SPOILER WARNING! The following contains some spoilers for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."
As die-hard "Indiana Jones" fans, we'll admit we entered the screening of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" with an optimism that was decidedly cautious. The most apt comparison that can be drawn is to the fourth film in the "Die Hard" franchise, "Live Free or Die Hard." In the context of that film, which was released more than a decade after its immediate predecessor, one could never really recognize star Bruce Willis as the John McClane audiences knew and loved from the first three films. As such, we're pleasantly surprised to report that after nearly 20 years since "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," Harrison Ford continues to absolutely embody the title character from frame one of "Crystal Skull" all the way to the end credits crawl.
"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" was set in 1938, and the latest film in the Indy franchise takes place in 1957. By the late '50s, Indy's traditional adversaries, the Nazis, have come and gone, but Soviet Russia, the new political bogeyman, is waiting in the wings to plague Henry Jones, Jr. Under the auspices of Cate Blanchett's villainess Irina Spalko, the communists are no less interested in the sort of ancient artifacts of occult power Indy's fought his lifetime to protect and/or pilfer.
Indiana Jones, we learn, has done more in the intervening 20 years than just teach archaeology and practice what he preached: Now a highly decorated solider, Indy served for a time in the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor to the CIA. It was there that Dr. Jones met fellow archaeologist Mac McHale, a sidekick with flexible loyalties.
The underutilized John Hurt, who spends most of the movie ranting like a lunatic, plays Harold Oxley, an old colleague of Indy's one-time mentor Abner Ravenwood, who longtime Indy fans will remember as the father of Marion Ravenwood, played in "Raiders of the Lost Arc" and "Crystal Skull" by Karen Allen. Oxley acted as a surrogate father to Marion's son, Mutt Williams, played by Shia LaBeouf ("The Transformers"). But Mutt, it turns out, was born Henry Jones III, and the young man is as surprised as Indy to learn the truth about his parentage.
Indy, we learn, parted ways with Marion at the wedding altar, sometime after the events of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The adventuring archaeologist never knew he'd conceived with his one-time fiancee, and after Indy left, Marion never saw fit to tell him. A high-school dropout turned greaser, LaBeouf's turn as Indiana Jones' kin was passable, but we'd think twice about handing the franchise over to him.
After reuniting in "Crystal Skull," it doesn't take Indy and Marion long to fall back into old patterns. Bickering is the order of the day, but the verbal abuse is tempered by a handful of genuinely tender moments. After chiding Marion on her choice of a husband (now out of the picture), Indy's old flame suggests that Indy must have enjoyed the company of more than a few women in the years since their last encounter. Indy admitted there had been a few. "They all had the same problem," Indy said. "They weren't you," perhaps a metatextual nod to fans' distaste for post-Marion love interests in previous films.
As to the Crystal Skull itself, Hurt's Professor Oxley, affectionately referred to in the film as "Ox," spent much of his career searching for Akator, a mythical Amazonian city, reputedly made of solid gold. In the film, legend has it that the titular crystal skull had been stolen from the city of Akator, and that he who returns the skull will be granted great power.
After spending a couple of movies in search of such universally recognizable artifacts as the Ark of the Convent and the Holy Grail, the latest installment in the Indy franchise suffers a lack of dramatic resonance for the obscurity of its mythology ï¿½" though Harrisn Ford rattles off the Skull exposition with such authority that the quest is not devoid of pitch and moment.
Further setting "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" apart from is auspicious predecessors, the film's origin of the city of Akator ï¿½" which she shan't spoil here -- moves the franchise from the genre of historically based pulp fiction squarely into the realm of science fiction, a dubious decision indeed. Case in point, the film opens in the U.S. Government's worst-kept-secret installation, Area 51, which also happens to be home to the infamous crate warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was filed away at the end of "Raiders."
In the earlier Indiana Jones films, the objects of antiquity that seemed to drive the story acted more or less purely as MacGuffins ï¿½" plot devices that advanced the action, but whose explicit usefulness and others details were not of paramount importantce. Audiences never needed to know exactly how the Sankara Stones worked or what they actually did in "The Temple of Doom," nor did we need to understand exactly how the Arc would be put to use by the Nazis in "Raiders of the Lost Arc." We knew the parties involved were evil, and that the artifacts were powerful, and that was reason enough to stop them. Even though Hitler believed in the mystical power of such ancient artifacts, it was never about that power for Indy, the consummate archaeologist. In "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the nature of the artifacts are anything but understated.
The film's climax is visually stunning, but we wonder if sky's-the-limit digital technology helps or hurts a film like "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." The previous installment of the Indy franchise was produced almost 20 years ago, and even though the technology of the time severely limited the scope of the effects, the first three films certainly did not suffer for it.
Aside from Indy and Marion, none of franchise's supporting cast reprise their roles. Both Marcus Brody and Henry Jones, Sr. are said to have shuffled off their mortal coils in the years between "Last Crusade" and "Crystal Skull," relegated in this film to framed photographs on Indy's desk. But Henry, Sr. is not totally absent from the film: the middle-aged Jones, Jr. seems to have adopted a few of his father's mannerisms, and can even be heard to utter his father's catch phrase: "This is intolerable."
"Crystal Skull" does feature a number of similarly pleasant callbacks, including a brief glimpse of the Ark of the Covenant itself, accompanied, of course, by the Ark musical theme from "Raiders." The audience was also treated to a few bars of the main theme from "Last Crusade" during a melancholy cutaway to the photo of Henry, Sr. on Indy's desk.
All in all, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" was nothing in if entertaining. For all its flaws, fans jonesing for an Indy fix will not be disappointed when the film comes to theaters May 22.
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