Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I’m writing about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull after it has been out for a couple weeks and has probably already been seen by a pretty large percentage of those that were particularly enthusiastic about seeing it.  Because of that, this is going to be a commentary rather than a "should you go see it" type of review and I’m not going to worry about avoiding spoilers.  If you haven’t seen the film and still plan to, consider yourself warned.


I honestly can’t remember being this conflicted about a movie recently.  I can definitely say that I enjoyed the movie and that I even am interested in seeing it again.  At the same time, I’m initially did not feel inclined to say it really was a good movie.  That is part of the reason why I didn’t get around to writing this until about 2 weeks after seeing the film.  In fact, I’ve even gone back and revised this opening paragraph to be a bit more upbeat after realizing that the rest of my review is a lot more positive than I really expected it to be.

Right after seeing the movie, my first instinct was to tell various family and friends that this was the best movie I had ever seen that was made from a really bad script.  As I’ve thought about it more, I even think the script was generally pretty good as I recall a lot of snappy and amusing dialog, some good character moments, and well-chosen action sequences.  I think the real problem with the film is that the underlying story is very poorly conceived.  I really do think that this may be the best example I’ve ever seen of a very talented group of filmmakers and actors making the very best of some pretty bad underlying material.

I’ve seen a lot of comments about how much mileage this movie was able to get out of nostalgia for the character and the earlier films, but I think that wouldn’t really go very far if there weren’t an awful lot that is right with the movie.  First and foremost, it still looks and feels like an Indiana Jones movie.  Although he played the character as noticeably older, and perhaps a tad wiser, Harrison Ford seemed to pretty effortlessly slip back into the role.  I actually hope that other filmmakers will note his performance here and recognize that he is clearly still very capable of playing action heroes.  I think he is an actor that has mostly been misused for the past few years.

It was great seeing Karen Allen’s return as Marion Ravenwood, even if she really didn’t have all that much to do in the film.  The interplay between her and Indy was pretty much on the mark, really.  It was very reminiscent of their relationship in the original film, but with some additional history.  While it has been somewhat controversial, I was really happy with the decision to end the film with Indy and Marion’s wedding.  I felt it was a good reflection of the maturity that both characters have achieved with age.  I also thought it provided some appropriate closure to a series that I suspect probably really is finished, in spite of the various rumors to the contrary.

I do think that Shia LaBeouf was appealing and well cast as Indy and Marion’s son, Mutt, but I can’t really say that I thought the character came close to being distinctive enough to carry a film on his own as has been rumored.  With that in mind, and considering how long it took to get Spielberg and Ford’s schedules to coincide (along with that of George Lucas) and all of them to agree on a script, I just don’t see too much of a chance of another film.  I could be wrong about this (and almost hope that I am), but this really does seem like one final nostalgic return rather than the re-start of the series.

For the nostalgia factor, I was really happy to see the brief tributes to Marcus Brody (and, consequently, the late Denholm Elliot) as well as to Indy’s father.  It was disappointing that they weren’t able to coax Sean Connery out of retirement for at least a brief cameo, but I was glad that they still found a couple very effective ways of acknowledging the character, particularly in the context of the new father/son relationship between Indy and Mutt.  As for Marcus, I greatly enjoyed his sort of bumbling comic relief in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and, thus, thought it was absolutely perfect to end a chase sequence by having the bad guys run into his statue, causing the head to go through their windshield.  That felt to me like a very sharp, highly in-character tribute.

The overall look, pacing, and rhythm of the film also seem right.  While Steven Spielberg has really matured a lot as a filmmaker over the last 20 years, I think it is great that he still likes to periodically go back to the type of popcorn-movie that generally launched his career.  If he had been making nothing but films like Schindler’s List and Munich in the years since the last Indiana Jones film, I’m not sure if he could have slipped back into this series effectively.  I’m glad he still does occasional projects like the Jurassic Park films, War of the Worlds, and this one.

Some have complained that the now-standard use of CGI animation does give some of the special effects work in this film a less realistic appearance than in the earlier films, but I honestly didn’t really notice it much.  I really wouldn’t say that the special effects work in the series ever really fit the definition of "realistic", regardless of the technique used.  The effects may look a bit different this time, but I can honestly say that it wasn’t something that crossed my mind while watching the film.

I thought the action sequences and chases were very well-staged and, just like in the previous films, lots of fun.  Yes, several of the sequences were completely absurd, but that is not only what I expect from this series, but a large part of its charm.  I’ve been a tad surprised to see other reviews that have criticized sequences like Mutt’s Tarzan swing through the jungle or Indy surviving a nuclear blast in a lead refrigerator.  Sure, both sequences were insanely over-the-top and kind of silly, but they also both put a huge grin on my face.  I really think this kind of pretty much fearless over-the-top action is a big part of the charm of these films.

I’ve now talked a lot about what was right with the film.  As I stated at the top of the review, my overall reaction to the film was pretty mixed mainly due to pretty serious story issues.  To put it simply, I think the plot is just plain too complicated.  The Indiana Jones films have pretty much provided classic examples of Alfred Hitchcock’s concept of a MacGuffin, the term he used to refer to the object that everyone in the film wants to find, steal, protect, or destroy.  What that object is or does really shouldn’t matter at all or occupy much time or attention in the film.

In the previous films, the MacGuffin could be explained in just a few words, thus requiring very little of the running time for exposition and allowing the films to maintain a previously almost unprecedented pacing.  In both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy was seeking Biblical objects that were already well-known to most people in the audience.  Even those that didn’t already know about the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail could pretty quickly get the point when told that the ark was the box that held the tablets containing the 10 commandments and that the grail was the cup used by Christ at the last supper.  The ark’s "power to level mountains" and the grail’s ability to grant endless life could also be explained quickly and easily.  While the Sankara Stones that were sought in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were not a well-known artifact, the film pretty much skipped any serious explanation other than that one of the stones brought good luck to a village and that all of them would bring great power when brought together.

In the new film, the crystal skull of the title is essentially a MacGuffin once again, but this time they have given it a much too complicated back-story.  To be honest, I’m not even sure I even entirely understood it by the time the film was over.  As best as I can tell, the skulls belonged to alien visitors (I think inter-dimensional instead of from outer space) who were, apparently, the gods that were worshiped by the ancient Aztecs, who built their lost city of gold as a tribute.  When brought together at the temple in the lost city, they apparently opened some sort of a doorway while also imparting psychic abilities or some sort of eternal knowledge to anyone who was looking into their eyes.  It also, for some reason, triggered a launch of a flying saucer that either was traveling to space or to another dimension or something.  Anyway, I think that not entirely-successful attempt at a description kind of illustrates the problem here. 

The major impact of the over-complicated plot is that this film pretty much slows to a halt multiple times as it makes not-entirely successful attempts at explaining what was going on.  Prior to this film, slow spots in an Indiana Jones movie almost seemed unthinkable.   A big part of the problem is that even Indy’s motivations and role in the whole adventure become somewhat murky by the end of the movie, particularly after a scene where Indy briefly is forced to stare at the skull and then starts claiming that some of his activities are what it told him to do.  In the past films, the characterization was really a pretty simple mix of a desire for "fortune and glory" and a somewhat overdeveloped sense of altruism, again providing an easy framework for action sequences fueled by dogged determination. 

The problem with the story also impacted the effectiveness of some of the supporting characters.  Cate Blanchett’s villain was particularly hurt by confusing characterization and motivations.  I didn’t mind so much that her desire to find the skull was more based on personal ambition than loyalty to her Soviet leaders as that was a tradition that was pretty much established in the first film with Belloq, who remains the best of the series’ villains.  The bigger problem is that it really was hard to figure out what those motivations actually were.  We were given some indications that she had psychic abilities (or at least thought she did), but that didn’t really amount to much until the confusing climax.  I guess she was ultimately seeking knowledge, but that aspect of her personality almost seemed to come out of nowhere at the end of the film.  It certainly didn’t help much that Blanchett’s performance was a bit too cartoonish, with a pretty uncomfortable resemblance to Natasha from the old Bullwinkle cartoons…

Another weak link was John Hurt’s role as one of Indy’s old colleagues who had initially discovered the skull.  By the time the film catches up with the character, he had apparently gone mad as a result of staring too long at the skull, but it is never entirely clear why that is or why he suddenly returns to normal at the film’s climax.  The character is generally inscrutable to the point of being fairly irritating.  I think the film would have been better off either eliminating the character entirely or having him remain missing (leaving clues) until the finale.

I will say that my initial reaction to hearing that the film involved aliens was generally not very positive, but I now don’t really think that was a bad idea.  Necessarily, the film shifted the setting from the 1930s to the 1950s and a storyline involving aliens fits in pretty well with the types of serial adventure films from that time period.  I think the big mistake was that they way overdeveloped the idea.  Had the story involved a very straightforward and simple artifact that just happened to be alien in origin (instead of religious like in the other films), I think it would have worked just fine.  The error was in seriously trying to over-explain the whole thing.  We have long heard that Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford wanted to do another film, but it was long delayed by trying to get the right story and script.  In a lot of ways, the end result really seems like the work of too many screenwriters severely over-thinking what needed to be nothing more than a lightweight framework for lots of action and adventure.

Despite these huge misgivings about the story, the good really does outweigh the bad here.  As I said at the beginning, I have felt very conflicted about the movie and I think this review probably reflects that.  Looking back at what I wrote, the first half reads a lot like a rave review and the second half reads like a pan.  I think that does basically reflect the two sides to the movie itself, but what is good is so good that I would have hated to miss it.  For me, I think it boils down to being glad that we got one more Indiana Jones film after all these years while also feeling like it was something of a missed opportunity. 

Indiana Jones Memories: Last Crusade

Click here for my post on Raiders of the Lost Ark
Click here for my post on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The 5 years between the second and third Indiana Jones sequels were pretty eventful ones in my life, as is probably typical for the years between age 14 and 19.  In early 1985 (a little over 1/2 year after Temple of Doom came out), my family moved from Flint to Kenosha, Wisconsin.  My parents ended up making another move to Sandusky, Ohio just 3 years after that, although I was attending college in Milwaukee by that time.

We ended up all seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on opening day at a theater in Cleveland, so the movie’s opening day (the Wednesday before Memorial Day 1989) must have been shortly after I completed my sophomore year of college and returned to my parents’ home for summer vacation.  While there were a couple movie theaters in Sandusky at the time, they were generally older theaters and their presentation usually left a lot to be desired.  As it was only about a one hour drive to Cleveland, we quickly got into the habit of going there to see most movies.  My grandmother also lived in Cleveland at the time, so we were able to often combine a trip to the movies with a visit to see her as well.

I don’t remember the name of the specific theater where we saw the film, but we basically picked it out by looking in the paper for the closest theater that listed a 70mm 6-track presentation and Lucasfilm’s THX sound system, which had become pretty commonplace in larger cities by that time.  Our whole family (including my mother this time) got up fairly early to head into Cleveland for the first opening day matinee of the movie.  I’m not sure if there were any midnight showings of this one, but we did go to the first regularly scheduled showing at that theater.

Even with the show being fairly early in the day on a Wednesday, the theater was pretty full, although I don’t recall for sure if it was a completely sold-out show.  The most memorable audience moment actually came during the previews.  Just a couple minutes into them, the film broke and the lights came back up.  A few moments after that, someone in the theater started loudly humming the Raiders March.  It took only another moment or so until pretty much the entire audience had joined in.  I strongly suspect that this was considerably more frightening to the poor employee that was tasked with getting things up and running again than the more traditional audience taunts and complaints would have been.  Fortunately, they were able to get it fixed pretty quickly and the movie itself played through without interruption.

Last Crusade is a very good film with some considerable strengths.  Sean Connery is absolutely great as Indy’s father and he and Harrison Ford played off each other wonderfully.  It was also nice seeing Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies reprise their roles from the first film and, of course, the action sequences and big set pieces were as much fun as ever.  I can easily understand why most people seem to prefer this one to Temple of Doom and some even consider it to be the best of the original three movies.

For a couple reasons, though, it is pretty solidly in third place for me.  While Temple of Doom was able to genuinely surprise me by going off in a different direction in setting and style compared to its predecessor, Last Crusade instead repeated a lot of key elements from Raiders pretty directly, whether it be the reuse of the Nazis as the key villains, the quest for another famous Christian religious icon, or even the use of some very similar settings and locations.  I couldn’t help but feel like Lucas and Spielberg took the complaints about Temple of Doom too much to heart and responded by largely reworking Raiders for the third film.

I also can’t help but think that the difference in my memories of the films are somewhat reflective of the different viewpoints of an 11-year-old, a 14-year-old, and a 19-year-old.  By the time Last Crusade came out, I was a pretty avid moviegoer that was seeing a pretty wide variety of movies of many different styles and genres.  As excited as I was about seeing this one, I doubt I was quite as receptive to it as I was when I was younger.  I do recall still seeing the film a few times over the course of that summer, but I don’t think it was more than a handful.  Even taking into account home video, I have a hunch that I still probably haven’t seen Last Crusade as many times in total as I saw Raiders in the theater during its first year of release.

With that in mind, I’m very excited to go see an opening-night showing of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull tomorrow night, but I also can’t help but wonder exactly how I am going to respond to one of these movies now that I’m 38-years-old, married, and a father.  There is a good chance I’ll write a review of the movie over the next couple days, but I suspect I won’t really have enough distance to write another one of these "memories" articles about it for quite a few years.

Indiana Jones Memories: Temple of Doom

Click here for my previous post on Raiders of the Lost Ark

By the time the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out in 1984, the dominance of the multiplex was really starting to take hold.  The sequel opened both at the big single-screen Flint Cinema where Raiders played, but it also opened at a suburban multiplex (the Genesee Valley Theaters) that was much closer to our family’s home.  This was the same release pattern that was used for Return of the Jedi the year before.  My sister and I saw Jedi at the first after-school matinee at the multiplex and then saw the film again that weekend in the better 70mm 6-track Dolby presentation at the Flint Cinema.

We had expected to follow the same basic pattern with Temple of Doom, which was also opening the Wednesday before Memorial Day, a week or so before school let out for the summer.  Much to our surprise, my father had other ideas.  At the time, the local newspaper in Flint came fairly late in the afternoon.  After work, my father was looking through the paper and called my sister and I into the room.  He then showed us the full-page ad for the movie that announced a midnight showing that night at Flint Cinema and asked us if we could promise to still get up and make it to school the next day if we all went to see it.  Of course, our answer was a definite "yes". 

Not being a night person at all, my mother again opted out of the first showing (another good excuse to see the film again soon…), but my father, sister, and I headed out to the theater late that evening.  This was my first experience seeing a midnight movie.  It wasn’t a sold-out show, but the enthusiasm level of the audience was about as high as it could get.  The crowd cheered and applauded at all the right moments and clearly was having a great time.  I particularly got a kick out of the reaction to Indy’s entrance.  The first time we see the character in this film, he is well-groomed and dressed in a white tuxedo.  The audience reacted with applause, although it was a bit restrained and even a little delayed as it took a moment for it to register that it was him.  At the end of the prologue, Indy makes a second entrance dressed in his traditional leather jacket, fedora, bullwhip, etc. and that prompted cheers and wild applause.

I obviously had a much better idea of what to expect than I did prior to the release of the first film, which led to quite a bit more heightened excitement about the film, but also a lot less mystery and surprise.  What I actually liked a lot about the film (and I’m a bigger fan of it than many people are) was that I felt that Lucas and Spielberg really did find some surprising and unexpected directions to take the movie.  Right at the very start, I certainly wasn’t expecting the movie to open with an entire Busby Berkley style musical number.  I even recall momentarily wondering if they were running the wrong movie.  A lot of people were also put off by the darker tone and overall modified structure compared to the first film, but I felt that it made the movie seem a bit fresher than most sequels.  The film was, if anything, even faster paced than the first and, even with the ultra-late showtime, I certainly had no trouble staying awake for the movie.  Yes, I did make it through the school day the next day as well.

I liked the film a lot and did see it several times in the theater that summer, but not as many times as the first film.  In fact, it wasn’t even really the movie that most dominated my attention that summer.  As a 14-year-old boy, I was right in the primary target audience for Ghostbusters, which became my favorite movie of that summer and the one that I gave the most repeat viewing.  The Indiana Jones films have overall likely withstood the test of time better over the last 24 years and I suspect most people might even be a bit surprised to learn that Ghostbusters was actually a bigger box-office hit overall that summer.  Still, it did play through the whole summer and I do recall several return trips to see it again.

In my post on Raiders, I mentioned that the John Williams score was something of a milestone.  While the sequel score wasn’t as much of one, it did come as something of a surprise to me and still remains one of my favorites.  The big surprise was Williams’ decision to abandon all of the themes that he had written for the first film with the exception of the iconic Raiders March.  At that point, I never really had conceived of a sequel score that would essentially start from scratch instead of further developing the first film’s music.  It caught me a bit off-guard, but also appealed to me very much.

I will close with probably the silliest and oddest personal story that relates to this movie.  At the very end of the credits is a somewhat cryptic credit that simply says "Thanks to Reed Smoot".  Being a couple teenagers, my sister and I both thought that was kind of a funny name and were also intrigued by the mysterious credit.  It then became a running joke for the two of us for quite some time, with us often joking about being the only members of the "Reed Smoot Fan Club".  Without the vast information available online today, we didn’t have any success finding any information on Mr. Smoot.  We were pretty sure he wasn’t the early-20th century Utah Senator that was the only reference we found to the name.  I now know that Mr. Smoot is actually a respected cinematographer that is best known for his work on a variety of IMAX features.  He apparently did some second-unit photography work on the film, which was the basis of the credit.  If Mr. Smoot ever stumbles on this, I hope he doesn’t mind that a couple silly teenagers had some goofy fun with his credit.

Indiana Jones Memories: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Unless you have been living under a rock (and possibly even then), you probably know that a brand-new Indiana Jones movie is opening this Thursday.  My wife and I have already arranged for a babysitter and purchased our opening night tickets.  With that in mind, this seems like a good time to reminisce a bit about my experiences seeing the previous movies in the series.  In this post (and later ones about the other two films), I’m not really going to write reviews, although I expect to reveal at least a bit of my opinion of each.  Instead will just tell a bit of the story of my own experiences.

With 19 years having past since we last saw Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and 27 years since the character was first introduced in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I’m part of a likely pretty large group of adults who will be going into this new movie with a hope of recapturing a little bit of magic from my childhood.  I was only 11-years-old when the first movie came out and was 14 and 18 when the previous sequels came out.  As a long-time movie enthusiast, I probably would list other films (including others by Spielberg and Lucas) as somewhat higher on both my lists of favorites and bests, but I can think of very few that invoke more fond memories or that had quite as much influence on my love of movies and my cinematic preferences.

When Raiders of the Lost Ark came out back in 1981, I was already a fan of the Star Wars films (The Empire Strikes Back came out one year earlier) and, not surprisingly, was immediately very receptive to the promotion of a new George Lucas movie starring Harrison Ford.  My older sister (who was 14 at the time) also had a definite movie-star crush on Ford, which also helped to build our family’s interest in the movie.

The first that I ever heard about the film remains my pick for possibly the most amusingly wrong magazine article I’ve ever seen about a movie.  I don’t remember the specific publication (although my sister may still have the clipping somewhere in her files), but it was a movie rumors column in either a teen magazine or a general entertainment magazine of some sort.  The short article ran right around the time that The Empire Strikes Back was released and announced that the 3rd film in the Star Wars series would be coming out only one year later and would center around the character of Han Solo.  The title of this new film would be "Lost Raiders of the Ark".  I’m sure that whoever wrote that is very proud…

Back in 1981, I didn’t really follow the movies very closely and certainly didn’t have access to the kind of ready information on the topic that is out there today.  For the most part, the first real awareness of Raiders came primarily when the ads started hitting.  Back then, George Lucas and, especially, Steven Spielberg were not really household names, so the ads heavily promoted the movie as "From the creator of Star Wars and the director of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind".  As I said, the Star Wars connections were the big draw for me, although I had seen and enjoyed Close Encounters (but only on TV).  I didn’t see Jaws until a few years later.  After seeing Raiders, I quickly became a Spielberg fan, something that really solidified a year later when our family went out to see a sneak preview of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial without knowing much of anything about the film other than that it was from the same director.

My father took my sister, my best friend, and me to see the first evening showing of Raiders on its opening night.  We were living in Flint, Michigan at the time and saw the movie at The Flint Cinema, an old-fashioned single-screen theater.  Built in the late 60s shortly after the end of the movie palace era, it wasn’t anything overly fancy but was mainly known for a large screen and 70mm, 6-track Dolby presentation.  I think Raiders was actually the first film we saw there as the first two Star Wars films had opened at the nearby Eastland Mall Cinemas instead.  The movie pretty much blew us all away.  We knew it was supposed to be a fast-paced adventure movie, but I don’t think any of us really were prepared for the scope of the film or the sheer level of adrenaline it would pump.

My Mom wasn’t originally sure she was that interested in the movie (she hadn’t really liked Star Wars) and decided that she didn’t feel like dealing with the opening night crowds for the movie.  We, of course, all came home and told her that she needed to see the movie as soon as possible and we all went out to see it with her the next weekend.   As a joke, we all conspired ahead of time to repeatedly warn her that the movie started out very slowly, but promising her that it got better as it went along.  As you might expect, the very exciting opening sequence in the idol cave caught her very much off-guard.  She really loved the movie, although the intensity did get to her a bit at times.  She was holding my Dad’s hand during much of the movie and afterwards they laughed that she instinctively pulled her hand to her mouth, thus biting my Dad, during the Well-of-Souls sequence when the snake climbed out of the skeleton’s mouth.

Over the course of that summer, this became the first movie that my sister and I went to see multiple times in the theaters during its initial release (we had seen Star Wars and a few Disney films more than once due to re-releases).  By the end of the film’s run, I saw it a total of 13 times.  My father absolutely fell in love with the movie as well and went along with us to many of those showings.  Prior to that, he had never been much of a movie fan and didn’t typically see anything more than once.

John Williams score to the movie also represented a bit of a milestone for me.  I had started to become interested in movie scores a couple years earlier.  My interest was first sparked by John Barry’s orchestral score to Disney’s The Black Hole, which ended up being the first score soundtrack that I purchased.  My interest expanded dramatically after getting first The Empire Strikes Back and then the original Star Wars soundtracks and I then started a collection of movie score LP’s from movies involving outer space.  Over a year or so, I bought a bunch of albums including Close Encounters, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Superman, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc.  After seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark and hearing Williams amazing music for the film, I immediately wanted that soundtrack.  It was at that point, that my interest really broadened to film scores in general instead of just to souvenirs of space movies.  This really established my musical tastes for the long term as film scores remain the dominant part of my collection and my music purchases today.

I loved the sequels and have certainly been very impressed and excited by other action/adventure movies over the years as well.  I think Raiders will always hold a very special place in my memory, though, and I don’t really believe any other movie will ever quite match the surprise and excitement that surrounded this one.