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Lara punches a shark, rides a motorcycle on the Great Wall of China, and dives off a skyscraper —Matt Anderson (review...)

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Relax. Crystal Skull’s opening adventure sequence is so wonderfully sublime and such pure joy to behold, Indy’s 19-year absence from the big screen is all but forgotten by the time the main story kicks into gear.

Rumors and Secrets

giddy, wildly-imaginative fun -- and it works
giddy, wildly-imaginative fun — and it works

As with the other three Indy movies, the action begins with the mountain in the Paramount logo dissolving into some sort of mountain scene. This time it’s done with a huge wink: the “mountain” segues to a mole hill. If the visual joke escapes you, take it as a warning that more confounding challenges lie ahead. But for those who know better than to make a mountain out of a mole hill, this adventure will prove to be every bit as enjoyable as the original movies.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg would be the first to admit that Crystal Skull is only a movie and, in fact, they have been quite vocal about the matter. For better or worse, the anticipation for their movie, though, has led to plenty of rumor mongering and pointless pre-release speculation fueled by Spielberg’s penchant for good, old-fashioned hush-hush secrecy.

So, a few quick points need to be pounded out right now: the story is fantastic and Shia LaBeouf proves to be a thoroughly able sidekick. And all that secrecy was for good reason; there are plenty of juicy bits to enjoy here and the less known going in, the better.

The challenge, then, is to provide a spoiler-free review.

1957: The Crystal Skull

Fully acknowledging the passage of time, Crystal Skull picks up with Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr., (Harrison Ford, Blade Runner) 19 years after the events of The Last Crusade. It’s nice to learn, though, that Indy hasn’t taken it easy since he reunited with his father and found the Holy Grail. Far from it. Instead, he’s spent a considerable amount of time working for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.

Unfortunately for Indy, and fortunately for audiences, while his military career saw him rise to the level of colonel, all that experience counts for nothing when the FBI interrogates him regarding his relationships with a batch of nasty, nasty Reds.

The communists had kidnapped Indy and his pal “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone, Beowulf) while they were digging around in Mexico and hauled them up to Nevada to track down a crate in the U.S. government’s possession. The group of commies is led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth), who’s out to fulfill Stalin’s dream of psychic warfare.

Naturally, the Russians underestimate the integrity and tenacity of Indiana Jones and the opening action plays like gangbusters as Indy escapes their clutches only to stumble his way into a weapons testing lab in the middle of the desert. Yowza!

It’s best to simply move on from there; back at Marshall College, Indy is fired following suspicions of his aiding and abetting the Russians. That merely starts the ball rolling for yet another adventure. Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, Transformers) tracks down the good doctor at his mother’s recommendation. He’s the only one who can rescue her and Professor Oxley (John Hurt, Alien). Oxley’s like a father to Mutt, whose dad died while in the service.

It turns out they’re being held by the same batch of Russian soldiers who made Indy’s life miserable in Nevada. They need him to find a crystal skull which, legend has it, will unlock the awesome power of an ancient Peruvian civilization.

Then and Now

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a perfect movie, but neither are the other three. Oddly, though, Crystal Skull’s biggest fault is in its polish. As the movie moved into production, Spielberg insisted on shooting with film instead of going all digital and promises were made that the same general, old-fashioned approach to filmmaking used in the ’80s would be put to use again. Well, in terms of stunts and action set pieces, that’s mostly true. Thankfully, there’s no CGI-Indy dashing across the screen like some computer-animated Spider-Man.

But even so, the production itself is almost too slick and shiny. No doubt, that’s in part due to the ever-rapidly elevating expectations of the summer blockbuster movie season, of which Indy was such a major success 20-plus years ago.

In those original movies, the various gaffes and oversights simply added to the charm of the storytelling. Now there’s simply no room for such technical glitches.

That characteristic aside, it’s amazing to report that there’s only one scene that falls relatively flat. It involves quicksand, a snake, and a major plot revelation. Even that scene, though, plays better on second inspection.

Aside from that, the tone and humor here picks up right where Last Crusade left off. Sure, plenty of people will look at the over-the-top action sequences and walk away totally gobsmacked. But it’s all done with the same goofy spirit of the other movies.

For example, one major chase sequence, which includes a gaggle of monkeys and a massive army of (red) man-eating ants, ends with a truck going off a cliff and crashing onto the top of a tree. The tree gracefully bends down, slowly lowering the truck into a river. Then the tree whiplashes back against the cliff, slapping Russian soldiers into the water. It’s funny and it’s vicious.

C’mon now, think about the rubber raft in Temple of Doom and the Messerschmitt chase in Last Crusade. It’s all the same kind of giddy, wildly-imaginative fun — and it works.

So Why Is It Great?

There is no doubt, once the hysteria over expectations and all the initial, pent-up anticipation settle down, Crystal Skull will be able to sit comfortably in the Indy canon. Forming something like a cinematic Beatles, this Fab Four of film has its rugged adventure (Raiders), its pulp horror (Temple of Doom), its buddy picture (Last Crusade), and now Crystal Skull represents pure, glorious pulp sci-fi.

It’s a great addition to a great series and it’ll be fun to see who enjoys the ride and who thumbs the nose.

As already stated, the story is really fantastic and — more importantly — it plays really well. Screenwriter David Koepp (Spider-Man) and Lucas have crafted a story that is able to fully play off all the various Indy lore, with references to the other cinematic adventures as well as The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series. Indy has such a wealth of “back story” now, pulling in those different themes and riffs (such as, on the dramatic side, Indy’s mother dying while he still a young boy and, on the history-meets-fiction side, Indy recalling his fighting with Pancho Villa) helps ground Indy in his own reality.

That’s a really sweet trick.

And, instead of resting on the lofty laurels of its earlier successes, the series once again takes risks, much in the same way Temple of Doom was a big, big risk with its much darker tone and story. While it certainly helps that Spielberg and Lucas were able to so smoothly steer the series away from another mystical, spiritual relic and move in a different direction, the fact that they took the risk to begin with is something that should be applauded rather than derided.

After all, how can people possibly complain about sequels being nothing more but the “same old, same old,” (to quote Dr. Jones in Crystal Skull), when Indy prefers to take chances and venture off in new territory?

  • Marty Mapes: I was thinking about LaBeouf's character. His entrance is an obvious reference to The Wild One, but what I liked is that it was more like Mutt trying to fit the image than Spielberg trying to make the joke. As we get to know him, Mutt seems like a smart kid, but one who doesn't know much outside of his own culture. So the hairdo and the leather and the motorcyle are his own traits, and not necessarily Spielberg's. So, well done, Shia. May 25, 2008 reply
  • naoma foreman: my husband noted that a "global positioning device" was shonw in the film, when, in reality, according to the time frame this device had not yet been invented. did anyone else notice this? May 25, 2008 reply