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Harrison Ford is back as Indiana Jones, the aging treasure hunter and college professor, this time forced by evil communists onto the trail of a mysterious crystal skull. On the way Indy meets up with a kid named Mutt (Shia LeBeouf), and the kid’s mother…Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Plus or minus a few double crosses, that’s pretty much the story.

Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
I’ll come right out and ask—did anyone really expect a great movie out of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? After all the behind the scenes fiascos with scripting woes and possible falling out between the creative types? Perhaps a closer glance at the writer and director’s recent resumes might have been a good cue? When has Steven Spielberg ever been known to deliver on a project when he wasn’t interested? Wasn’t Munich a good enough launch into officially adult filmmaking for him to officially move on? Does he really owe George Lucas this much? And come on people, I’m like the only guy left in the world that still defends the Star Wars prequels, hasn’t Lucas developed enough negative surplus for you guys yet?

Frankly speaking, and putting my review here in an immediate framing as to not offend any of the film’s fans, I’m not an Indiana Jones die hard, and my sense of nostalgia is not afraid of a little hard love every once and a while. I believe Raiders of the Lost Ark is a masterpiece, Temple of Doom is trite and Last Crusade was a fun enough time at the movies, and a fine last act. I wanted more Munich and Minority Report out of Steven Spielberg, not more Indiana Jones. The first time I found myself developing any interest in the project was when the cast was announced, but I still wasn’t quite excited enough to go see the movie in theatres. However, I’m just not a big enough stick in the mud to turn down a Blu-ray viewing on a cool fall day.

For my basic enjoyment I developed a ten item checklist of necessities:

1. Indiana Jones in a hat. Check.
2. Indiana Jones whipping something. Check.
3. Faceless thugs being dispatched in a manner probably too graphic for a PG-13 movie? Check.
4. Sallah. Wait, where the hell is Sallah? That’s an anti-check.
5. Cate Blanchete looking refined, sexy, and commie? Check.
6. Lots and lots of cobweds? Check.
7. Double Crosses (that was quick). Check.
8. Marrion Ravenwood (I love you Karen Allen). Check.
9. Creepy crawlies (no confined spaces this time, but still pretty gross). Check.
10. John William’s original cue. Check

Nine out of ten makes for a modest success I suppose.

Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
For the record Crystal Skull is better than a lot of the critics have labelled it, but it’s still pretty weak, mostly for different and sadder reasons than The Phantom Menace. When George made The Phantom Menace he put everything he had into it, and didn’t have to share almost any of the creative control. When Menace hit the fault laid on Lucas’ personal problems as a storyteller and filmmaker. Now after almost ten years, and three ‘great comebacks’ that were largely considered mistakes, Lucas’ inability to let the past go has sucked in a more impressive creative talent, and one that’s actually managed to grow as a filmmaker.

I didn’t see a single press release or interview during the production of this film that lead me to believe that Spielberg had any interest in the project. He’s always appeared good natured, and happy to be push Shia LaBeouf’s career along its merry little way, but his general malaise was always damning. Those of us keeping an open mind can look way back in development and plainly see the seeds growing from the first script chats. It sounds absurd as all get out, but I kind of like the idea of Indiana Jones vs. the Invaders from Mars. The reasons for not going the full on sci-fi route makes sense (though for some reason Independence Day didn’t stop Spielberg from making War of the Worlds). Then looking at the record we can see it took something like twenty years for Ford, Lucas, and Spielberg to decide on a middle ground, which was written up by Stephen King’s best adaptor Frank Darabount. Apparently everyone but Lucas liked the script (sight unseen I’m willing to bet large money it was the better script), and after George’s rejection the air went out of the project. Spielberg brought on his blandest capable conspirator David Koepp to keep Lucas’ awful sense of dialogue in check, and went through the numbers. You can see it all there on screen.

I don’t like to play the Lucas blame game, because I think the guy is a genuine artist and has a hugely important place in film history (and again, I actually enjoy the prequels), but here it’s obvious that the man isn’t only continuing to deal with his never ending Star Wars and Saturday morning serials obsessions, but his post- Young Indiana Jones historical diddling has taken precedence, as has an official mid-life crisis level re-re-visitation of his greasy roots. This isn’t just Indiana Jones 4, this is Star Wars 7, American Graffiti 3, and chance to deal with the one major element of 1900s pop-culture George hadn’t yet dabbled in—the red scare. Spielberg has no place in this film beyond his work with an awesome cast (he’s even fully dealt with red scare sci-fi in the far more efficient and relevant War of the Worlds remake), but then, working with Steve again is really just another symptom of confused midlife crisis.

Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Spielberg appears to have taken too many pieces of advice from Lucas on the film’s look. Steve works best with realism, sometimes hyperrealism, George is a champion of the staged and painterly look. Too much of Crystal Skull looks particularly staged. I’m guessing that Spielberg objected to too many digital backdrops and met half way with practical sets that can’t pass as real despite their enormous budget. Spielberg also opts for a more modern lighting scheme, which kind of jibes with the series’ previous visual thesis. The beard can still kick out the big set pieces from a bull horn in the Porto-john, but it’s simply obvious that his heart isn’t fully in this one. We’re talking Lost World levels of fun without magic.

But despite a lacklustre script that basically amounts to some new actiony thing happening every ten minutes, and a brilliant director’s most average effort in a while, the actors actually manage to pull off some spectacular feats of enjoyable characterization. Harrison Ford has been on the road to nowhere for so long I’d personally written him off, hoping that he could find some kind of Bill Murry-esque bit part adventure. Low and behold Harry had it in him for one last go. He plays Jones with a near perfect mix of old school slyness with just enough oldness as to not alienate his audience. John Hurt and Karen Allen don’t get enough screen time to really do us proud, but their general warmth is affecting. Winstone and Blanchett don’t over excite (they were hired for very specific talents), but manage plenty of good face time, and though a little stilted coming off a film saving role in Transformers, Shia LaBeouf does not suffer acute Shortround-ites. There isn’t a lot of drama in the dialogue or action, but the occasionally hitting jokes keep things moving. The grab the snake scene is probably the closest the film gets to the real joy of the original film.

Video


I’m not sure how much of my vague disapproval with the look of Crystal Skull has to do with this Blu-ray disc’s almost blinding clarity. It looks like the powers that be reached another stalemate in the film quality. Apparently Spielberg refused to go full on digital (which was a beautiful look for the Star Wars prequels), but went for a very clean,  anamorphic 35mm. I’m not usually one to harp on tradition if filmmakers want to move on, but the first three Indiana Jones films had such pleasant grain and imperfections to them. Sometimes this super pristine transfer, without a smidgen of dirt, grain, of even real life texture looks a little bit like a made for TV movie on Sci-Fi HD. This isn’t a bad thing for the purposes of my video review, because it is immaculate, it just isn’t quite what I was expecting (honestly, I kind of like the look shoddy blue screen effects).

Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The majority of the film features powerful, high contrast, and deeply dark textures. The cave diving stuff is rich in detail, ensuring every single one of those mossy and cobweb encrusted walls are impressing the hell out of us. My favourite scene visually is at the beginning of the film, when Indy accidentally finds himself on a proto-‘50s town block settled to be big boy bombed. Here Spielberg and DP Janusz Kaminski (who deserved the Oscar for Munich) channel a bit of Tim Burton and David Lynch zaniest, including some really wonderfully vibrant hues and a little clever soft focus (which follows through in a few more of the film’s stylized scenes). The film’s climax features a more metallic and slightly lavender look, which is really the worst case of lacking texture in the whole film, but also the most immaculate part of the whole disc.

Audio


Despite iffy scripts and bored directors, I don’t think any of us were disappointed in good ole’ Ben Burtt and his memorable sound effects collection. The quality of this Dolby Digital TrueHD track shouldn’t come as a surprise given the pedigree or the effort Paramount usually puts into their big releases. The opening act pretty much contains everything you need—a car chase, a few fist fights, whip cracks, some explosions (including a nuke), and some specifically Ben Burttian extras, like magnetized ammunition. The killer ant scene is another fun bit, featuring some huge surround sound creepy crawling, but the sci-fi finale is Burtt’s finest moment, recalling classic genre buzzes and beeps, vamped up with a modern slant, including some heavy bass and lively multi-channel spinning.

John Williams is getting old, and I’ve been regularly disappointed with his more recent scores (comparatively speaking of course), with the exception of Revenge of the Sith, which built gracefully and tonally on the original prequel cues. He doesn’t pull off the same shocker magic with Crystal Skull, but Williams restraint in using unaltered version of old cues is admirable, and gives the full on theme a great bump when it finally springs in. The score is of course well represented on the track, featuring full and immersive symphonic sounds that stand out effectively against all manner of otherworldly sound effects.

Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Extras


The extras begin with disc one, which itself begins with three Indian Jones timelines. The first is a production timeline of the film, the second is a historical timeline of the events that occurred around the story of the film, based in fact, and the third is a story timeline of the events concerning the actual crystal skull. The timelines are mostly made up of slides with facts and photos. Unfortunately slides that do feature video only feature scenes from the film or behind the scenes footage, no documentary footage on the real life events

‘The Return of the Legend’ is made up of stuff that’s been making the rounds since last April, parts of which were on the latest trilogy DVD release. It’s a basic EPK, but with more post-release spoilers than the usual pre-release EPK. If ever there was proof that Spielberg was roped into this you only need to watch the poor sap crushed ‘neath the boots of Lucas and Ford, and only get particularly excitable when complaining about the pre-production problems. The seventeen and a half minute featurette features some hi-def footage from the original trilogy, if that kind of thing might make your day.

‘Pre-Production’ is all about… the pre-production process, beginning with a whole lot of digital pre-viz. Is this where the maestro lost his way? Did he rely too much on pre-viz and lose his Saturday Morning Serial on-the-spotestness? Later the direct and DP talk a bit about the effort they made to match the look of the original movies (which I disagree with personally), the cast and crew touches on the costume design, LeBeouf’s casting, sword training, and a myriad of other preparative techniques and news that don’t really flow very well. The whole thing is eleven minutes.

Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Disc one is completed with two trailers, Trailer One and Trailer Two. No sign of the Cat in the Hat.

Disc two features the plate of meat and potatoes, the ‘Production Diary’. This documentary covers pretty much every little thing one might want to know about the film, and it moves at a brisk and clean pace. The documentarians do the Lucasfilm brand proud, as with the exception of the non-extras that were a part of the latest Indiana Jones cash-in release, most of the studio’s produced DVD documentaries have been generally good little movies. There are some elements to the doc that seem to disprove some of my theories on the lacking quality of the overall film, but it also appears that there was a whole lot of important footage delegated to second unit folks (which is more in keeping with Lucas’ filmmaking style). The six part feature runs about one hour and twenty minutes.

The main doc is augmented by a series of shorter featurettes. ‘Warrior Make-Up’ is five minutes and concerns the concept and make-up execution of the very briefly featured generic Latin American ‘warriors’. As character designs I’d call these guys a whole lot less interesting then the similar characters featured in Apocalypto, The Fountain, and of course, The Lord of the Rings. ‘The Crystal Skulls’ is a ten minute coverage of the history of the world’s real crystal skulls and the prop construction very briefly. I actually saw this featurette in parts on television too. ‘Iconic Props’ is a slightly conceited ten minute look at the film’s main props (come on now, ‘iconic’?).

Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
‘The Effects of Indy’ is a little longer, about twenty two minutes, covering pretty much every detail of the practical effects, the miniature work, the compositing work, and the digital animation. The featurette has a classy way of not dividing up techniques as much as scenes, putting equal emphasis of all the different brands of effects artists. I’m becoming so very jaded to special effects and special effects documentaries these days.

‘Adventures in Post Production’ is a glance into the world of editing, sound editing and design, and John Williams’ music. It’s so cool to see Michael Kahn not only still working, but able to cut an action scene just as well as the younger, commercial trained guys. Ben Burtt’s screen presence hasn’t become any more assured since the Star Wars documentary days, but his well stream of talent speaks for itself. Like all these technicians at the height of their power, Benny’s got some back-up these days, but he’s still very hands on. Williams is regal as ever, and has made me appreciate his new cues a little more. I’m beginning to think that perhaps my problems were in the placement and editing of the music, not the music itself, because I didn’t get this sense of nostalgia out of the tracks when blaring on screen.

‘Closing Team Indy’ ends things on a sappy and mawkish nostalgia note, and a love letter afterthought. Basically we’re talking three and a half minutes of face to name end credits. The collection is finished out with three pre-viz sequences, and four image galleries.

Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Overall


There was no way Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was going to be Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it could’ve been Hook, so I suppose we’re lucky we got a Lost World out of the deal. The worst news would’ve been if Spielberg managed to undershoot the quadruple threat of both National Treasure and The Mummy films, which were flat out Indy rip offs, and which generally weren’t good. From the standpoint of similar means of entertainment and storytelling, in 2008 I’d recommend Hellboy 2 over Crystal Skull. Though both films were flawed, it just seems that del Toro had the gumption to make something with real energy. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch A.I. now so I can see Spielberg direct with his balls a bit, final film be damned.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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