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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin!  I've been taking a journey through the Indiana Jones franchise, and today we get to the much-reviled Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  This shows up in my notes at November 2, 2013.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Poster

So Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out in the summer of 1989, kicked ass at the box office, and after the darkness of Temple of Doom, got pretty good reviews.  However, Lucas and Spielberg decided to follow Star Wars' example and end it as a trilogy.  I remember Marc Horton, the film critic for the Edmonton Journal back then, writing that he was kind of depressed at the announcement that Last Crusade was to be the last one, saying that it had made him hungry for more.

19 years later, we finally got our second helping.

Rumors of a fourth Indiana Jones film had been going around for ages.  When I first discovered the Internet, and looking for movie news, rumours for a fourth Indy were flying high.  I remember reading one very good script in the early 00s called Indiana Jones and the Sword of Arthur, in which the sacred treasure was the fabled sword Excalibur.  Turned out to be a hoax.  But one rumour that was always very popular that wouldn't die was for a film called Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars, which would have had Indiana Jones battling aliens.  Of course, it was always quickly dismissed.  I mean, aliens don't belong in an Indiana Jones movie.  Right?

Not until watching the bonus features on the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull DVD did I realize how that was the most correct rumour of them all.  In one of the interview, Spielberg reveals that we almost had Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in the early 1990s, but Independence Day was in development and he was afraid the world would get sick of alien invasion movies. 

So why did it take 19 years, then, to get our new Indy movie?  2 words:  crystal skulls.

Turns out George Lucas became obsessed with them, and was damn determined to make sure they were the mystical artifact of choice for the next Indy movie.  Hell, from what I read online, if The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles lasted a third season, they would have been a major recurring storyline in Season 3.  But Spielberg and Ford were all like, "Crystal skulls?  Aliens?  That's stupid."  So they had this standoff for all this time, until finally, around 2005 or so, Ford said, "Well, we all want to make another one, and we're all getting up there in years, so if we want to do this, I guess we've gotta do crystal skulls." 

Originally, they hired Frank Darabont to write the script...director of The Shawshank Redemption and the Green Mile.  A good choice, as one of Darabont's early gigs was a writer on the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.  Lucas rejected it, though, saying it wasn't what he was looking for.  (It was leaked online when Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out, and those who read it say it's 10 times better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.)  Spielberg brought in David Koepp to write it, who wrote Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds for Spielberg, and he came up with a final script that everyone was happy with. 

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out in the summer of 2008, and people...just hated it.  And I don't know why.  I've watched it a few times now, and I think it's a pretty solid Indy adventure.  I think, much like the Star Wars prequels, there was an ungodly amount of hype and expectation going into it.  Plus, I think the new direction caught people off-guard.  See, the first few films were meant to be an update and homage to the film serials of the 1940s.  Fast forward a few years, into the 1950s, and we the film serials had been supplanted by the sci-fi B-movies.  So, with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Lucas set out to update and homage the 1950s sci-fi B-movies.  And with that mentality...the aliens and the crystal skulls works. 

It's 19 years since we last saw Indy, and 19 years have lapsed between films.  It's 1957, and the film opens with Indy having been abducted by Communist forces because they need an artifact that Indy is familiar with.  And it is a bit of a geek-out moment when Indy and the Commies waltz into the giant warehouse full of ancient artifacts what we saw at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  In fact, the Ark gets in a cameo when its crate is smashed open in the fight.  It's a pretty good opening, some great action, even if it does end with the infamous "nuke the fridge" scene.

But, the damage has been done to Indy's career.  With this being the height of the Communist witch hunts, and Indy having just forcefully helped some Communist agents, Indy is now a suspected Communist.  Indy's college forces him on sabbatical.  Indy is then approached by a greaser going by the name of Mutt Williams.  Mutt's mother is a woman named Mary, who claims to know Indy, but the name doesn't ring a bell.  However, Indy does recognize the name of Mutt's surrogate father:  Harold "Ox" Oxley, an old colleague of Indy's who was obsessed with crystal skulls.  Ox believed the crystal skulls led the the way to Akkator, a fabled city in the Amazon that promised ultimate power.  Before Mutt lost contact, though, he did receive a letter from Mary and Ox in a dead language, with instructions that Indy can translate it.

Before long, Indy and Mutt are off to Peru, where they find the crystal skull that Ox was after.  But once the skull is recovered, they're confronted by the same Communist agents from the start of the film.  They take them to their camp deep within the Amazon rainforest, where we find Ox and Mary.  And the big revelation to Indy:  turns out Mary is short for Marion...she's Marion Ravenwood, our heroine of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  And it's not long before she has another revelation for Indy:  Mutt's true name is Henry Jones III.  He's Indy's son. 

That was a poorly-kept plot twist, but still, it was cool. 

With our heroes having escaped, the race is soon on between our heroes and villains through the depths of the Amazon to be the first to reach Akkator and use the crystal skull to unleash the great power. 

Again, I don't understand why this film is reviled so much.  I mean, at the core, we have Harrison Ford back as Indiana Jones.  19 years have not slowed him, and he very easily slips back into this grand character.  It's just so good seeing Indy on the big screen again.  Shia LeBeouf is pretty good as Mutt Williams...again, I think part of the hatred comes from the fact that this came along at a point when he was getting very overexposed, so people were just starting to get sick of him.  But as Indy Jr (Henry III), I think he does an admiral job.

Cate Blanchett plays our lead Commie, Irina Spalko, a Soviet agent who believes to have psychic powers and is hoping that the crystal skulls will unleash her full potential.  She is almost a cartoon of a villain, with a wonderfully cartoonish fake Russian accent, and armed with a sword as her weapon of choice. 

Karen Allen, though, is a little rough around the edges, returning as Marion.  I swear to God, when I first saw this in the theatre, and she made her appearance, a guy in the theatre went, "Oh, look!  It's the girl from the first movie!"  For some reason, in this film, she just can't stop smiling.  As one online critic at the time jokingly said, "Maybe she's just very happy to be working again."

That being said, though, I will admit that some things stick out.  Having watched all the films now, the sudden switch from the practical effects of the 1980s to CGI of today is a little jarring.  A lot of it does seem a little too computer animated.  The epic chase through the jungle is a prime example of this. 

And, of course, John Williams puts together another fine Indy score.  It's neat seeing how he revisits certain musical themes.  For example, in many of the scenes where Indy is trying to connect with his long lost son, they play Henry Sr's theme from Last Crusade, thus echoing Last Crusade's character arc of fathers and sons trying to connect.

When all is said and done, I have to say that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is actually a fairly entertaining movie, and a good addition to the Indy mythology.  Give it a second chance, and you may just like it.

But I will admit that escaping the nuclear blast in the lead-lined fridge is kinda stupid.

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