in every moment, getting to display a lightness and sense of humour that we haven’t seen from him since, well, the last Indy movie.

But if Ford slips back into character like he’s never been away, the same can’t be said of Spielberg. While there are some knock-out moments of big-screen magic (Indiana Jones encountering a nuclear mushroom cloud being the most jaw-dropping) Crystal Skull too often feels forced, like Spielberg is trying to recapture the spirit of the earlier films, but it’s not coming so naturally any more. Occasionally the tone is too silly, as when Mutt swings through the jungle with a tribe of monkeys in tow, and at other times action sequences seem to lack the intensity of Jones’s former escapades. The cliff-top jeep battle should be the most exciting, thrilling piece of action escapism that we see in 2008, but it comes off as flat. Even while watching it, it’s the idea of what’s happening that is more exciting than the actual execution of it on-screen. This isn’t helped by some very scrappy green-screen work, which pulls the audience out of the action all the more.

But a less than top-of-his-game Spielberg is still preferable to the majority of mainstream Hollywood directors working today, and Crystal Skull’s first half in particular contains some golden material, mainly resulting from the change of time period. It’s 1957, Elvis’s Hound Dog soundtracks the rip-roaring opening scene and Indy first encounters Mutt in a classic ‘50s diner (just think; set 2 years earlier we could have conceivably been seeing Indiana Jones come face to face with Marty McFly – now that’s a mash-up I’d pay good money to see!). Said diner is the starting point for one of the best set-pieces in the movie, as Indy and Mutt instigate a fight in order to elude some shady KGB men, consequently jumping on Mutt’s bike and starting a breakneck chase through Indy’s college campus grounds. The chase has a touch of the Bourne films about it in its audacious staging, but the sheer sense of fun is classic Spielberg. It ends with a pay-off line from Indy that is the icing on the cake of Crystal Skull’s most enjoyable sequence.

Sadly, as the film progresses Spielberg relies more heavily on CG effects to achieve his goals, resulting in a big finale that sees Indy sidelined in favour of a screen filled with digital effects that are all spark and no fizz. To Spielberg’s credit, the very end of the film is perfect, with a final exchange between Indy and Mutt that’s warm, funny and knowing in all the right ways. It’s that spark of humanity that makes the Indy movies so great, and it’s that which is crucially missing from Crystal Skull’s key grandstanding moments.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: David Koepp
Cast: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LeBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent
Cert: 12A
UK release: 22 May

1 comment:

  1. Paul, to quote two of our favorite guys,
    'I hear what you're saying, but you're completely wrong'.

    Indiana Jones was so much fun.
    Sure it went a bit too far in some places (the atom bomb, monkeys and ants to be specific) but there could have been so much more CGI then there was... I think it had a perfect mix of over the top stunts and quirky tricks,

    Dude, I think you were expecting too much ... It's an Indiana Jones film, it's not going to be a masterpiece, as long as it has Harrison fighting off some Eastern European Baddies, whilst finding a random archaeological object, and a few creepy-crawllies, it's nothing but popcorn fun, and I - along with the packed out cinema I saw it with - were with it every step of the way. one lady even let out a GASP at the big reveal re: Indy's family history (that I saw coming a mile away, however, I thought it was a great touch - SO glad they didn't pull in a Cameron Diaz for Indy's new 'love' interest).

    as for the plot, it was in line with the times, at first I didn't like the whole 'other worldly' aspect but it fit in well with the 50s paranoia re: outer space...

    But I must agree with you a mash-up between Mary McFly and Indy Jr. (or whatever his name was) would have been fantastic - I really enjoyed that bit.

    it may be sacrilege, or the fact that this was the first Indy film I saw on the Big Screen (at least I think it was) but I certainly thought it was up to par, and on the level of the previous installments. perhaps even greater than Temple of Doom.