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May 28, 2008

Fletch's Film Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Just yesterday, prior to seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I had a discussion with Anil Usumezbas of The Long Take regarding Spider-Man 3. Having just recently watched the final installment of that trilogy, he was a bit bewildered by the "hypocrisy surrounding the critics and fan circles regarding where they place [the] last chapter," going on to say that "isn’t it the same cheesy romance, one-dimensional drama, cartoonish characters, talentless Tobey Maguire and failed attempts to delve into the complexities of being a superhero?"

Though he too didn't care much for Spider-Man 3 (he gave it 5/10 stars; I gave it a "Whatever."), he certainly has a point. As much as I disliked the film, as bloated and dumb as it was, at its core it still shared the same elements of the first two films. It felt like its predecessors. The same can be said for the much maligned Matrix sequels; retarded as it was (I care not that it was intended) to have the series travel in a big circle, thus nullifying the entire point of watching the three films, I can't deny that the spirit and tone of the sequels was similar to the brilliant original (we'll all forget the "dancing orgy" scene, thank you very much).

You can probably see where I'm going with this. Ever since walking out of the theater last night, I've been in the midst of an internal struggle - a query that I can't stop asking: Have my childhood and teenage memories painted the picture of a movie series that in reality never existed? Was Indiana Jones really this stupid?

That's not to say that I can't attempt to answer that question. In fact, I'm pretty confident that the answers are "no" and "no." Looking back on the series, I see a first installment that won four Academy Awards, and was nominated for Best Picture. Temple of Doom was a step back, what with the munchkin sidekick, bug-eating stereotypes and "Willie," but had enough elements of the original to not let the audience lose faith in the character or the series. When Last Crusade was released in 1989, it was widely seen as a return to form, despite the comic levity and nostalgic nod to James Bond that Sean Connery brought to the series (we even forgave Spielberg and company for turning Denholm Elliot's Marcus Brody character into a cartoon buffoon).

A lot has happened in the 19 years between releases, though. Indiana has seen two full-fledged franchises pop up in his wake (The Mummy and National Treasure), each taking elements of the Jones series along with them. In fact, they've practically split the franchise as if it had been divorced from itself, with Brendan Fraser and gang getting the old world settings, physicality and creatures, and Nicolas Cage and Justin Bartha receiving the archaeological smarts and flair for solving puzzles (or booby traps). What neither series received, however, was any sense or danger or importance, instead subbing in lame one-liners and childish humor into the mix. Likewise, those elements slowly eroded in the Jones series since the first chapter, only to be blown to smithereens with Crystal Skull.

To be sure, there have been campy elements all along - it's hard to take too seriously (though I'll try) any series that features melting faces, heart rippers, multi-ton boulders and characters named Short Round. Yet when Toht popped up at Marion's bar seeking a medallion, he brought fear with him, as he did when he entered Belloq's tent in Egypt. When the Thugee high priest Mola Ram reached for Indy's heart, we all felt it, and we also felt for Indy when his father was shot in the Last Crusade. Those days are but a distant memory now, though, as we're left with a swordfight that could pass for an outtake from America's Funniest Home Videos and trips down waterfalls (plural) that leave nary a scratch on a single protagonist. At no point in time are we really ever concerned for the characters, and it's not like the actors are attempting to sell us on that, either, as we see countless kidnapped people mugging for the camera like kids in a photo booth. Where's the concern? Where's the danger?

All this without even getting into:

* the inane plot, which, as has been mentioned in a number of reviews, feels like a mixture of National Treasure and an episode of The X-Files,

* the CGI drudgery that serves as a constant reminder to the audience that "hey, this was made on a soundstage in front of a bluescreen!"

* the inclusion of Shia LaBeouf's character, "Mutt" Williams. Mutt. Think about it.

* the countless winks to the audience. Sure, the first time they show Ford donning the fedora while playing the familiar John Williams theme, there's a bit of magic that you feel. Then they do it again. They there's some photos of some old faces from the series that don't appear here. Then more references. Then Marion (Karen Allen) pops up. By the end of the movie, I was about ready to scream "F*ck you!" to the creators for having the nerve to keep playing the nostalgia card on us, showing the lack of confidence in their new creation.

And that's the emotion I left the theater with. Kind of a "how dare you" mixed with a "god, I'm stupid for ever believing." Spielberg and Lucas haven't created an extension of the series - they've created a stand-alone film that pales even to the lesser series that ripped off the originals, a film that screams "amusement park ride" from the start and devolves from there, a film that insults your intelligence and patience through the mind-numbing conclusion.

Now I'm off to search for a crystal skull to gaze at in the hopes that I lose my mind.

Fletch's Film Rating:

"I want you to punch me as hard as you can."

23 people have chosen wisely: on "Fletch's Film Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

Anil Usumezbas said...

Have my childhood and teenage memories painted the picture of a movie series that in reality never existed? Was Indiana Jones really this stupid?

That's a really legitimate question to ask. Maybe you'll be relieved to know that I watched the original Indiana Jones films quite recently (like 1-2 years ago) for the first time and I'm crazy about them (especially the first one). I think a film as classy as the first two could survive and shine even today; and make you feel what you used to feel upon seeing these earlier films as a kid. (Or am I too optimistic?)

It's true that the franchise has always been simple, but in my opinion never this childish. Or stupid.

Ms☆Go said...

I watched a marathon of the first three before seeing this one, so yeah...Those memories were clouded by childhood nostalgia.

Seriously, try watching Temple, now.

And try not to laugh at the Maharajah's English girl's voice.

It was stupid, but it was pass the time semi-fun stupid as opposed to made want to do a Scanners on myself like Jumper did.

But I do understand your pain.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Fletch ...

Like DCMovieGirl, I feel your pain, I really do, and share it to a certain extent (you can see what I think in my review). But they did try to keep the CGI down, including in that idiotic Longest Chase That Ever Was, which was shot in a jungle in Hawaii. In post-production, it was CGI'd up, by adding more plants, monkeys (for that equally idiotic monkey chase), and etc. to make it more lush. That sequence wasn't filmed on a soundstage, but it does have an unholy look to it, courtesy of the post-prod CGI.

Great review.

Fletch said...

It's no secret that Temple of Doom is my least favorite of the three. Had it been released after Last Crusade, people might have accepted it more (going with the "devolution of the serious side of the series" angle), but coming right after Raiders, it had a weird vibe, mixing that real danger with slapstick humor. So, in that regard, I agree with you, DC Girl.

I haven't watched all three in the last couple months, but I'm sure I have in the last year or so (at least Raiders and Crusade, that is), and I'm confident that those, especially Raiders, hold up to the test of time (overcoming nostalgia) as great movies.

Rick, I agree with most of what you said in your review - I enjoyed the opening sequence to a point - but the entire atom bomb sequence felt REALLY unnecessary to me. Why couldn't he have just returned to civilization after the rocket sled ride? What purpose did the journey to the "town" and subsequent fridge ride serve? Throw in the utter ridiculousness of it all, and I think that's where the movie really lost me, only to get me back a bit through the university scenes.


TEMPLE OF DOOM is still my favorite, with RAIDERS right on its ass.

Even though CRUSADE is obviously the worst (although great) of the original trilogy, compared to this new computer-generated mess, it's a masterpiece.

Daniel said...

Great write-up, Fletch. I think SM 3 and the Matrix followups were so bad simply because they tried so hard to be more than the familiar elements that we enjoyed early on. Skull almost does the same, but I still had quite a bit of fun with it. I also hadn't seen the originals for some time. I haven't seen Crusade, possibly, since the theater. Craziness. The plot of Skull was idiotic, but somehow I got past it.

Anyway, if you ever get to see Raiders: The Adaptation, it should restore your faith in what made the franchise so good in the first place.

Nick said...

Sorry, Fletch, but I agree with dcmoviegirl on this one.

I also have to highly disagree with joseph. Temple was the worst, and Crusade, to me, was the best.

Handsome B. Wonderful said...

I'm a die hard Indy fan but I didn't like this one much at all. At best I'd compare it to Temple but I do love the beginning of Temple. At times I was embarrassed to have been so excited to see it.

I had high expectations because of Lucas and Spielberg. I figured that they wouldn't chance ruining a great trilogy unless they had an awesome plot but they didn't.

And yeah the ending is pretty lame. So was the inclusion of "Mutt" and he doesn't look like Indy AT ALL.

And the crystal skull stuff? That's getting a bit too Sci-Fi for my tastes in an Indy movie.

I just don't get it because there are so many other historical and archaeological legends and such that would have been MUCH better.

Fox said...

Whoa! You gave it a Tyler Durden! I was expecting a negative but maybe not THAT negative. I agree with most of your complaints though... I would just nudge up a little bit more on my scale.

I'm glad you mention the CGI. It bothered the hell out of me too. Especially in two scenes:

* The GIANT ANT scene. Whenever the ants would swarm a body it looked like CGI circa 1994.

* The CGI monkeys. (NOTE: The Shia swinging scene didn't really bother me. I thought it was kinda funny. It's just that the monkey's looked so awful.)

Lastly... I read somebody, somewhere defending the CGI as "camp". I think that's an interesting view, but I don't buy that that was the case since Lucas was behind it.

Jason Soto said...

Gah, I don't get it. Did I see a different version of the movie or something? Why is everyone hatin' on Crystal Skull? I thought it was freakin' awesome and it gave me a rush I haven't felt in a long time after seeing it.

As you know I did have a few complaints about it, but I found they were pretty minor and didn't distract me from the kickass-ery of it all.

Nic Cage said...

I blame George Lucas for this fiasco. I blame George Lucas for everything that he has touched since Return of the Jedi. He needs to crawl under a cgi rock and never return.

Angry Nic

Rachel said...

For me, I just rewatched the first three after about 15 years, and Raiders kicks way more ass now than it did when I was younger. The opposite is true for Temple. Crusade is about the same.

I liked Crystal Skull. It wasn't great, but it was entertaining and that's all I really expected. I didn't have the highest hopes to begin, so I was far from let down.

joen05 said...

I like the honesty in your review.... and I agree with what you said about the movie feeling like it was made on a sound stage, and the face slap to the audience as they play on the nostalgia.

But I enjoyed crystal skull. Definitely not the best one in the series, but it wasn't that bad. Entertained me.

Clive Dangerously said...

I'm going to go with the rose-colored glasses theory; I just rented Raiders and Crusade (don't care to refresh Temple in my mind), and while they're great, a lot of the dialog (Karen Allen comes to mind) sounds stiff/Keanu-like, the greenscreen stuff is TERRIBLE, and the stunts aren't nearly as practical as some fanboy on IMDb would have had me believe. They've just switched from models (tank over cliff) and animatronics (rhino and eel in train) to CGI, and can you blame them? They're going for campy not archaic.

Though the monkeys were unforgivable. The tarzan swing was just an homage, but unless all those monkeys had dropped dead from poison dates, they just... No.

David said...

Ouch! Although I completely disagree with a lot of what you said you did have some very good points as usual. I thought this movie fit right into the series and yes, Indiana Jones has always been this dumb. I watched all three in the week leading up to this one and felt like it fit as well as it could have baring the 19 year gap in between. Should they have done it? Well that is a different story. Anyway, thanks for the review.

Fletch said...

@ Daniel - I've seen the first 10 minutes or so of the Adaptation (read your post as well - excellent). Do you know if the full video is online somewhere?

@ Nick - just curious...did you see Crusade first (of them all)?

@ Mr. Wonderful - yup, we're on the same wavelength here.

@ Fox - Well, Tyler Durden's rating summed it up the best for me: Painful.

I get the feeling that when this pops up on cable in a year, I'll watch it and might enjoy it more, but I think that happens with most every movie that I watch repeatedly on cable. But right now, I'm pissed.

@ Jason - I don't know what to tell you. I keep thinking back to Raiders (an all-time favorite of mine and many others my age) and wondering how they are even in the same series. This might have been a fun, dumb ride, but that's not what I expect out of the Indiana Jones series. A fun ride, perhaps, but not a dumb one.

@ Nic - you're damn right. Let's get people started bitching about the Star Wars "redux"es while we're at it. Who else loved the digital Jabba inserted into the first film? Raise your hand!


@ Rachel - "Raiders kicks way more ass now than it did when I was younger. The opposite is true for Temple. Crusade is about the same."

I think when I re-watch them here (soon), I will feel exactly the same way.

@ Clive - see Fox's comment above yours. Thought your "camp" comment was ironic...

For the record, CGI is fine...when done right and used sparingly. But I was even bothered verrrry early on, when they were just standing outside the hanger and I noticed how fake the sky looked behind them. That's the kind of small but annoying thing that Lucas brings to the table. (Of course, I could be wrong and it was real, but I doubt it.)

@ Dave - my pleasure. Agree to diagree, I suppose. Good call on the "should" question, though. Of course, the answer is "only if they were hard up for cash."

Nick said...

Fletch: Actually, I watched them in order of release... so, Raiders, Temple, Crusade.

Also... just had a chat with on of my (rather annoying) co-worker, who is a HUGE Indy (and Star Wars) fanatic... dresses up and everything. She loved Indy 4, amazingly enough. She just had issues with the aliens. But this is what she had to say in refute to me:

"Excuse me, but it was SPIELBERG who talked George Lucas into 'revamping' the Star Wars trilogy and adding all of the extra CGI crap. History repeats itself. If he was pushing for it then, he probably pushed for it in this movie.

Now, on to the refrigerator issue. Feasability shouldn't be an issue here. I mean, come on. A den filled with snakes? Snakes that, for that matter, were non-native to the area being portrayed in the film? The Indiana Jones trilogy has stretched across boundries before. It should not be an issue here. And on that same line of thought, it doesn't matter if it could really happen, because that scene in the movie was totally bitchin'.

Next, the car over the cliff thing. You can see above for probability. Probability aside, it actually would be possible to do that. She didn't just fling the car randomly off of the cliff. She had passed by the cliff before and had time to plan her course of action. It wasn't willy-nilly. Besides, I think that the Tarzan/monkey man thing that Shia LeBouef did was totally worse than the car over the cliff thing.

Last, the waterfall issue. This has been done before, and I'm not just talking about in Hollywood. There are people who fling themselves off of waterfalls for fun - thrillseekers. It's just a simple matter of negotiating the ride down. Could they have done without this scene? Probably. I wasn't a big fan of this one. But it is possible to do, even if it didn't work well in the movie."

Though she's been wrong before. Numerous times :P . Just curious on anybody's take toward her 'opinion'.

t j adams said...

i totally agree with everything you said, fletch. i personally felt there were four things wrong with this movie. 1) aliens. what the hell are you doing in an indy movie? 2) was there any part of film where anyone was in danger of dying? 3) characters that served no purpose being allowed to stay til the end. yes marion and mac, i'm looking at you. and finally 4)whoever decided that indy should have a kid needs to be destroyed. the family thing was done before in the last one. this should have been a stand alone story that was all indy being old and trying to fit it to the 50s, none of this lets follow crazy hurt's directions and not do any work ourselves and while we're at it throw the 'it boy' of the moment in their cause spielberg has a man crush.

ps i liked temple, when it came out and now.

Anonymous said...

Fletch, great review.

I agree with mostly everything you said, but I still would give the movie a meh, mainly because I was mildly entertained during it, I guess, kudos to Harrison Ford acting.

I agree with the general feeling of nostalgia, and the influx of characters who after all, have not much to add at all.

I have an issue with the general CGI complaining though. I thought it was not overdone, but of course, where I come from, Geonosia on AOTC looks real :mrgreen:

For the record, My favorite is Raiders, then Temple. Last Crusade and Crystal Skull as equally bad IMO.

Reel Whore said...

Wow, that's a low rating - but totally justified. I think you and I had a lot of the same gripes (CGI, plot, Shia, and so on).

I really couldn't voice my disgust at the plot since I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but here I'd like to say:

I can't believe it took Spielberg and Lucas twenty years to make a friggin' emotionally shallow film about aliens!?!?

This definitely falls into the bottom rung as far as Indy films go. Broken promises.

Fletch said...

@ TJ - yep, yep, yep, and yep. Another thing I thought about today was that there wasn't one scene outside of the idiotic nuclear business where Indy was by himself. That's not a negative in and of itself, but think back to the other films and the intimacy there was (get your mind out of the gutter) between he and the audience when he needed to figure something out.

@ Wampa - Geonosisawhatever is the water planet where Jango Fett lived, right? I actually liked that place. Probably the best "odd" setting of the prequels. Reminded me of cloud city.

@ Wayne - how can you agree with me, but rate it $$$$ yourself?

Reel Whore said...

I'm sick, I know. It was tough because I did find it enjoyable as a mindless summer flick. I started to drop it down a notch in my ratings but felt it up to snuff. It ranks 5 in my running Best of 2008 list for now. I expect it to keep dropping as more movies release this summer.

I'm sure you've noticed how fickle my $-$$$$ ratings can be. I tend to put things in the 'I'd pay this much to see it' range. I really should move to a more descriptive rating system like you. I've had many contentions over my system that would take too long to get into.

Anil Usumezbas said...

Upon all the talking about spams, this seems really like an ironic thing to happen :)