3.8 out of 5 stars
After more than two decades, director Steven Spielberg returns with a mysteriously sparkling crystal skull for his legendary franchise in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This latest film of the bankable franchise is entertaining, inventive, new, and yet old-fashioned in a good and fun way. As the fourth incarnation of the Indy adventure series, it is a fine piece of studio-produced escapist entertainment filled with both fictional and factual archaeology, the Cold War, pseudo-science, and film history.
The first sequence of the film has readily reminded me of his film 1971 Duel while the story’s extraterrestrial aspect is quite reminiscent of his 1982 film E. T. From the looks and shots of the mad races of dueling jeeps to the passion for the supernatural and alien things, there was such a leap of sincerity with Spielberg doing something really close to his heart, as if paying homage to his earlier works. And that’s always one key to open up the film into something more touching and worthwhile. Moreover, these earlier works are actually my favorites and I find them as the best in his filmography – prime, pure, and positively personal, while conveying valuable subject matters, entertaining elements, and gratifying compassion for the audience.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull recovers my belief in Spielberg as a great director. After a series of primarily sell out and superficial works from his later filmography, he returns to form by making a film that is both worthwhile and entertaining. Nevertheless, leaving a space for the so-called “benefit of the doubt” is reasonable enough since most of these disappointing works from him are films where he worked as executive producer and rarely as director. He seems to have lost his prime, or perhaps, he is just stuck in the system and unable to put much effort in doing something about it.
Both producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg have definitely earned back a lot of goodwill in this film. Though rarely, these two Hollywood living legends do something more than the usual tricks of the trade. They, along with the acting legend in Indiana Jones, actor Harrison Ford, manage to recapture the tone, spirit, and magic of the adventure series that has caught the hearts of two generations over the last twenty-seven years. This time, they have no trouble getting back into the groove with a story and style very much in keeping with what actually made the franchise so perennially popular and fun.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull becomes an enjoyable romp that does no harm to the character’s legacy. It is interesting to acknowledge the fact that the young fans who have now reached adulthood with careers in filmmaking and some of them actually becoming a part of the filmmaking process of this comeback project. Perhaps, this adds more heart to the overall package. As a faithful addition to the intrepid Professor Henry Jones Jr.’s archaeological adventures, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull definitely weaves the excitement, while keeping up with the lightning-paced return to form of all those greatly involved with the franchise.
This fourth film in the Indy series becomes a good example of mainstream working at its best. Many people may just keep humming the theme song while being thrown back to the fun of serials and adventure movies of yesteryears. It is a feat because some efforts actually turn out annoying; but this one has the wit and good-old races/escapes delivering much of the goods. All the necessary ingredients are seen: swashbuckling swings, ancient riddles, rumbling stone technology, a precious artifact with supernatural powers, impossible stunts, and tongue-in-cheek humor that made the series such a phenomenon of its time. Moreover, the audience is offered all the familiar elements without trying too hard: fedora, ancient texts, hidden clues, obscure maps, high-style thrills, and cliffhanging moments for that rollicking ride with a popcorn. Indeed, this film shows a Spielberg at his most pop and most amazing. He mixes conventions of the good old-fashioned genre in a mass spectacle package of fun, excitement, familiar things, and roller coaster adventure.
With his penchant for schmaltz and the supernatural, Spielberg knows how to dazzle the audience with the preposterous, the familiar, and the predictable. It’s fun while not requiring too much thought. And this is quite hard to deliver as there is a thin line between dumb, brainless fun, and light fuss of fun that does not carry any emotional investment for the audience, to the point of treating the viewers like mere brainless spectators.
Basing it from the commercial doctrine of film production, it is true that casting the aging Ford as the titular hero one more time – in his considerably aging years – becomes a sort of gamble. However, dispelling all fears about age and ability, Ford puts on that legendary fedora and becomes Indiana Jones once again, exactly as he is remembered in his prime years. He still looks dashing in an adventurer jacket and even in a professorial tweed. The role still belongs to him and his dry comic delivery, intrepid air, and death-defying acrobatics.
The transition is carefully crafted as this fourth installment smartly showcases the younger version in Shia LaBeouf as Mutt Williams, a 50’s motorcycling hair comber with Jones’ superior intelligence and ability in his own way. Amidst his inexperience, he exudes that resourcefulness that slowly uncovers his sense of adventure, as if he were Jones’ son or his soon apprentice. In this film, he works side-by-side with Indiana Jones who is now a tenured professor in a university (after years of Indy becoming inactive in his thrilling journeys to uncover secrets and mysteries).
The metaphorical aspects of the film make a solid bearing for the theme and story. The crystal skulls represent some intellectually superior race, be it from outer space or another dimension, for which knowledge is the leading commodity; while acclaimed adventurer and archaeologist Henry Jones Jr., better known as Indiana Jones, is now in valuable service to an educational institution as a professor in his senior years. And he starts imposing on Williams that education is of prime importance: nagging and berating him for not finishing school like how the usual father figure would do for his son or a professor would say to his student. Furthermore, the familiar Cold War and competition on knowledge and technology between the Americans and the Russians is very much apparent as well. Being a pure entertainment venture as it is, such a subject matter is considerably fine for cinematic reasons.
The film also brings back some familiar faces in the Indiana Jones franchise. Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood makes up for the romance and some eye-popping news for Indy. Ray Winstone’s Mac as Indy’s Brit triple-dealing spy-adventurer friend supplying intrigue and surprise further marks the mainstream requirements for character support. Outfitted in a black pageboy hair and Soviet pants suit, the new character in the person of Cate Blanchett’s Cold War bridging role as the Russian troublemaker Irina Spalko adds a certain image to the franchise. However, I personally find something lacking in her sense of making her character deeper than it should be. And it’s more than just the problem with the Russian accent. I’m not sure if I just have too much expectation on her because of the way she effectively delivers in many of her other films. I’m torn between her falling short of living up to the character or the character itself just makes her act that way, with the unfortunate result of lacking that solid blend of characterization to fill up the hole in question on her being like that. And if I compare it with John Hurt’s role as the jaded lunatic Professor Oxley who actually has a quite animated/exaggerated character as well, Hurt’s performance renders a yielding sense of character compared to Blanchett’s.
As a two-hour thrill-ride with stuntman extravaganzas of yore, Crystal Skull delivers smart, robust, and familiar entertainment. It promotes bravura filmmaking and just enough wit to bring it on. It is far-fetched, fast-paced fun with a lot of frantic energy.
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