Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I haven't done a midnight preview for a while, and I wasn't going to do it for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, either. I'd patiently wait for Saturday and see it at a 10am or 11am show rather than pay full price, deal with lines, and maybe not be able to find a good seat. And if it had opened on Friday as usual, I might have done that. But it opened Thursday, which means the midnight show was Wednesday night. On Wednesdays, I tend to hang out at the comic shop (The Million Year Picnic) until it closes at 10pm; one of the last customers was searching for the first issue of Dark Horse's adaptation, the question of the midnight came up, and, hey, it's playing at the Harvard Square Cinema on Church Street rather than someplace where it might be more difficult to get home at 2am...

So, yeah, I caved. I wound up being a wreck at work the next day, but the opening night crowd was worth it. Folks were singing the Raider's March by the time the "no cell phones" message was playing, I didn't even hear Indy's first line because of all the cheering when Harrison Ford showed his face, and even though a lot of folks didn't quite buy into the fifties-style dangers in this movie versus in the previous three, there wasn't any snotty "well, that wasn't very good" noise heard afterward. There were still folks whistling the music on the way back.

While posting by review on HBS/EFC, I couldn't help but notice that I wasn't the only one that wrote an extra-long one - part of it's nostalgia, but folks seem to want to talk about it, and writing a long review might be harder than expected, since even the opening gambit goes into territory that we all chose not to spoil.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21/22 May 2008 at AMC Harvard Square #1 (first-run)

I'm lucky; walk a couple miles in two different directions from my house and you'll find theaters that run Raiders of the Lost Ark on film, on the big screen, in front of a packed house, at least once a year, and you bet I take advantage of that. Sitting down in a sold-out theater to watch a new Indiana Jones movie is an altogether different experience - as it must be, nearly twenty years after the last - but one I'm quite thankful for.

We start off in familiar territory - Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), rough-and-tumble archaeologist, finder of lost antiquities, and expert on the occult, finds himself searching for a lost treasure with bad guys breathing down his throat. This time the treasure is hidden in Area 51 and the villains are Soviets led by Colonel Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who more-than-hints at having actual psychic abilities to go with her intelligence and ruthlessness. Indy will, of course, escape and return to his day job as a university professor, only to be recruited on another treasure hunt - this time by greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who says he is the son of one of Indy's old colleagues and was told that he needed Jones's help finding a crystal skull in South America.

The template is similar, but much has changed in the nineteen years that has passed both for Jones and the audience. Ford and Jones not only have quite a few gray hairs, but they don't move as quickly, and there's not close to the same respect paid to him. Noting that his father and a previous supporter have passed on, he and new Assistant Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) note that they've reached the age where the world stops giving them things and starts taking them away. Naturally, of course, he says this before Mutt enters his life to drag him on an adventure that will reunite him with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the love of his life, leading to wonders that arguably make his previous quests for the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail see somewhat ordinary.

The nature of that quest has leaked out, of course, although the filmmakers have done an admirable job of keeping it out of the previews aside from one teasing image. In some ways, it's a drastic shift in the franchise's tone and flavor, but on a certain level that sort of change makes a ton of sense: Not only do the characters age, but the cinema world they live in does as well. The original three movies were throwbacks to the energetic, swashbuckling adventures of the thirties, which by the fifties had ceded the matinees to paranoid science fiction where nuclear apocalypse could be right around the corner. That's the world Indiana Jones finds himself in now, and though he can handle it - he's Indiana Jones, after all! - some of the audience might not want to accept it.

It's too bad if they don't, because Steven Spielberg is quite comfortable there. He's got an occasionally-earned reputation for over-sentimentality, and that often makes people forget what a mean streak he can have. Some of the best bits in this movie are when he dives into the creep-and-gross-outs, whether it be nasty deaths by fire ants or all the creepy things to be found in a hidden crypt. Not many people can direct a chase better than Spielberg, either, and the film contains a couple of doozies, including a tour de force at the center of the movie that would destroy lesser directors: There are three vehicles trying to knock each other around, with conveniently open tops so that characters and artifacts can jump (or get knocked) between them. Spielberg makes the chase fast and clear, even as he sends characters on side-trips to make the the main fight easier to follow. Then he'll switch gears and give us whimsical little action beats.

Those come on top of the fun character beats, and nobody gets more of them than Harrison Ford. The part of Indy fits him like a glove, and his wry growl is still the right combination of cockiness and self-deprecation. To make things even better, he's got a couple of the series' best sidekicks to play off: Shia LaBeouf plays off Ford well; there's a natural chemistry between the two characters from the beginning. He also looks pretty good in the action scenes, handling one or two that might have been given to Ford ten years ago. Seeing Ford and Karen Allen together again turns out to be a joy we didn't know we'd been unfairly denied. Allen plays Marion as having maybe mellowed some since Raiders, and even when she's yelling at Indy for walking out on her twenty years earlier, the main thing that comes through is that these two are so damn happy to see each other again that the danger and craziness around them is no big deal.

There are other necessary characters, of course, though they don't grab the audience quite as well as those three. John Hurt's Professor Oxley has lost his mind from gazing into the skull, although he does a good job of making it look sad rather than ridiculous. Jim Broadbent is in the movie because Denholm Elliott can't be. Ray Winstone is there as a fellow treasure hunter, but doesn't spark off Indy the way the other characters do. Cate Blanchett, though, performs a minor miracle as Spalko; the script doesn't give her a whole lot to work with, but she somehow makes her into the series' best villain since Belloq in Raiders; by the end I was kind of hoping she would stick around to menace Indy in future installments.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn't quite reach the same perfection that Raiders of the Lost Ark did - it requires a little time to get its legs under it. It's absolutely worth seeing for the plain novelty of being new Indiana Jones, but a day or two later, removed from the excited crowd, it is actually improving in my mind, when normally I might just be inclined to pick at it. And considering the story that George Lucas reportedly insisted upon, that's no mean feat - if it didn't work, we wouldn't be saying that Lucas, Ford, and Spielberg had lost their touch; we'd be saying they'd lost their minds.

Happily, that is not the case. The only disappointment is that after seeing how much fun Indy, Mutt, and Marion are in this new world... Would it be terribly greedy to want one more?

Also at HBS, along with eight other reviews.

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