‘Skull’ drudgery


This is not going to be one of those columns that goes into a lengthy diatribe about the influence on Dr. Indiana Jones had on this reviewer’s life as a child.  I refuse to prattle on about owning a fedora and a bullwhip used to scare the bejeezus out of the family dog, or the backyard films created as homage to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the countless scars and bruises that serve as a testament to my inexperience and/or stupidity in attempts to replicate the adventures of the intrepid archeologist.

It seems that the prerequisite in reviewing this latest installment in the Indiana Jones canon, “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” has almost every critic launching into some wistful rant on its impact of his/her life. And while I am certainly one to appreciate the personal power of cinematic experiences, I think this self-indulgent therapy session approach is a tad tiresome now.

Let’s take “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” for what it is, without the nostalgic mist clouding my eyes.

I will begin with stating that, as slavish as my devotion was, I do not consider the entire trilogy of Indiana Jones films as the be-all, end-all of adventure films. “Raiders” was, and remains, a masterwork of cinema – thrilling, thoughtful and thorough.  Its sequels – “Temple of Doom” and “The Last Crusade” – had their strengths, but rose to levels nowhere near their source. So the thought of another entry two decades later held only slight promise.

And there is much wish fulfillment to be found, but there are several critical elements that drag the tale into the catacombs of many Indy Come Lateleys, such as “The Mummy” and “National Treasure.”

The film picks up 20 years after “The Last Crusade” in 1957, where Dr. Jones (played by Harrison Ford, duh!) finds himself in New Mexico searching for the eponymous object located in a government storage warehouse (keep your eyes peeled for flashes of his previous conquests located within).  From here, he tangles with old-fashioned cinematic Russkies (headed by a Cate Blanchett, acting as though she stepped out of a “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon), survives a point-blank impact of an atomic bomb, floats down not one, but three, waterfalls, eludes countless natives and soldiers who have apparently all been trained at the Keystone Kops Weaponry Training Academy, killer mutant ants, various auto and motorcycle chases and takes more punches than a speed bag.

Honestly, were Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner out of budget range to make a cameo?

I know Indy has survived many things – rolling boulders, a pit full of snakes, airplane crashes, Kate Capshaw – but by layering on so many narrow escapes, there was never a moment that felt as though he was honestly in any danger. 

The problem lies predominately in the script. In these last two decades, there have been countless attempts to jumpstart the series again from names like Chris Columbus (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”), Jeb Stuart (“Die Hard” and “The Fugitive”), Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”), George Lucas.  Even M. Night Shyamalan is to have reported to take a stab at the legend.  David Koepp (“Spider Man,” Jurassic Park”) was eventually hired to cobble together what feels like the “greatest hits” of all the previous drafts (and trust me, they are all available on the internet for those who snoop hard enough).

There are elements, plot devices and characters that pop up for several scenes only to disappear for gaping sections of the film or are never heard from again (what’s up with those groundhogs?). Most notable of these slights is the character of Marion Ravenwood (played by Karen Allen). Looking game for adventure, Allen makes a grand entrance, only to serve as a getaway driver for the majority of her screen time. When Indy professes a still-burning flame for her, we want it to give us chills, but director Steven Spielberg has far too many hoops for his hero to jump through to get bogged down with emotional development of any sort.

 Shia LaBeouf, here playing a Indy’s young greaser sidekick by the name of Mutt, has been the source of much debate from fans who have not cozied up to the actor’s snarky style (but they were completely content with the whiny musings of Short Round in “Temple of Doom”?).  Frankly, it was all for naught, as he is easily one of the few new elements in a film that has many other problems with which to deal.

With all that said, there is still a level of comfort that can be found in “Skull,” but it is not in the Rube Goldberg archeological sites set up for the characters. It is more in the iconic shots of Indiana once again picking up his weathered fedora and placing it on his head; or when he and his college’s dean (played by a criminally underused Jim Broadbendt) briefly ruminate over their accelerated age; or the old-school motorcycle chase scene through campus involving more stunt work than pixels.

Too often, the film succumbs to its bombastic tendencies, though, that severely diminish   Indiana’s humanity and vulnerability that made him so accessible in the first place. He is now no more defenseless than any other CGI-enhanced superhero at the box office.

Ironically, it’s all these attempts to stay “new” is what ages “Crystal Skull” the most. For in its seemingly relentless pursuit to appease the current box office action appetites, what true Indiana Jones fans want is less breakneck pace, more of the same old “hat.”

~ by usesoapfilm on May 23, 2008.

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