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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
It may have been at a high school reunion, or perhaps a get-together of friends in a town you used to live in years ago, but you've all probably experienced it: that rush of anticipation at getting to see someone you love after a long period of time, and then the somewhat disconcerting feeling of actually sitting down with them, spending time with them, and realizing that sometimes real life isn't quite as rosy as memory. That's all part and parcel of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the long delayed fourth entry in the Jones series, made almost 20 years after The Last Crusade, evidently at least the next to last crusade for Indy and company. If the film never quite rises to the breathless heights of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even Crusade or Temple of Doom, it still provides a wealth of pleasures that will be steeped in nostalgia for those who grew up with the various Jones films. For those, as improbable as it may sound, who are getting introduced to Indy with Crystal Skull, there may be a little bit of "what's all the fuss been about," at least when one of Skull's breathtaking action sequences isn't keeping anything but the lizard-brain from reacting.
I'd love to be able to tell you what Crystal Skull is about, but the truth of it is, even after three viewings (once in a theater and twice more now on Blu-ray), I don't have the foggiest idea of what the hell some of the plot, especially the whiz-bang CGI filled denouement, is about. I can tell you that Indy (Harrison Ford, just in case you were wondering) is mixed up with evil Russians this time, headed by an absolutely delectable Cate Blanchett as a sort of living Natasha (of Boris and Natasha in Rocky and Bullwinkle), a Soviet operative interested in the paranormal and mind control. Somehow her expertise has led her, and a kidnapped Indy, to Area 51, where a mysterious super-magnetized crate has been kept, holding the mummified remains of an alien. This basic setup then transmogrifies into a transgenerational saga, as a young "greaser" named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) brings Indy a clue about the lost city of El Dorado, a clue he has gotten from his mother. When his mother turns out to be Marian (Karen Allen), Indy's long ago paramour, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who Mutt's father is, though that supposed "twist" is left dangling in the wind for some time before it's finally revealed in one of a couple rather lame anticlimactic moments.
Of course it doesn't take long for Mutt, Marian and Indy to team up and attempt to locate a mysterious crystal skull which will evidently simultaneously help them gain access to El Dorado and also perhaps impart the sort of power that Blanchett covets. It's about at this point that the plot gets so completely labrynthine that you almost need a flowchart to make it through the various twists and turns it takes. Suffice it to say it turns out there are a lot of aliens (or "interdimensional beings," to be exact), to whom crystal skulls were once literally attached, and that reuniting the missing skull puts a cosmic aliyah into place that sort of has a bevy of E.T.'s phoning home, as it were. Some of this patently makes no sense--or at least I haven't been able to ferret out the sense of it, despite spending more than a bit of time ruminating about some of it. (Semi-spoiler alert: For instance, before the "missing" crystal skull was stolen, why didn't the aliens "become one" and leave then, millennia ago?) The good news is, as confusing as some of the film may be, it doesn't really matter in the long run.
What all of the Indy films are about are the visceral action-adventure sequences, and Crystal Skull has a plethora of them, some loving hommages to other films (including an opening sequence that seems to be slyly winking at co-creator George Lucas' iconic American Graffiti), not the least of which are the three former Jones films themselves (watch for a brief reveal of the Lost Ark, early in the film, for example). There are some fantastic stunt and special effects sequences in this film, including lots of fun car chases (and crashes), a fun and scary duel for LaBeouf straddling two high speed vehicles, and a spectacular floating Jeep trip down a raging river (and ultimately over a waterfall). This is the sort of thing that put Indy on the map in Raiders, and while Skull may not have the serialized cliffhanger every ten minutes episodic nature of its progenitor, it more than fulfills the franchise's trademark penchant for highflying action sequences. There are a couple of overkill moments, notably the testing of a hydrogen bomb early in the film that seems to be there only to give Indy another cliffhanging dilemma from which to escape. And the jokey overuse of the groundhogs for the first couple of segments gets a bit tiresome, though younger kids will probably love it.
What Crystal Skull has going for it in spades is the enormous good will audiences familiar with the franchise will bring to it, something that director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp capitalize on splendidly. Indy and Marian are older now, if no less spry and combative, and LaBeouf steps up to the plate quite well as the third leg of a somewhat wobbly relationship stool. While Allen isn't given a whole heck of a lot to do here other than argue and react, it's simply so much fun to see her back in the franchise, at least for those of us who were kids when Raiders came out, that her mere presence lends the film a sincere, if bittersweet, rumination on what it means to confront the passage of time. Harrison is surprisingly agile for a man in his mid-60s, and you'll be hard pressed to make his age an issue throughout this stunt-filled piece. Also on hand are Ray Winstone as a double (perhaps triple or even quadruple) faced cohort of Indy's, and, in a fun if hyperbolic performance, John Hurt shuffles through his role as a former professorial collaborator of Indy's whose exposure to the crystal skull has rendered him more than a bit looney.
Lucas and Spielberg obviously had to confront the passage of almost two decades since the last Jones film, and they've done their best to make the most of the new time period which was more or less dictated to them by that passage of time. While this film's 1957 setting may in fact be a bit late for the Red Scarifying that underlies a lot of its plot machinations (McCarthy had been out of favor for years by then, and would actually die that year, not that anyone seems to be aware of it in this film), and the Evil Russians of Skull are certainly nowhere near as frightening as the Nazis of Raiders, there's still a fine recreation, at least approximately, of an era in transition from one enemy to the next. The generation gap cultural upheavals are also nicely essayed (if, again, a few years too late, at least if you consider LaBeouf's Mutt to be based on Marlon Brando in The Wild One, as he obviously is). While there are these picayune things one could complain about, Skull does an admirable job in giving a feel for the strange juxtaposition of the sanguine and scared attitudes that seemed to cohabitate in most Americans' psyches in the 1950s.
Once the film ventures out into its Peruvian setting, there's a lot of fun forested escapades to enjoy, capped by the rationally incomprehensible but visually and aurally overwhelming finale, where of course the bad guys (and gals) get their comeuppance and Indy, Marian and Mutt manage to forge some sort of temporary truce, which, in the film's coda, becomes much more than that and may be setting LaBeouf up for Indiana Jones: The Next Generation. If there's a bit of lethargy to this film that wasn't apparent in the previous outings, and a more Byzantine plot than was absolutely necessary, this is a wonderful way to reacquaint yourselves with characters you've probably loved for decades. As in most reunions, there are times you wish they'd just shut up for a minute, but that's outweighed by the simple pleasure of being in their company again.
This is one beautiful looking film, in a sterling MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer and a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Colors and saturation are strong (if purposely a bit on the yellow side, especially in the opening segments), with brilliant detail and eye popping sharpness. You will be able to see everything from individual beard stubble on Indy to actual real bugs (as opposed to the CGI kind that do populate one segment of the film) in the forest scenes. Contrast is superb, from the brightly lit outdoor scenes to the darkest studio bound "forest" sets. While this may not be as spectacularly "show-offy" as the recent Speed Racer, Skull provides a subtler reference quality Blu-ray image that will knock most viewers' socks off.
Equally subtle, and just as reference quality impressive, is the TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, which never resorts to beefed up gimmickry to achieve its immersive charms. There's so much to enjoy here you may want to revisit the film simply to relish its soundscape. Everything in the film, from Mutt's roaring motorcycle to the rush of a raging river's rapids, are expertly delivered with brilliant fidelity and superb use of all channels. Dialogue is always front-centric and easy to hear, with John Williams' superb score and other sound effects literally rounding out the surround channels. This is one of the most subliminally excellent soundscapes I've had the pleasure of experiencing lately. There are also TrueHD 5.1 mixes in French and Spanish available, and subtitles in all of the soundtrack languages, as well as Portuguese.
This 2 disc Blu-ray edition is packed to the gills with excellent bonus content, all of it at least in 1080i and some of it in 1080p (there was really no noticeable difference on my system). The most interactive, if overwhelming at times, extra is on Disc One and features three "Timelines" focusing on Story Development, History and Production. You can scroll along any given timeline and then press Enter to get more information. All of the timelines are linked vertically, so you can toggle between them to see correlative information in another timeline. One thing I missed on my first go-round: several of the individual information screens actually have "play" buttons that will access either clips from the film or brief interview segments. Disc One also offers "The Return of a Legend," a 17 minute or so featurette with Lucas, Spielberg and Ford discussing their initial resistance to doing a fourth film, and then ultimate excitement at being back together again. Lucas attempts to finesse the difference between aliens and "interdimensional beings," and fails spectacularly. A shorter "Pre Production" featurette is exactly what it sounds like, and includes footage of LaBeouf preparing for the physical demands of his role. Finally, Disc One offers theatrical trailers.
Disc Two's main extra is the excellent "Production Diary," which is split into various locale-centric segments and lasts close to 90 minutes. It's fun to see these icons back together again on their first day of shooting after a nearly 20 year hiatus. The Diary follows the shoot from New Mexico to Connecticut to Hawaii and finally to the soundstages of Hollywood and provides some really excellent insight and information into the development and production of Skull. Up next, quality wise, is "The Effects of Indy," which to its credit shows ILM's work on all of the Jones films, thereby giving a neat little history of the development of special effects magic over the last several decades. "The Crystal Skulls" attempts to delve a bit into the mythology and history of the actual crystal skulls found in various tropical locales, as well as detailing the making of the skull props for the film. "Adventures in Post Production" concentrates mostly on editing, foley work and Williams' inimitable score. Bringing up the rear are some shorter pieces, including "Warrior Makeup," showing the complicated prosthetics applied to actors for various scenes, "Iconic Props," dealing with everything from the Ark to Indy's whip, "Pre-Visualization Sequences" shows storyboards and animatics for three segments of the film, and "Closing: Team Indy" is a video montage of all the behind the scenes crew that brought the film to life. Finally there are five galleries included.
If Crystal Skull falls a bit short of the perhaps impossibly high bar set by Raiders, it's a beautiful journey through some exotic locales with characters a lot of us have loved for what seems like a lifetime. This Blu-ray offers exceptional visual and aural delights that should overcome any qualms you may have with shortcomings in the plot. Highly Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet