Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review both John and Jason provide their opinions on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to John:
It's no "Raiders of the Lost Ark." But what movie is? Nor is it another "Temple of Doom" or "Last Crusade." None of us is as young as we used to be, and it's hard to recapture the pleasures of the past, especially when those pleasures were as bright and bracing as they were in 1981's "Raiders" and its two immediate sequels. What a lot of people forget is that while director Steven Spielberg and co-writer and executive producer George Lucas attempted in "Raiders" to make a movie based on all the old-time serials and cliff-hangers they remembered from their youth, they did so in an entirely new and refreshing way. They practically reinvented the adventure-movie genre, and "Raiders" went on to spawn not only the three sequels we have now but a host of other adventure films that continue to this day.
In 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" Spielberg and Lucas, after an absence from the series of nineteen years, tried to recover some of the old spark. If they didn't entirely succeed, it wasn't for lack of trying.
The fact is, though, that by now we've all become so used to the action-adventure epic that Spielberg and Lucas helped create, it's hard even for them to top themselves. As a result, much of "The Crystal Skull" seems tired or recycled. Yet that is, I'm sure, exactly what the filmmakers wanted. It's supposed to remind viewers of the old days, and it does so at almost every turn.
Needless to say, the most important ingredient in the movie series is back: Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr., archaeologist and adventurer supreme. I don't believe either of the filmmakers ever considered getting someone to replace Ford; he's the picture's greatest asset, regardless of his age. Indeed, they made Ford's mid-sixties age an integral part of the movie, poking good-natured fun at it and heading off critics before they could make it an issue. The very first time we see Indy, for instance, the filmmakers purposely give him a grizzled, disheveled, unshaven appearance in an effort to show him right off at his worst. Get used to it, they're saying; we're all older (but better).
Happily, Ford is as spry as ever, and his derring-do seems as plausible (or implausible) as ever. Sure, he's older, but who cares. He remains the best part of the show, which, unfortunately, still seems weary despite Ford's tireless energy. I think it may have something to do with the times having changed, and maybe Spielberg and Lucas finding it hard to keep up. The fact is, films like "Romancing the Stone," "National Treasure," even the "Die Hard" saga have set the mark pretty high for humorous adventure thrillers, and even the talents of Spielberg and Lucas aren't limitless. Now, with the advent of CGI and computer graphics replacing a lot of the old physical stunt work, the filmmakers must have found themselves hard pressed to surpass their old glories. And they don't. Instead, they seem content merely to imitate past brilliance. I rather suspect it's what Indy fans wanted all along, in any case.
OK, it's been nineteen years since the last installment, which had taken place around 1938, just before the onset of World War II, and the filmmakers were smart enough to realize that Ford and company could not pretend that time hadn't marched on; there would be no more fighting Nazis. They wisely set their story two decades later, in 1957. A lot of things had happened in the meantime, which the plot reveals in casual, incidental ways, things like our learning that Indy was a hero in WWII, while he continued teaching and doing his archaeological work.
What had changed in the passing decades? Just as the filmmakers had made the earlier movies relevant to the late 1930s, they had to make "Crystal Skull" relevant to the 1950s. Accordingly, they included the important cultural icons of the period. There was by then the Cold War and the Russian Communists. There was the atomic bomb. There were the reports of UFOs that Hollywood had capitalized on since the days of the Roswell incident and pilot Kenneth Arnold's "flying saucers." There were the KGB and Nazca lines and mind control and alien beings. Naturally, Spielberg and Lucas seized on these ideas for their plot elements.
Yet, they needed a central object, a rare and sacred artifact, for Indy to pursue. They had already used the Ark of the Covenant, the fabled Shankara Stones, and the Holy Grail. What did they have left? They could have gone with the Spear of Longinus, I suppose, but that might have been too much like the Grail. They chose, instead, the mysterious crystal skulls, which some people claim are pre-Columbian Mesoamerican artifacts of great spiritual significance. The fact that a number of such skulls, some undoubtedly real and some probably fakes, already exist in the hands of collectors must have seemed beside the point. Therefore, we have Indy going off seeking the crystal skull of all crystal skulls, the one that holds the secret of an ancient city of gold and arcane inter-dimensional beings.
"Chariots of the Gods, man!" --"The Thing"
The movie sets a tongue-in-cheek tone from the beginning by having the Paramount mountain logo turn into a prairie-dog mound. That's pretty cute. Then the filmmakers establish the time period by having a group of young people driving a hot rod while listening to Elvis's "Hound Dog." After that, we get the first opening sequence in the "Indy" series that actually has something to do with what comes later in the story. (Previous opening segments bore only passing relationships to what followed.)
With some old friends of the series no longer available for the new film (Sean Connery--Indy's father in "The Last Crusade"-- chose not come out of retirement; Denholm Elliott--Marcus Brody--had passed away; and John Rhys-Davies--Sallah--is nowhere in sight), the filmmakers recruited a few new faces, as well as an old one. The new faces include Shia LaBeouf as Mutt Williams, Indy's rebellious, long-lost son, showing up as a Marlon Brando "Wild One" look-alike; Jim Broadbent as Charles Stanforth, Indy's new college dean; Ray Winstone as "Mac" McHale, one of Indy's old adventuring companions; John Hurt as Professor Harold "Ox" Oxley, an intrepid archaeologist and close friend of the Jones family; and Cate Blanchett as Col. Dr. Irina Spalko, a nefarious, psychic harpy who seems patterned after James Bond villainesses like Rosa Kleb ("From Russia with Love") and Irma Bunt ("On Her Majesty's Secret Service), though less convincing. The returning face is Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, Indy's old flame from "Raiders," and, it turns out, Mutt's mother. Allen's Marion is as plucky and feisty as ever and makes a welcome return to the series.
And the script gives its characters a few good one-liners: "Put your hands down, will you? You're embarrassing us," says Indy to Mac when armed baddies surround them. "What are you, like, eighty?" Mutt asks Indy. And when Indy shows his prowess in a fistfight, Mutt exclaims, "You're a teacher?" Indy answers, "Part time."
The fact is, though, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" not only has an unwieldy title, it has far too much going on it. Where the older films concentrated on a simple plot line--Indy chasing an artifact--this one gets tangled up with too many bad guys, too many peripheral characters, and too many narrative contrivances. By the time it's over, the filmmakers have thrown in everything but the kitchen sink, a problem that plagued Lucas's last few "Star Wars" sequels as well.
Nuking the fridge becomes a defining moment in "The Crystal Skull," reminding us that this one is going more for silliness than for thrills. Nevertheless, the thrills are there, and some of them are spectacular. There's the usual globe-trotting to exotic locales; the usual assortment of high-octane chases and melodramatic encounters; the usual variety of unpleasant wildlife (snakes, ants, scorpions); the usual plethora of creepy-crawly dark places; the usual quota of ravishing scenery, most of it showing up in the last third of the picture; and the usual razzle-dazzle climax, this one reminiscent of the supernatural ending in "Raiders" but done up even more theatrically. Meanwhile, you'll still hear the strains of the familiar John Williams musical score playing almost continuously in the background.
Everything you see in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is very much the same as you remember it from previous episodes, so it won't disappoint old fans. The movie just never does anything particularly unusual or precedent-setting to position itself above its competition these days. It's still fun, mind you, but not as much fun as we might have hoped.
John's film rating: 7/10
The Film According to Jason:
The fedora is back. The whip is back. John Williams, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford are all back. Hell, even Karen Allen is back. So what's missing from the fourth "Indiana Jones" adventure? The fun, the old-school feeling, the maniacal villain.
There is a fabled Crystal Skull, which, when returned to its proper resting place, will unlock the secrets of a golden city, bestowing untold power on the recipient. Of course, Dr. Henry Jones (Ford) falls into the search for it and the city after being targeted by the government. He was kidnapped and used to get inside a high-security compound housing artifacts. The Russians, led by Irina Spalko (a wasted Cate Blanchett), are after a mummified corpse for an unspecified purpose. Jones is dragged into the fray by a young whippersnapper (Shia LaBeouf), the son of his former flame, Marion Ravenwood (Allen from the first film). With Spalko hot on their heels, the group sets out on one more adventure.
"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is a movie out of its time. Others have taken the same concept, notably the "National Treasure" films, and recreated the fun attitude of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." In a word, the film is flat, relying on brief comedic moments pilfered from the rest of the series instead of creating new gags or memories. After an entire film of batting away references to his lineage, is there any reason for Jones to call Mutt (LaBeouf) "Junior" other than to invoke Sean Connery in "The Last Crusade?" Why, in the opening action sequence, does the script bother to drop references--and a brief glimpse--of the Ark of the Covenant? And why does Ford get the ubiquitous line, "I have a bad feeling about this"?
Nostalgia, pure and simple. Drop enough references to other, more popular works and the audience is apt to overlook this installment's shortcomings. Ironically, none of them have to do with the actors involved. All of them, though, come directly from the script. Let's start with somebody I've already mentioned: Cate Blanchett. It seems to me if you're going to have an Oscar winner in your film, you give her something to do. A meaty part, a mustache-twisting, diabolical identity unlike anything we've ever seen. But she and the Russians are merely set dressing, obstacles for Indy and his intrepid group to overcome on their merry little way. They are almost an afterthought, plot devices to set the mood and time period for the events so the audience doesn't forget them.
All the supposed mind-control expert does is stalk around in a gray, formfitting jumpsuit, spouting setup lines to Ford (befitting a classic James Bond villain more than a Soviet agent) like, "Any last words, Dr. Jones?" He then responds "I like Ike," a sentiment most likely designed as another in a long line of one liners from the film. She never comes off as deadly as Belloq from the first film or even a credible threat.
"The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" feeds on our love for the characters and this type of adventure, so much so the script forgets to blaze a new, fresh path. It even forgets its own internal logic. What is the power of the city of gold? Is it power for world domination? Is it the knowledge of the universe? The film never really gets to that part in the end; instead, it's hell bent on delivering a whiz-bang CGI experience where one isn't called for. It's as if the ending to "AI" were dropped into "The Searchers." Quite simply, the effects at the end don't mesh with the practical effects that come before. Instead of staying grounded in reality, the climax takes a left turn when it should have gone right. The result? A jaw-droppingly mindless coda that Indy aficionados and general audiences will probably snicker at.
Ford, soon to be sixty-six years old, does his damnedest to bring Indy back in the exact same way we remember. By and large, he succeeds. All he has to do, really, is put on his trademark hat and wear a pair of brown pants, and the character is born again. His age, mentioned ad nauseam in the press, isn't much of a factor here. Other characters mention it, often in a joking manner, yet Jones himself doesn't feel old. He may have lost a step and doesn't crack his whip nearly enough, but he's still Indy.
The rest of the cast fill out their roles as expected. Allen is back, a bit pudgier and older than we remember her, without missing a beat from the first film. John Hurt gets to mumble half his lines, a step up from his role in "Recount." Jim Broadbent, in a bid to replace characters not in this installment, gets precious little screen time, making the most of it. And Winstone…his George McHale--one of Indy's longtime friends--feels like a mere plot device instead of a flesh-and-blood person. As a character, we have no connection to Mac, while he fits into a very specific category of second bananas upset at being the second banana. His eventual fate doesn't shock or surprise or elicit any other emotion besides a shrug.
Which brings us to, I guess, LaBeouf. It is clear Lucas and Spielberg intend to bring Mutt back for another film, perhaps even in the lead role, based on the final scene. Coming off both "Transformers" and "Disturbia" last year, LaBeouf presents a mature immaturity in his greaser role, with the right amount of smart-aleck quips and reverence for his elders. But I'd maintain he's not ready to take the mantle of the "Indiana Jones" franchise. He needs to grow up just a little bit more, gain a world-weary look to him similar to the one Ford had back in 1981. Right now, he's too pretty and manicured. Given time, there is potential.
Maybe it's a symptom of the iconic music being too prevalent in our society, but I found the score by John Williams to be too understated. As with John Ottman's homage to Williams in "Superman Returns," I wanted, and expected, a grand new version of the Indy theme at least once with the motif running through the entire production. It is there, to be fair, though not in the way I was expecting. Imagine a "Jaws" film without the famous music telling us the shark is on the way. It always feels like something is missing.
After nearly two decades, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" reunites a legendary character with his equally legendary creators. But to what effect? Just to have one last go 'round? A victory lap? To prove Ford could carry an action movie, and Lucas isn't as bad as the "Star Wars" prequels would have us believe? What is the point in this fourth installment, besides a quest for bigger box office? Even the story is half-baked, relying on science fiction instead of fact…or some semblance thereof.
Something is missing in the film. Maybe Indy doesn't belong in this century. Maybe the combination of the classical whip and fedora with UFO's and aliens just doesn't fit. The spark just isn't there. It's always a pleasure to reconnect with an old friend. The time has come, though, to finally say good-bye. Let Indy ride into the sunset with Marion.
Jason's film rating: 6/10
Initially, I watched the movie in its standard-def DVD edition and found the colors not quite natural, with faces a trifle too dark, hues a bit too intense, and an image a touch too glassy for ultimate realism. It's almost the same on Blu-ray, toned down only slightly. I suspect this was the director's intent because that was pretty much as I remembered things from a motion-picture theater. Maybe Spielberg figured these were the predominant shades of the Fifties and went accordingly. I dunno. Still, it doesn't mean I have to like his decision. Otherwise, you'll find this 2.35:1-ratio, THX-approved, MPEG-4/AVC, BD50, 1080p video transfer pretty good, with brilliant hues, as I say, a light film grain, reasonably good definition, and only moments of softness. Shadow detail and black levels are also strong, which go a long way toward mitigating some of my concerns about the fantasy colors.
I couldn't complain much about the standard-def DVD's Dolby Digital sound, and I have even higher praise for the Blu-ray's TrueHD 5.1; it does everything you could ask of it. At first I thought there was not as much surround activity as I might have liked, but I quickly remembered I hadn't noticed much surround in a theater, either, at least not at the beginning of the movie. Nevertheless, when the action starts, we get plenty of bullets and planes and motorcycles flying around in all directions, front, back, and sides. Just as important, we also get a multitude of subtler sounds--dripping water, rustling leaves, that sort of thing--plus an excellent dynamic range and impact, a wide frequency response, and a potent bass, evident from the outset as it rattles the rafters while accompanying the THX logo. The upper midrange, a trifle bright and forward in regular Dolby Digital is tamed by the TrueHD, which now sounds smoother and tauter. Overall, this is demonstration-class Dolby TrueHD.
Disc one in this 2-Disc Special Edition Blu-ray set contains the feature film and several additional items, mostly in high definition. The most important items are a pair of featurettes, the first being "The Return of a Legend," a seventeen-minute segment wherein Spielberg and Lucas talk about how they developed the story ideas for the movie and got the script and cast together. The second featurette is about "Pre-Production," eleven minutes discussing the various environments in the film, the costumes, the sets, etc. It amazed me, for example, to see the number of Indy hats and jackets they had on hand; they could have clothed a small city of Indy clones. Next, we have the "Indiana Jones Timelines," three of them covering "Production," "Story," and "History." Each timeline uses still picture, text, and film clips to discuss a flock of trivia about the movie. The items on disc one wrap up with a pair of theatrical trailers; sixteen scene selections, with bookmarks and a guide to elapsed time; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two is a BD25 that contains the rest of the bonus materials, again mostly in high definition. These begin with a lengthy, eighty-minute Production Diary, "Making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," divided into six sections: "Shooting Begins: New Mexico"; "Back To School: New Haven, Connecticut"; "Welcome to the Jungle: Hilo, Hawaii"; "On-Set Action"; "Exploring Akator"; and "Wrapping Up!" These segments include all the making-of stuff we've come to know and love.
After that is a string of featurettes on various other aspects of the filmmaking. These begin with "Warrior Makeup," five minutes; "The Crystal Skulls," ten minutes and the most interesting to me because several cryptic crystal skulls really do exist, and they've always fascinated me; "Iconic Props," ten minutes; "The Effects of Indy," twenty-two minutes; "Adventures in Post Production," twelve minutes with producer Frank Marshall, executive producer Kathleen Kennedy, and film editor Michael Kahn; and "Closing: Team Indy," three minutes on finishing up and saying good-bye.
Next, we have three Pre-Visualization sequences: "Area 51 Escape," "Jungle Chase," and "Ants Attack," each bit lasting from three-to-five minutes and done up in CGI animation rather than conventional storyboards. Following these sequences we find a series of still-photo galleries, these in standard def. From the art department come groups of stills called "The Adventure Begins," "Cemetery and Jungle," and "Akator"; from the Stan Winston studio come "Corpses, Skeletons & Mummies" and "Aliens & Crystal Skulls"; followed by production photographs, portraits, and behind-the-scenes photos.
The two discs come housed in a double BD keep case, further enclosed in a handsomely embossed slipcover.
To a lot of viewers "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" may seem a little shopworn or old hat (or old fedora, if you please), but, as I've said, I'm sure filmmakers Spielberg and Lucas meant it that way. They tried to capture a new spirit in an old form, and while the ultimate result may have escaped them, you can't question their objectives. What we have is nevertheless playful and entertaining, even if it looks, deliberately, as though we've seen it all before.