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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull / ***˝ (PG-13)

Posted Monday, May 26, 2008, at 11:23 AM

Indiana Jones is back in theaters after nearly twenty years with his latest adventure.
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by David Koepp. Story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson. Running time: 124 min. Rated PG-13 (for adventure violence and scary images).

There is a magic to the filmmaking skill of Steven Spielberg. No matter what the subject, his camera tells its story in a special way. There's the way he zooms from a close-up of a hand, a face, or just an object to an even tighter close-up. He can tell little stories within the story with just shadows and light. He'll follow a car chase with his camera at ground level so close to the tires that you think at any moment you could get sucked under the treads and shredded. His sweeping boom shots give his audience the sensation of grandiose flight.

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"--the fourth installment of the adventuring archaeologist and the first in almost twenty years--is so ripe with material for Spielberg to sink his magical camera into that it drips with his unique directorial style. It is also filled with thematic and topical materials that have become signatures for both Spielberg and series creator and producer George Lucas. The opening moments give us Lucas's obsession with the cars and music of the late 1950s, Spielberg's recollection of the landscape of the American Southwest from his childhood, the terror that came following the world's inauguration into the atomic age, the paranoia and blacklisting of the anti-communist movement of McCarthyism, and eventually the entire film finds itself in a plot straight out of the pulp fantasy magazine stories that must have informed two of the greatest science fiction filmmakers in history.

The film opens at Hangar 51 in Roswell, New Mexico. Embracing the Lucas signature of starting the story after the action has begun, we discover that a group of Russian KGB infiltrators, lead by the uber-cold Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"), have already kidnapped Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, "Firewall") and his current sidekick 'Mac' McHale (Ray Winstone, "Beowulf") to use Jones's expertise to find a particular unidentified item at the large storage facility. Echoes of the music from the closing passages of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" let us know that we've seen this warehouse before. The scene explodes into a glorious escape sequence and establishes Mac as a typical Jones sidekick, never doing what Indy asks and generally getting him into greater trouble than he bargained for.

After an FBI debriefing, Indy finds himself a victim of the Red Scare and decides to leave the country. Before he does, he is tracked down by a young greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, "Transformers"). Spielberg and Lucas engage in a little hero worship of their own when LaBeouf enters on a motorcycle garbed exactly like Marlon Brando in "The Wild One". Mutt comes to Jones with a proposition to help rescue his former mentor Professor Oxley (John Hurt, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer") and his mother from the very same Russians who used Jones to steal the item from Hangar 51. Oxley claims to have discovered the much-sought-after and feared Crystal Skull of Akator. The search for the skull and its purpose lead Indy's team and the Russians on a chase through the jungles of Peru to an ancient Mayan temple.

While Ford's hair is now grey and his voice filled with a little more gravel, he still retains all the spirit of the Indiana Jones character. Is it hard to buy a man entering the geriatric set as the centerpiece of such an action-oriented adventure? Well, if the plausibility of Ford pulling off the stunts he uses to escape certain death is going to be a hitch for some audience members, it is the least of the film's believability problems. But to harp on the credibility of the action in this movie is to grossly miscategorize its purpose, which is to push the bounds of plausibility in honor of the grand extremities of popular entertainment.

LaBeouf makes a good foil for Ford in scenes where he acts as Jones's sidekick but also provides the confidence of a full-fledged protégé of the durable archaeologist. And Blanchett makes for just as formidable a foe with her saber-wielding psychic as any male antagonist has ever been in the series. Only Karen Allen ("When Will I Be Loved?") seems slightly out of place in the cast, reprising her role as Marion Ravenwood from the first installment. She adds a good deal of humor to the proceedings, but is never given the well-rounded treatment needed to reestablish the strength her character originally carried.

I read an early review from the Cannes Film Festival, which claimed that while the filmmakers tried their damnedest to recreate the adventure aspects of the first three Indiana Jones films, this one was devoid of humor. That writer must have had a very bad day before his screening of "Crystal Skull". The movie is as rich with all the classic Indiana Jones humor as it is with the overabundance of signatures from Spielberg and Lucas. One scene exploits Indy's well-established fear of snakes to gut-wrenching hilarity. And Ford still has the magic touch when delivering his down-to-earth take on all the ridiculous developments which surround him.

This story does travel a little farther into the land of the bizarre than the previous episodes, but when you're talking about a series that has already brought you a box that melts people's faces off, a man who can reach into the chest of his victims and pull out their still-beating heart, and a 400 year-old knight guarding the cup of life crafted by Christ himself--really, where are you gonna go? Spielberg and Lucas have created a worthy extension of one of the greatest film franchises ever to grace the screen. And it is indeed delicious.

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Right, a couple of things. First, kinda easy to break into Area 51 wasn't it? I mean the military is like "Hey, let's store all of our secret thingies in here and post 4 or 5 gaurds at the gate that should be secure." Second, what about the skulls of the aliens recovered? Do they not have any psychic powers? Sorry, did I give spoilers? Oh well, it won't make any difference, it still a good movie.

-- Posted by fezzik on Tue, May 27, 2008, at 12:04 PM

OK. When they Russians pull up to the base, the guard explains that the base has been evacuated for "weapons testing". An event that does occur, but as far as I can tell the bomb isn't dropped until the following morning. But that would explain that once the Russians get to Hangar 51 they run into no more resistance.

SPOILER WARNING!!! Yes, your comment does contain a pretty important spoiler there, Fezzik. I believe you are referring to the Roswell crash-landed alien and the couple of Russian crashed aliens mentioned by Dr. Spalko. she speculates that they are distant cousins of the 13 Mayan aliens in the film's climax. I think there are a couple of explanations as to why they don't use these recovered alien's skull for psychic energy. As distant cousins, they may not have the same powers. They certainly aren't as powerful separately as the 13 Mayan travelers are together. Since they crashed landed presumable alone or in a much smaller group their purpose may not have been the same. And although it is not fully explained, I think since they crashed it can be presumed they were traveling through space. The seemingly superior Mayan aliens were not space travelers, but dimension travelers. Perhaps that distinction makes them more psychically malleable.

-- Posted by ydnasllew on Tue, May 27, 2008, at 8:38 PM

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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.
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