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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Savant Blu-ray Review

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Lucasfilm / Paramount
2008 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 122 min. / Street Date October 14, 2008 / 39.99
Starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Shia LaBeouf
Cinematography Janusz Kaminski
Production Design Guy Hendrix Dyas
Film Editor Michael Kahn
Original Music John Williams
Written by David Koepp
Produced by Frank Marshall
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

There's no arguing with success: add only a couple of zeroes to the international take of this year's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and it would equal the cash needed for the economic bailout. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have honed their super-franchise into a colossal moneymaker, and with the new senior citizen Harrison Ford (he's even too old to be an official Baby Boomer) eager to rake in the millions, nothing can stop 'ol Indy from taking on another wild adventure.

Who knows what the rush is, but LucasFilm and Paramount already have DVD and Blu-ray versions of Crystal Skull ready to blanket the world. Together with Iron Man, the whip cracking two fisted archeologist could very well lead the charge to the wider adoption of the Blu-ray format.

One score and seven years ago, our forefathers Lucas and Spielberg concocted Raiders of the Lost Ark, a freewheeling adventure that leapfrogged back before the realist trends of the seventies, serving up the kind of old-fashioned escapism tapped by Lucas's other cosmic hit Star Wars. Directing with a zest for action and a sure hand at comedy (which somehow eluded him in 1941), Spielberg revived Republic-style serial thrills for a modern age. Most of the audience had only heard about serials, and only a few comix-oriented hipsters realized that Raiders borrowed heavily from Carl Barks' Scrooge McDuck comic books, the ones where Uncle Scrooge, Donald and his three nephews went on treasure hunts in fabled ancient ruins and dodged various kinds of foreign savages. Indiana's Nazi-battling first adventure definitely had an edge. A heightened level of violence guaranteed a steady supply of gruesome corpses and grisly killings, all of which seemed to kid the old "hey, it's just fun!" attitude of classics like George Stevens' Gunga Din.

Spielberg and Lucas cranked up both the jeopardy and the xenophobia for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a feature which helped inaugurate the PG-13 rating. By the time of the second sequel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the violence had been toned down somewhat, putting Indy on the safe road to the widest, most PC audience possible.

Nineteen years later we have Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, that essentially reduces our pal Indiana to a live-action cartoon. David Koepp's script accelerates the pace to cram at least twice as much incident into the storyline; it's as if this were the last movie to be made and Lucas wanted to fit in five movies' worth of great ideas. Crystal Skull has a hundred exciting ideas, most of them given short shrift to make room for bad dialogue, klunky story construction and character dynamics on the level of a Scooby Doo cartoon. Indiana regularly survives fatal punishments better than Wile E. Coyote, only less convincing. Getting tossed ten miles in an atom bomb-launched refrigerator is a typical cute gag chosen for laughs -- hey, the prairie dog cusses him out! But when the jeopardy is that silly, the picture suffers. A typical situation puts two military vehicles hot-rodding along the edge of a nasty cliff, a situation (yawn) being repeated for only the third time. The solution? Just drive off the edge of the cliff. There's sure to be a tree waiting to ease one's fall. And who worries about a trio of certain-death waterfalls waiting below?

Harrison Ford is actually quite charming this go-round, looking too darn good to be called a geezer and showing no letup in his ability to rattle off the smart remarks that pass for dialogue. After a couple of odd-sounding dubbed lines, he's a delight, especially when the story reunites him with his old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Ms. Allen has aged well, their banter celebrates old memories and our eager nostalgia fills in the gaps. Also, Shia LaBoeuf's "Indy Jr." Mutt Williams character is quite successful. Starting as a James Dean wannabe, Mutt applies himself to the task of solving ancient riddles and navigating treacherous ruins, and does well enough to earn Indy's approval.

Beyond that, the supporting characters aren't very interesting. Cate Blanchett's Irina Spalko is a real bore, an icy Russian stereotype with an accent like Rocky & Bullwinkle's Natasha Fatale. With the excuse of the Cold War context, Spalko and her cohorts are black-hearted villains and thus candidates for wholesale slaughter. John Hurt's goofy professor is an obvious mechanism to withhold vital information until the climax, and Ray Winstone's quadruple agent is a predictably venal bad guy. Frankly, Scrooge McDuck had more exciting adversaries, even figuring in those knuckleheaded Beagle Boys.

There's no denying that The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has a lot happening. From a battle with Russkies in Area 51 we advance to an atomic blast site, and from there to an Ivy League spy chase. The movie finally settles into an elaborate search for the Golden City of El Dorado, or its equivalent, interrupted by a score of sidebar adventures. Crystal Skull has mental telepathy, goony Russki agents, cocooned spacemen, killer army ants, an elaborate alien invasion scheme, a skull-artifact that hypnotizes, a crazy buzz-cutting tractor that makes its own road in the jungle and more dimension-bending, landscape-churning sci-fi spectacle than the whole genre's output, put together. Re-edited into a conventional 1940s serial, Crystal Skull could easily break down into forty chapters. Heck, with extra title scenes and footage repeated in cliffhangers, the whole thing would probably be doubled in length!

This action steeplechase will be just the ticket for seven year-olds with quick minds; just don't feed them too much sugar or their heads may explode. (Darn, Koepp forgot to include that gag!) The references to fifties' culture and movies come at a fast clip. The problem is that the myriad gags are tossed off so quickly that few can make an impression. The man-eating ants are fascinating, but too fleeting; the treadmill goes so quickly that our attention begins to wane. ILM pulls off one wondrous visual after another, but our appetite for grandiose spectacle has already been satisfied ... we want to reach for the CGI equivalent of Pepto-Bismol.

The Indiana Jones concept soars or falls on qualities that are admittedly tough to dish out again and again, and with that in mind my crotchety whining about Crystal Skull are probably unnecessary. The crowds I watched it with enjoyed some of the better jokes and loved the Indy-Marion-Mutt relationship. But they reacted negatively to the many scenes in which Jones was replaced with a CGI pixel-person. We don't expect Harrison Ford to do stunts without an action double, but the long stretches of cartoonish computer animation became tedious, very quickly. I repeat -- the best way to watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is to sit among a group of under ten-year olds, and zipper one's sarcastic remarks! The second-grader next to me in the screening I attended watched the whole thing while clutching his official Indy hat. Frankly, I envied him the experience.

LucasFilm and Paramount's 2 - Disc Blu-ray Special Edition of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will doubtlessly be loading up in the majority of Blu-ray decks in a few days. Many of its highly polished featurettes and docus are in HD; between them every aspect of Crystal Skull is elaborated in full detail. All of course celebrate the movie, Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg from a LucasFilm-approved point of view, and indeed the making-of pieces overflow with interesting behind-the-scenes material.

The featurettes are part of an elaborate marketing plan using web "production diaries" that began as soon as the show went before the cameras. Episodes appraise Indy as a legend, examine the factual basis of crystal skulls and dote on special props and ILM effects, from pre-visualization to a look inside the makeup effects studio of the late Stan Winston. Beyond the long lists of production artwork, character portraits and production photos, we also get a trailer gallery and an interesting Indiana Jones Timeline that annotates the historical events underpinning the story as well as the timeline of the film's production.

What's in store for the next Indiana Jones adventure, which has already developed into more than just a rumor? Perhaps Indy will dodge dinosaurs in Spielberg's Jurassic-era Lost World franchise, or accompany an expedition to the South Pole, to find a base for alien flying saucers? He could also help Fidel Castro overthrow Fulgencio Battista, but I'm not holding my breath.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Blu-ray) rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 2 discs worth of featurettes, production diaries, galleries, trailers and an Indiana Jones Timeline
Packaging: Two discs in Keep case
Reviewed: October 12, 2008

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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