DIR: Steven Spielberg • WRI: David Koepp • PRO: Frank Marshall, Denis L. Stewart • DOP: Janusz Kaminski • ED: Michael Kahn• DES: Guy Dyasa • CAST: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt
In 1981, within 18 months of receiving a critical mauling for 1941, Steven Spielberg presented Raiders of the Lost Ark for the viewing world’s consideration. In paying ode to the 1940s serials so beloved by him and co-creator George Lucas, he unearthed for a new audience a world of tongue-in-cheek adventure and established an icon of cinema. The making of the movie as much as what was finally delivered to the screen has entered the Hollywood mythos. All the necessary elements fell into place; the casting, the improvised set pieces and Spielberg’s fastidious and efficient shooting style gelled seamlessly. Sequels followed, and as much might be gained by a franchise this successful being relaunched, surely there could be little served by continuing the story after the pitch-perfect sunset ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Nevertheless, over nineteen years trade papers and websites were filled with news of discussions, pre-production, and an endless treadmill of scriptwriters committing stories for Lucasfilm to consider. Finally, 2007 saw confirmation of a shooting date, with Lucas, Spielberg and Ford returning to the fold. Little detail of the film’s plot was revealed, though it was confirmed the events of the film would take place in the 1950s, with Communists playing the villain of the piece. The primary question of concern for legions of fans was ‘what else would change?’
In the same way Hitler’s seeming interest in relics and iconoclasm provided the springboard for the stories of Raiders… and The Last Crusade, the pioneering of physic manipulation by Communist Russia provides a loose frame for our story. This story, and its explanation, introduces a first in an Indiana Jones movie – an unwelcome and extended break in the action. The events following the opening sequence and Jones’ first encounter with sidekick Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) is overburdened with exposition, as Jones deciphers the myth and fact behind an ancient artefact and its origins, which prove both muddled and bizarre.
When the action does kick in, it is largely uninspiring. There are flashes of humour and ingenuity, such as an exchange of a smile and grimace borrowed from The Last Crusade, and little can match the excitement of the Indy theme kicking in to embolden you for an upcoming thrill. The thrills, though, become repetitive, amounting to little more than multiple car chases. Only an extended chase through Amazonian rain forest goes someway towards matching the standard set by the rollercoaster rides of the previous movies. Yet the rhythm of even this sequence is misjudged, using a mix of ants and monkeys for comedic and gore effect, none succeeding to any great effect.
Spielberg spoke recently of preserving the shooting style of the original movies, allowing the kinetic energy of each set-piece speak for itself, with no need for quick-cut editing more akin to the Bourne movies. More crucial a priority should have been preserving the technicolour, pulp fiction novel look of the movies. The rich colours and aesthetics created a world comfortably inhabited by glaring-eyed villains more akin to the silent movie era and fantastical paranormal plots where you accepted the pitiful aim of a squadron of soldiers. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is white-washed by a computer-generated haze, making the settings and set-pieces seem staged and artificial. This is the antithesis of what we expect from the combination of slap-dash escapes and entombed relics so integral to the series. It’s almost saddening to say that the exaggerated CGI, particularly during the finale, deny the movie of any iconic images to nestle amongst those from the original trilogy.
Cate Blanchett, as one of the collection of acting talent on screen, is one of the movie’s too few high points. Suitably austere, she is a one-woman adversary, her henchmen serving only to fill out the background and fall from moving vehicles. Shia LaBeouf interacts well with Ford and, coming from a production house not noted for creating well-loved sidekicks, plays his role well. Ray Winstone and John Hurt are always welcome on any cinema screen, even though their minor roles are lost to the mindless plot. Character arcs and relationship development were never the aims of these movies, and duly Karen Allen’s return as Marion Ravenwood is a tacked-on plot point.
Without doubt, Harrison Ford is the movie’s salvation. Ford represents (or at least represented) the pinnacle of what a movie star is, his name opening movies with audiences comfortably accepting him as the everyman in extraordinary circumstances. His role as Indiana Jones is the perfect embodiment of this, the character a teacher and a globe-trotting archaeologist. While on screen, Ford still ably serves as the movie’s hook. Just as Indy would improvise and respond as best as possible to a situation, Ford can’t but be good in the role he has defined, moulding the often mistimed and clunky dialogue apparent from the opening scene. The greatest flaw of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is cheating us of his wry smile and scowl and the moments used to catch his breath. The opening sequence sees a shadowed face bound across rafters, the fedora used to shelter a stunt man’s face, instead of us seeing our hero wince at a misstep or growl in pain at falling through a glass ceiling. This betrays the film’s roots, denying it authenticity. When Lucas and Spielberg released the original trilogy of movies they gave up ownership, handing them over to a movie-loving public. In this respect we are entitled to demand more. The justification for returning to the character should be there. The film should be brave enough to have the character struggle. We should be able to expect a smarter film, one that finds humour and new ways of telling the story. Instead we are left with a failed rehash of a trusted formula and the mistreatment of a great character.