Review: Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I never believed for one minute that I would see another Indiana Jones movie in my lifetime. Ever. I was a mere kid when the so-called last installment of ‘Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade’ burst into life on the cinema screen (and I was still in Ipoh, my hometown, when I saw it). I was amazed, bewildered, astonished, basically went kid-crazy over the adventures of Dr. Jones and his equally charismatic associates through-out the trilogy. Re-runs of all the Indy movies was a common staple during my childhood cinematic diet, along with other movies like ‘Star Wars’, ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Robocop’. Yes, ‘Robocop’. Don’t argue with me. Anyway, I grew up on these movies and no matter how cheesy these movies may be to some other viewers, I love them for what they are and I would never ever hate them for whatever reason – they are my icons, and they are still icons to me now.

So when Steven Spielberg and gang announced that they are making Indy 4, I was of course thrilled. But my euphoria of excitement soon waned as leaks after leaks of its storyline streamed out from the internet, from the initial Frank Darabont draft to the now-utilized David Koepp draft burst my elevation bubble with a big pop. Photos of the movie taken illegally soon followed from the net stream, further squeezing out whatever excitement that is still left. Then the trailer was not as spectacular or as enchanting as I had imagined (it looked and felt more like another Nicholas Cage movie called National whats-its-name).

So why were all those unnecessary leaks and bad trailers affecting me so badly? Simply because movies like ‘E.T.’, ‘Back to the Future’ & ‘Jurassic Park’ for example worked so well with audiences, and with me in particular, is because of the simple fact that no one knew anything about it, no one knew what it was when it first came out – no one knew the T-Rex in ‘Jurassic Park’ was so jaw-droppingly terrifying and realistic that when the T-Rex initiated its first stomping attack on those helpless humans, the temperature in the cinema rose by 10 degrees. And I clearly remember seeing audiences going to the washroom with such regularity, it is an obvious sign that the movie had affected them, shocked their system and had genuinely elevated them to a higher state of euphoria.

And I revere the experience of seeing these movies for themselves, and not because of the massive hype some movies generate whereby everyone starts to jump onto the hype-wagon to watch a movie just for the sake of watching it. No, classics do not come in such marketable packages. Remember ‘Jurassic Park’ had minimal footage or photos of its dinosaurs on TV before it came out (Steven Spielberg kept the dinos very secretly under wraps) and had no internet clips such as the recent ‘Cloverfield’ propaganda-like marketing push. There was no other place to find out about it but only inside the darkened hall of a movie theater, and enjoy the movie the way the Director meant it to be enjoyed. It was just me and the cinema screen, with my imagination in between….

So I guess now, living in an age where hype and publicity are all too common, those days of pure cinematic enjoyment was over. And when my time had come to see Indy 4, my expectations were never the same as before and only at the level of ‘just another summer pop-corn movie’….
…and almost 3 hours later, there was a minimal shift in my paradigm: it’s an Indiana Jones movie. And I actually liked it.

I guess the surprise-factor and the purity of the cinema-going experience that I was talking about is still evident: I was shocked to see that they got it as right as they did. And the best of all, I was shocked to see Harrison Ford showed up. The REAL Harrison Ford I mean, the Han Solo-Harrison Ford, the Rick Deckard-Harrison Ford, and of course, the Indiana Jones-Harrison Ford. The pale shadow of Harrison Ford from ‘The Devil’s Own’, ‘Six Days Seven Nights’ and ‘Hollywood Homicide’ flops was far away, and what a relief it was. Indeed, Harrison Ford may be older and showed a bit of ‘grand-pa’ vibe at certain parts of the movie, but the critical matter is that you can see that Harrison Ford CARED for his character and was INSPIRED to perform to his best. And it is evident that his show of character provided the spread of virtuoso vibe to his co-stars to do just the same, charming and charismatic performance that captivated audiences in the previous installments.

Cate Blanchett pulled it off with a character that is one of the riskiest parts to play as the mind-reading Russian communist-cum-dominatrix with a twist ala ‘The Incredibles’s bad version of Edna Mode. The overhyped Shia LeBeouf was played with much chemistry and good-bonding between him and Harrison Ford, which was a relief to watch (although I find him too tame and with too limited a role). Ray Winstone delivered a performance that simply oozes all qualities that is required to personify a character that lacks all code of ethics, and Karen Allen, ah Karen Allen, she reprised her role as Marion and brought along with all that potent chemistry and magnetism with Harrison Ford from the first movie and to see that on screen again was simply electrifying. With her blinding smile shining at just the right moments in the movie, she would have easily stolen the show if Indy really had let her…if only.

As for the main man himself, Mr. Steven Spielberg, yes he has been making ghastly movies recently that do not fit his portfolio of greatness as his recent movies such as ‘The Terminal’, ‘War of the Worlds’ and ‘Munich’ were just passable in my book. Nowadays he do not even come close to the altar of greatness he had built with movies like ‘Jaws’, ‘Schdilier’s List’ & of course the original ‘Indiana Jones’. With Indy 4, I still think he has lived past his glory days and has yet to return to his former prominence. However, I must be fair that Indy 4 was crafted with clear hints of a few masterstrokes that are hallmarks of his movies, such as the way he builds on the excitement with every action sequence, piling on the obstacles and dangers as the action sequence unfolds. With Spielberg, all the action always seems to be a cacophony of craziness and pandemonia, but they are perfectly structured and are well planned out.

But the one thing that upset me most was how mild mannered this movie is considering how dark and gory the first movie, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ was (remember the heart-tearing-from-chest scene at the end?). In Indy 4, things stay bloodless and brutality kept to a minimum, with feather-light tones reminiscent of the 3rd installment, ‘The Last Crusade’ instead of the other two darker chapters. If I have to segregate them, Indy 4 will sit very nicely just alongside ‘The Last Crusade’, but a few distances away from ‘The Temple of Doom’ but far away from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’…

Cinematography wise, Janusz Kaminski does a fair job at keeping the distinctive look and feel of Doug Slocombe’s masterful camera work in the previous Indy movies. But a blemish to it all is the CGI. CGI exist in the Indy world only as a supporting factor, not as the central feature in the landscapes of Indiana Jones’ world. So when I saw so many CGI effects in this movie, it all felt a bit fake, unreal and unbelievable that the person on screen was indeed Indiana Jones. There was so much fake lighting, sugar-coated explosions and digital surroundings, it felt all too un-Indy-like. I’m not saying the CGI is of poor quality in this movie, no, far from it. They are the best that can be offered in the industry today, but somehow it did not fit in. It was like having Tom Cruise to play Indiana Jones. All the hallmarks of the Indy universe were shifted from their place, and now replaced (although partially, not completely) by digital wonders instead of practical marvels. Remember Indy’s perils of running while trying to climb onto a propeller plane to escape the attack by numerous baddies in the first movie? You can see and feel the danger in Indy’s eyes, but in Indy 4 it was all too surreal and all too well-staged, with CGI to the rescue. I was entertained, no doubts about it, but I rarely felt the same sense of real danger that was so evident and common-place in the previous installments. A lot of scenes were a patch-up job; another instance is when some scenes were too rough for even CGI to save, the distinctive Indy music score came into play at just the right moments to ignite moments of pure audio nostalgia, and whatever flaws were skipped and hastily moved along to the next scene. Call it strokes of directive genius or moments of plain shabbiness, it did not bode well for me and it’s a blemish that I will not easily forgive and will never forget.

All in all, I’m just glad that they did not screw it up as much as I had anticipated, which was a massive relief. Indy 4 has its issues and it will not be listed as a classic in my book, nor will it sit nicely side-by-side with true classics like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ or ‘The Temple of Doom’. It did contain some moments of pure cinematic pleasure, fun and excitement. But for all its worth, this latest (I will never say last again. Ever. Hollywood has taught me that), Indy 4 is still a milestone in movie-dom that should be enjoyed not as a classic, but enjoyed as a celebration of everything is that fun, exiting, and over-the-top qualities that Hollywood reveres today.

Verdict: 8/10

Reviewed by: Raymond Choy

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