Friday, April 24, 2020

Green Phoenix - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Review

Kingdomofthecrystalskull.jpgWelp, I guess its time to sit on this rowdy bucking horse.

I have always loved the Indiana Jones franchise, especially when I was a child. So when I heard that the series was going to release the fourth film in 2008, my 14-year-old ass literally strong-armed my family into coming to the theater with me. The fact that I was the only person in the theater in a complete Indiana Jones cosplay was just the icing on the cake (if my sisters could dress up for Harry Potter films, then I could be Indiana Jones in the theater). This just goes to show just how obsessed as I was about the Indiana Jones franchise growing up and how the fourth film was going to be absolutely amazing if I had to wait nearly a decade and a half to get the next installment.

...yeah. It was alright.

Even when I was a 14-year-old who liked almost everything (I hadn't yet developed my critical credentials and experience yet), I could tell that there was something decidedly "meh" about this film overall. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot to like about it, but it is definitely the black sheep of the franchise.

The fact that a fifth film has been announced for July of 2022, of course, has me excited, but I feel like maybe we need to take a look back at the fourth film in the franchise to see if we can learn what we should and shouldn't do in an Indiana Jones movie.

***
  • Directed by Steven Spielberg
  • Produced by Lucasfilm Ltd.
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13
  • Running Time: 122 Minutes

***

SUMMARY

It has been two decades since the events of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Indiana Jones is brought back into the fold after he is kidnapped by Soviet agents, led by the enigmatic Irina Spalko, and forced to help them uncover some mysterious artifact locked deep within the bowels of Area 51.

This incident puts Indiana Jones's academic career on the chopping block in the midst of the Red Scare just as he learns that his old friend Harold Oxley has gone missing while investigating the mystery surrounding an artifact similar to the one found in Area 51. Indiana must now journey with a young greaser and protege of Oxley's named Mutt Williams, played by Shia LeBeouf, deep into the Amazon to stop the Russians, clear his name, and uncover the mystery behind the Crystal Skull.

***

REVIEW

I'm sorry.

I want to like this movie as much of the rest of the series. But Kingdom of the Crystal Skull really is the ugly step-child of the Indiana Jones franchise. The film was released during the midst of the CGI craze and, in most places, it really does show. The characters seem tired or wholly unoriginal, coming right out of Grease or a cheap Cold War spy movie, and the story is really weird.

And this is coming from a franchise that gave us Indian voodoo mystics searching for magic rocks, so that is saying a lot.

That being said, the film does have some cheap entertainment value on its own mainly in its absurdities, but I really don't like watching it like the other films in the franchise.

VISUALS - 5/10

For many directors and creators, the introduction and widespread utilization of CGI has been a net positive to the film and television industry, allowing vast and expansive worlds, completely CG characters to captivate our imaginations, and enabling the creation of things that absolutely stun audiences by making the impossible become possible. But for George Lucas, the advent of computer graphics enabled him to put anything he could imagine onto the screen easily and cheaply, without the heavy reliance on practical effects.


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's one redeeming ...
Yeah, TOTALLY the Nevada desert. Not a sound stage at all.
Just look at the Star Wars prequels. I'm mean for god's sake, the series that became legendary for its incredible special effects became studio lots filled to the brim with blue screens. Nothing in those films felt real, there was a constant understanding that most of what we saw on the screens was never there. The key to good film-making requires a mix of computer and practical effects in order to keep the audience guessing as to how a specific trick was done.

And just like the Star Wars prequels, the over-reliance on CGI that characterizes Lucas in the 2000s seems to have infected Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as well. The franchise that used practical effects to melt a man's face, create ghosts, a massive underground mine fight, and a fist fight on top of a fucking tank has some of the weirdest looking CGI I have ever seen and one of the most fake looking jungles in any movie, which isn't helped by a lot of weird lighting choices, especially in the Area 51 moments of the movie.

In the franchise that literally opens up its first movie in a real motherfucking practical effect JUNGLE, they instead decided that a fake-ass jungle on a sound stage was just easier. It really feels like from an effects standpoint, Spielberg just handed Lucas the reins to prequel up my Indiana Jones movie!

Which is nothing short of a goddamn shame because in so many other ways this film has so many of the hallmarks which make a great Indiana Jones film. The fight-sequences are an absolute treat, with Harrison Ford undergoing rigorous and harsh physical training (especially for a 50+ year old man) to maintain the role that made him so famous. The fights and chase sequence really feel like old-school Indiana Jones (although since this film is now 12 years old, does this count as old school now too?).

But the absolute worst effect by far are the aliens. Yep, you heard that right. There are fucking aliens in my Indiana  Jones movie. Normally, this wouldn't be all that surprising, since the film is supposed to evoke 1950s B-movie science fiction, much like how the original trilogy was supposed to evoke the adventure serials of the 30s and 40s. But they had to make the aliens look really fucking stupid. The aliens could've easily been achieved with practical effects and I can guarantee you that it would've turned out a million times better than it actually did.

Compared to most films, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull would have above average effects. Perfectly serviceable for a summer blockbuster. But so much of this film's visual aesthetic feels like it was influenced much more by the worst part of the Star Wars prequels than classic Indiana Jones. I can't in good conscience give the visuals a rating any higher than average.

SOUNDTRACK - 8/10

I think it is absolutely amazing how, no matter how goofy or terrible some Spielberg or Lucas movies are, the one element that remains universally strong are their soundtracks. All of that is due, in no small part, to the immense talent and skill of composer John Williams. Williams is honestly the spirit of 1980s blockbusters and he returns to bring his talents to the fourth Indiana Jones film.

I've spoken about the quality of Indiana Jones soundtracks in the past reviews and I've spoken at length about John Williams in nearly every review that he was the composer for, so I'm not sure what else I can talk about except for mentioning one small Easter egg I learned while researching the soundtrack.

The track "Call of the Crystal", which plays during Indiana's torture scene by the Russians is actually the Map Room track from Raiders of the Lost Ark reversed. Which is an amazing element since the scene is, in essence, a twisted subversion of the same scene. Indiana Jones learns the location of the artifact that everyone is after in both scenes, but with too widely different methods.

Just a fun little element I thought could spice up this section, since I don't really have all that much to say about the soundtrack. It's the best part of the film in general and I would listen to it alongside the rest of the franchise.

CHARACTERS - 6/10

I feel like so many of the actors in this movie didn't really want to be here. Harrison Ford put in a hell of a lot of physical training to prepare himself for the role but it also felt like he was just so damn tired throughout this entire film. I know that Harrison Ford in real life has always been something of a quiet and awkward guy, but never did I get a sense that Ford really wanted to be here (even though he was actually really excited for this movie). Add in the fact that it really did feel like they were pushing heavily for Shia Lebeouf's character, Mutt Williams, to pick up the mantle of Indiana Jones and it really feels like Spielberg and Lucas seemed more concerned with passing the torch than giving us a satisfying evolution of the characters.

Also, I just realized that Mutt Williams is a play on Indiana Jones and a hint as to his character's identity. Mutt is the name for a bastard dog, Indiana was the name of Indiana Jones' dog. I can't believe it took me 12 fucking years to figure that out!

But anyway, I can't say that anyone else did any better. Mutt Williams has his moments of interest when he isn't being an angst-filled brat, but he was lost to me the moment he swung on the trees with CGI monkeys like a greaser Tarzan. I feel like they needed to take his character through the editor a few more times to make him more like Indiana, revealing a similar level of intelligence and wit. Shia Lebeouf is giving his best and is an amazing actor, but Indiana's shoes are big and Mutt wasn't given enough character to fill them just yet.

Karen Allen looks like she is absolutely done with this series and is honestly more of a third act cameo more than anything else. I'm glad that most of the cast got along with each other and there remains genuine chemistry between Ford and Allen. I think Marion Ravenwood just doesn't have all that much to do with the movie save for giving us a twist with Mutt's backstory and a happy ending for Indiana Jones, which hoenstly feels like a disservice to the character.

John Hurt is gone for half the film and a damn vegetable for the rest of it.


Is Shia LaBeouf in Indiana Jones 5 - Shia LaBeouf's Mutt Williams ...About the only people who seem to be having any fun are our two villains. Cate Blanchett as Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko and Ray Winstone as George "Mac" McHale. Blanchett just seems to be relishing in chewing all of the scenery. I honestly see a lot of similarities between her performance here and her role as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. Unfortunately, Irina Spalko just doesn't have the same level of charm that Donovan had, or the level of audience hatred that Belloq exuded. She honestly becomes just another Russian bad guy. Even her death is comparatively unsatisfying when compared to the other villains in the franchise, dying in a motherfucking staring contest with an alien. (Though I will say that her "Dragon", Colonel Dovchenko's, death is easily one of the most horrifying ones I have seen in any film, period. Though that may just be my entomophobia talking.)

As for "Mac". He really wants to be a Belloq style character or the rival Tomb Raider from the first Tomb Raider movie. But his whole betrayal-double agent aspect (which was an invention by Winstone and approved by Spielberg) is never believable and just makes him a sleazy and generally unlikable individual. But not even in a fun way. Just a way that leaves you annoyed at his greed and utterly baffled by his...death? The movie is actually really unclear about what happens to him.

But at least his performance stood out to me in a cast that, by all accounts, wanted to be here and enjoyed themselves, but that enthusiasm didn't seem to really make it to the screen. The cast feels tired and, unfortunately, this seems to have infected there characters as well.

STORY - 5/10

Much like how classic Indiana Jones was inspired by the adventure serials of the 1930s and 1940s to establish its setting and tone, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull utilizes its 1950s Red Scare setting to bring us a B-movie Cold War science fiction film. The Nazis of the 30s and 40s have been replaced by the Soviets. The plot includes a Russian villain who may or may not be telepathic (they never actually clarify on that), a plot to break into Area 51 to steal an alien, a massive conspiracy involving one of Indiana's old colleagues and a mysterious Crystal Skull, a re-connection with Marion Ravenwood and the truth about Indiana's relationship to Mutt Williams.

There is just so much here and all of it is kind of insane. The film moves by so fast and really seems to be trying to accomplish so much that it somehow feels very slow and awkward, and yet packed with information at the weirdest times. The film paces itself as a passing of the torch, with Mutt Williams seeming to be the one to carry on Indiana's legacy (which goes nowhere), most of the Red Scare and CIA investigation into Indiana Jones goes absolutely nowhere and is somehow resolved off-screen. Indiana Jones relationship with Marion seemingly fixes itself with a single conversation and the motherfucking aliens literally just kill the bad guys and disappear behind some CGI rocks, never completely explaining why they were here or what they were really trying to do.
Where Indiana Jones 4 went horribly wrong.

I feel like this film's story could've been really cool. I have always enjoyed science fiction and Indiana Jones has always had fanciful elements which blurred the line between scientific and the mystical, so aliens aren't necessarily a deal-breaker. If it had fully committed to the alien archaeologist angle (building pyramids, perhaps being behind one of the previous artifacts that Indiana collected), that could've been very cool. If they had been better at integrating the Russians and CIA into the plotline, maybe having Indiana try to clear his name by working with the CIA instead of just popping on some random greasers bike.

Maybe I should make this movie my next Building Better Backstories?

FINAL THOUGHTS

This review is somehow both refreshing and frustrating at the same time. I've wanted to complain about the problems that I have this film for a long time, especially given how much I love the character of Indiana Jones and the world he inhabits. But that love for the character also makes it so incredibly painful to talk about any film in the franchise. Given what I have said up until now, I think it will come to no surprise to you all to hear that I think that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the worst film in the franchise.

The story and characters just feel tired or underutilized, the visual effects fell to the prequel curse of over-reliance of CGI and the soundtrack, while as amazing as the rest of the franchise, just cannot save the rest of the film.

All that being said, when I heard that a fifth Indiana Jones film was being released in 2022, I was beyond excited. For all my problems with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the environment of cinema these days with regards to sequels and CGI is much different than it was in the late 2000s. Harrison Ford's age does concern me a bit, but I imagine that they will have a way around that. So I guess you could call me hesitantly excited for the fifth film.

But next week, we take a step away from Indiana Jones and go to an anime series that I have wanted to talk about for months. A series that blows me away with its masterful mix of world-building and educational exploration.


VISUALS
  • 5/10
SOUNDTRACK
  • 8/10
CHARACTERS
  • 6/10
STORY
  • 5/10

 FINAL SCORE - 6/10

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