July 28, 2016

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Some times you can't go back again. I think pretty solid proof of that sentiment is Steven Spielberg's 2008 sequel Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It is a film made with the best of intentions, and certainly by a lot of talented people. It continued the Indiana Jones movie franchise that had - a relatively unpopular TV spin-off aside - seemingly wrapped up with The Last Crusade in 1989. Suddenly, 19 years later, there was a new instalment with a 66 year-old Harrison Ford returning as the titular archaeologist. The same creative team by-and-large reunited to make the film, yet the results seems to fall far short of The Last Crusade. While box office takings were huge, the audience response was fairly ambivalent. Crystal Skull rapidly became one of those Hollywood blockbusters - like Prometheus and Batman v Superman - that it was uncool to defend.

Certainly I cannot defend it. I can defend parts of it, but individual sequences and characters are not capable of saving an entire film. What is particularly striking to me about Crystal Skull is that it is broadly pretty great for its first half, and then weirdly derails as soon as it hits the jungle. After that it becomes a real head-scratcher: why those story choices? Why that kind of visual effect? Why those kinds of attempts at comedy? In the end it seems to leave the Indiana Jones series with two kinds of film: the slick, non-stop adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, and the messy 'curate's egg' attempts of The Temple of Doom and The Crystal Skull.

In 1957, Indiana Jones (Ford) heads back into action when a Russian military scientist (Cate Blanchett) tries to locate the mythical city of Akator and use its fabled crystal skulls to control the minds of the human race. Aided by former girlfriend Marion (Karen Allen) and the rebellion teen Mutt Williams (Shia Lebeouf), Indy races from the USA to Peru and the Amazon jungle in the fight to save the day.

So there are things in this film that work, and things that simply fail. It is probably easiest to run through one set and then the other. The film's biggest success is that Harrison Ford manages to not only pull off revisiting Indiana Jones at 66, but actually develops an older, wearier version of the character at the same time. He can still fight, run for his life and crack a bullwhip, but it all seems a little bit craggier and frayed around the edges. He is reintroduced in a stunning extended prologue sequence that begins with his dragged out of a car boot by Russian soldiers and climaxes with his surviving a nuclear explosion in a lead-lined refrigerator. A lot of viewers seemed to have trouble accepting the refrigerator. I laughed like a drain. In a franchise where the wrath of God can melt off a man's face, one can survive falling out of a plane by using a lift raft, and people can have their hearts ripped out while remaining alive, flying through the air inside a fridge seems like typical Indiana Jones behaviour. To be completely honest, a 30-minute version of this film that ended with the fridge would have been an excellent viewing experience.

It is also great to see Karen Allen return as Marion Ravenwood - now Williams. She was always the best of his three love interests, thanks in large part to Lawrence Kasdan's dialogue - he consulted on their exchanges here to help writer David Koepp recreate the same banter. Other supporting actors like John Hurt, Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent add a lot of value as well.

Things get more ambivalent with Mutt Williams, a new sidekick played by Shia Lebeouf who turns out to be Indy and Marion's son. His Brando-styled entrance is a riot, and I honestly think Lebeouf plays the role well. Based purely on his performance I would have happily seen Mutt Williams spin off into his own franchise. Sadly the screenplay pushes him into misplaced comic moments a little too often, and that gradually sabotages the character. By the time he has had a sword fight on a moving jeep and swung through a jungle Tarzan-style with an army of monkeys it is near-impossible to enjoy him any more.

Colonel Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) works less as a proper character and more as a cartoon super-villain. There is no depth to her, her accent feels unconvincing and exaggerated, and she winds up paling in comparison to earlier villains such as Rene Bellocq, Mola Ram and Walter Donovan. Igor Jijikine is a lot more successful as her henchman Dovchenko, who presented an ominous physical challenge to Indy throughout the film.

The Crystal Skull is saddled with an unfortunate screenplay that gradually gets worse the longer it goes on. The prologue is fabulous. A subsequent motorcycle-versus-car chase through a university campus is almost as good. Early scenes of dialogue between Indy and Mutt develop their relationship very well - and even reference The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which was a small surprise. Then there is a weirdly unnecessary action sequence at an old burial ground, and shortly afterwards the film hits the jungle and it all goes downhill from there. The film's final act features a tribe of native South Americans who appear to exist solely to be murdered by Russians, and a reveal of aliens and an inter-dimensional spacecraft.

There is no escaping the core problem of Crystal Skull in that the sudden insertion of science fiction into an ostensibly fantastical movie franchise is a monumental cock-up. You can see how George Lucas - who developed the plot from which David Koepp wrote the screenplay - reached this conclusion. The original Indiana Jones films were a pastiche of old-time movie serials and adventure films. The mystical, religious angle of the various artefacts suited the tone perfectly. With Crystal Skull Lucas sets a film in the late 1950s, a time of the Cold War, rumours of psychic experiments, and the original UFO phenomenon. Tying those together in theory makes Crystal Skull a 1950s pastiche in the same manner as the original trilogy operated as a 1930s pastiche. In practice it jars badly, and leads to Lucas and Spielberg all-but destroying their own film.

There are good parts of this film, but they are front-loaded. The further it goes the more tiresome it becomes. It is an odd movie in many respects: often a bad script like this means it has been under-cooked, and needed a few more drafts and iterations to properly succeed. It feels as if The Crystal Skull has the opposite problem: several writers slaved away at numerous takes on Lucas' material for more than a decade. Elements seem to exist not because they serve the plot but because someone in the production liked them too much from earlier drafts to let them go.

Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg have decided to make one final Indiana Jones film together, for release in 2019. Ford will be 77 years old. If they play true to his age that means a film set in 1968. I really hope that they develop a better screenplay this time around: I think there's great potential for a different sort of adventure to close off the series, but it is going to be even harder than it was to develop The Crystal Skull - and that time around they essentially failed.

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