New-Release Tuesday: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

In the exhilarating opening sequence of this Indiana Jones sequel, a hopped-up hotrod full of thrill-seeking teens challenges a military convoy to a drag race through a landscape remarkably similar to Nevada’s Yucca Flats. As the teens speed off down the highway and the convoy turns onto a dirt road across from the conspicuously-named Atomic Café, it becomes pretty clear—even if you haven’t read anything about this film prior to seeing it—that we’re in Close Encounters of the American Graffiti Kind territory.

That’s probably either very good news for you… or you couldn’t care in the least. There is a very small chance, of course, that Spielberg’s and Lucas’ self-referential jokiness might bother you (as it did me); but even if it does, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is good enough—and Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is still interesting enough—that you’ll probably forgive this film’s flaws fairly easily. Especially if you are young, not middle-aged and cranky like me.

So what’s the film about? The reintroduction to Indiana Jones occurs on the threshold of a government storage facility—you know, the one from the end of Raiders—on a military base reminiscent of Area 51. Cold-war era Russian agents have kidnapped Jones to help them track down a powerfully magnetic artifact unearthed years earlier by a team that included Jones. It’s wrapped in a Lost-in-Space-ish cocoon, and after a typically Jonesian standoff over possession of the outsized refrigerator magnet, the Russians steal away with it while Jones stages a typically improbable escape… not unlike (though mercifully briefer than) the opening escape sequence of Temple of Doom.

From there, Jones gets blackballed for supposedly collaborating with the Russians; he links up with “Mutt,” the protégé of Dr. Oxley, another archaeologist who has been studying the South American legend of the crystal skulls—and who has suddenly gone missing… rather like Ravenwood in Raiders or Jones, Sr., in Last Crusade. When Mutt hands Indy a letter from Oxley—a clue not unlike the staff headpiece that Marion ends up delivering to Indy in Raiders—a series of chases and globe-trotting adventures ensues… rather like, well, you know.

What’s really enjoyable about the Indiana Jones films is the way in which familiar bits of cultural trinkets and gewgaws are assembled into something that feels rather fresh and unusual. Raiders had that in spades; Last Crusade recaptured the magic after a brief hiatus. In this case, we not only get bits of Close Encounters and American Grafitti—both in that opening-sequence hotrodding and in Mutt’s rebel-with-cause-enough persona—but clear references to the earlier Jones films too. Karen Allen, for instance, is back as Marion; a bust of Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody gets busted; Ray Winstone as Jones’ current sidekick Mac summons up both John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah and Alfred Molina’s Satipo; and Cate Blanchett’s villainess Irina Spalko is equal parts Paul Freeman’s Belloq and Alison Doody’s Elsa.

The self-referential wit is also in full force. When we’re re-introduced to Jones, for instance, Spielberg’s imagery begs us to ask: “Will Indy be a mere shadow of his former self this time out?” When Jim Broadbent’s Dean Stanforth tells Indy that they’re at an age when “life stops giving us things and starts taking them away,” we know that Spielberg and Lucas are talking about themselves as much as Indy. Later, when Jones instructs Mutt to tell him that a snake is a rope, it’s not only a shout-out to Raiders but also a not-so-subtle reminder of the demands the films place on us to pretend that Indy is actually in danger at any given moment. When Mutt asks “what kind of power” the crystal skulls represent and Indy replies, “I don’t know, kid; it’s just a story,” we know that there are stories, and then there are Indiana Jones stories. And when Jones confesses to Mac that doing the Jones thing is “not as easy as it used to be,” well…

We get to what’s rather tedious about the franchise, a rather minor quibble for a popcorn-munching weekday evening. I’m not sure that “this film delivers exactly what you’d expect from it” is the strongest recommendation in the world when you get the drift that it sometimes amounts to blindly plodding through the formula.

Raiders included several astonishingly surprising moments; Last Crusade managed a few of those in spite of the formula. But frankly, once Mutt and Indy left the States for the jungles in Crystal Skull, I felt like I’d seen all of this stuff in other Spielberg and Lucas movies before. Nothing (and I do mean nothing) after that really surprised me. And much of it—particularly, a military vehicle chase through the jungle—simply drags on far too long.

But again… I am a cranky old man, not an enthusiastic ten-year-old. Have fun with this with your kids, who aren’t as familiar with all the tropes as are film critics.

To get to the really difficult question, for which there is probably no objective answer: Is this a good film, Indiana Jones aside? Yes it is. It is never boring, always interesting, and knows how to tell a bloated tale (since we must).

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is now included with your Amazon Prime subscription, along with the other entries in the Indiana Jones saga. You can also stream at YouTube.

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