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Review: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Posted by Ty Burr  May 18, 2008 01:58 PM

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By Ty Burr
Globe staff

*** (three stars)

No, it’s not as good as “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Don’t be silly. Lightning can’t be bottled twice, no matter how skilled the vintners.

Instead, Steven Spielberg's “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is merely grand old-school fun – a rollicking class reunion that stands as the second best entry in the venerable series. Premiering Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival and opening worldwide on Thursday, the new movie is leagues better than 1984’s nasty “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and blessed with more snap and heart – more fun – than 1989’s pro forma “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” All that's lacking is a genuine sense of surprise. It's very possible that was left out on purpose.

The emphasis in “Crystal Skull” is on old-fashioned stuntwork rather than the shiny chimeras of modern digital effects. When Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) catapults from the back of a motorcycle through the window of a speeding car, out the opposite window and back onto the motorcycle – his feet nervously skitching along the roadbed – at least half the excitement is knowing that motorcycle, car, Ford, and road are real.

Thankfully, the approach goes only so far. Character and star may have aged two decades since the last installment, but bullets still miss the good guys with astonishing regularity, and Indiana Jones may be the only person who could escape a desert nuclear test site with an A-bomb due to land in ten seconds. How he manages this makes no blessed sense, but it’s a hoot anyway.

That scene occurs in the movie’s first fifteen minutes, in the sort of fast-charging prologue Spielberg and producer George Lucas know we’re expecting. The sequence also establishes the time (1957), the enemy (Russian Communists), and the stakes (power over all of mankind – the usual).

Better, it reintroduces Indy as a believably older but still absurdly capable figure out of a Saturday matinee serial, and it brings on Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko, a Red menace with a sword, a Louise Brooks bob, and a nifty accent by way of Natasha in the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. “Drop dead, comrade,” the hero sneers at Irina, and that’s a good description of the best “Indiana Jones” villain yet: She’s a drop-dead comrade.

To sum up the plot of “Crystal Skull” requires dancing around a number of spoilers, so stop reading now if you want to go in with a clean slate. What Spalko and her KGB minions are after is a rare and very strange crystal skull that legends say was stolen from El Dorado, the lost city of gold in Peru. One of Indiana’s colleagues, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), has set out to find it and disappeared, and a young man named Mutt (Shia LeBeouf) arrives to beg Jones to rescue his old friend.

This being the 50s, Mutt is first seen riding a motorcycle with his cap akimbo just like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.” He’s a preppie who has dropped out to become a greaser instead of a beatnik, and the sequence in which he and Indiana careen through the college campus (inside the library and out) with Russians in high-speed pursuit is an early high point.

It’s bookended later in the film by a delirious action set piece involving multiple jeeps, a sheer cliff face, monkeys, vines, and a ravenous army of giant ants. (This last leads to one of the few gross-out scenes in “Skull,” which is noticeably less gruesome than the other sequels. It’s still a bit too spooky in places for young children.)

The basic structure of these action scenes hasn’t change in 20 years, but camera technology and Spielberg’s skill at deploying it have. There’s an organic smoothness to the mayhem that can take your breath away, so much so that the less inspired aspects of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” stick out more clearly.

It’s wonderful, for instance, to see Karen Allen reprise her role as Marion Ravenwood from “Raiders,” since her warmth was precisely what was missing from the first two sequels. (Let us now officially forget all about Kate Capshaw and the unfortunate Alison Doody.) The script doesn’t give Allen quite enough to do, though, and the family dynamics that take over the last third of the movie feel overly familiar.

Indeed, a number of Spielberg career threads are woven into “Skull,” including a climactic shot that blatantly rehashes the finale of one of the director’s best-loved early films. While Ford wears the fedora with believably weathered panache, on some level this Indy seems smaller, less archetypal than his younger incarnation. Where the character once towered over these movies, now he’s just the leader of the pack.

The rest of the cast keeps pace – Ray Winstone as an accomplice who may or may not be a betrayer, Jim Broadbent taking over for the late Denholm Elliott as Indy’s college friend. LeBoeuf has an interesting alertness that he still hasn’t figured out how to use as an actor, but he throws himself into the stuntwork like a proper student at the feet of the masters.

It bears asking, though: What do we want from an “Indiana Jones” movie in 2008? Engaged nostalgia, I think, and on that level “Crystal Skull” delivers. Some may be disappointed that Spielberg and company haven’t invested the series with the latest in computer boffinry or that the new movie treads comfortably (sometimes too comfortably) in the footsteps of its forebears. This isn’t a reinvention but a reunion, of characters, creators, even techniques. “Same old same old,” Jones says at one point, and that’s what we get. The action may have been updated to the 1950s, but in ways both inspired and unexamined, “Indiana Jones” remains happily stuck in the 80s.

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37 comments so far...
  1. Awesome. Confirms what I suspected all along...Spielberg and Co. don't disappoint and provide audiences what they want from an Indiana Jones film.

    Posted by Lloyd Braun May 18, 08 05:14 PM
  1. As if James Bond's 007 changed and remained exotic throughout 27 films. No chance, yet they dared emerge after 20 year hiatus. Applaud the nerve and enjoy the ride, even temple of Doom was not raiders, but the formula was serial impossible but plausible stunts by a reluctant archaeologist.

    Posted by ATTS May 18, 08 09:13 PM
  1. computer "boffinry ??

    This word in not listed in ANY dictionary I used on the internet... come guys.

    Posted by Kevin L. Ridge May 18, 08 10:38 PM
  1. from my Webster's: Boffin: Noun informal chiefly brit. A person engaged in scientific or technical research. A person with knowledge or skill considered to be complex, arcane and difficult. Origin World War II: unknown origin

    (Ty sez: Thanks Mary)

    Posted by Mary May 19, 08 12:25 PM
  1. RAIDERS was tand still is the best. TEMPLE OF DOOM was fun but not RAIDERS. LAST CRUSADE was a silly father/son bicker fest and rehashed RAIDERS. SKULL is finally the sequel we should have had back in 1984 :) Keeps the spirit of the original. What some call the "slow part in the middle of the film"? the rest of us born before RAMBO and GI JOE cartoons, call it plot, and is necessary. :) Go, its fun!

    Posted by Anthony Anderson May 22, 08 06:51 PM
  1. I thought "Crystal Skull" was simply OK. Not great. Not bad. Most fascinating, however, is what the reviewer pointed out: a number of Spielberg's career threads are included in the film. There are references and visual reminders of "Duel", "Close Encounters", and "Poltergeist" (we all know Tobe Hooper didn't REALLY direct that film). Yet, a retrospective on Lucas' past work is on full display as well including the American Graffiti-esque intro. There's also plenty of swordplay and a father-son subplot that recalls those Lucas films that became a cottage industry on their own.

    Posted by Tim May 22, 08 09:10 PM
  1. I'm sorry, but have you ever seen any of the original Indiana Jones films? The fact you think this can rate against the 2nd or 3rd Indy film is absolutely absurd. I hate to be rude here this line is what takes the cake: "The emphasis in “Crystal Skull” is on old-fashioned stuntwork rather than the shiny chimeras of modern digital effects." I seriously think you wrote this review based off the trailer you saw and decided to save your $10.50. The bulk of the film was either shot in front of a green screen or CGI enhanced (even the truck crash in the opening warehouse scene is faked with computer "magic"). The only enjoyable scene was the non-CGI chase through the university. This is not a "same old, same old" film. What made the original Indy films so memorable and inspirational is the fact that it was real stunt work and real special effects, not pixilated explosions. Real rats in Last Crusade, real bugs in Temple...That element disappeared in this shotty version of an Indy movie. The wit and intelligence that made the other films so classic were hidden in this movie; hidden below an inflated budget and a bunch of ILM interns sitting at a Mac. George Lucas once said he believed cinema died when they invented sound. I got bad news for you George, you murdered movies when you took the magic out of them and made it a glorified promo of what your special effects company can do. I write this as a fan of Indiana Jones. I was one of the countless young men that wanted to be Indiana Jones when he grew up. I saw every movie dozens of times and witnessed one of the greatest action heroes of all time. I saw a man save the world and his friends with nothing more than a revolver, a whip, a brilliant mind and hell of a lot of courage. He was something to aspire to and all of us thought we could be him. That’s because Lucas and Spielberg made him real. There were no green screen backgrounds, no CGI enhanced explosions. The first 3 Indy films proved you didn't need that to make a great movie. So much for fine films...At least we have "realistic" looking aliens in our flicks. Thanks George.

    Posted by Leon May 23, 08 12:33 AM
  1. I thought the new Indy flick was the worst movie since Steven Kings DreamCatcher. I grew up watching and looking up to Indy but not in this flick. Don't get me wrong I love the first three but the fourth was just not my cup of tea!

    Posted by Dan May 23, 08 12:43 AM
  1. "Crystal Skull" greatly disappointed me. Self-conscious gimicks, completely unrealistic survival scenes that would have killed even Indiana Jones, and over -done CGI were not what I had in mind when I envisioned the next Indy movie. There are too many flaws and plot holes to point out in this movie. This Indy was for only those who had never seen the previous three films. By itself, it is an ok film, but it completely abandoned, in my opinion, the style and character of the Indy films that we all came to love.

    Posted by Thomas May 23, 08 05:31 PM
  1. Did this reviewer actually watch the movie? There is nothing "Old School" about the stunts, they are as digital and fake as action in "The Mummy" Worse part of the film is that Harrison Ford a.k.a. Indiana Jones is only along for the ride. He doesn't really make anything happen, he just reacts to situations like everybody else. Also, to say this is better than Temple of Doom is crazy. At least "Temple" had actually suspense and danger involved. Maybe Willie's screams actually suggests that she's afraid of death....Karen Allen and the gang don't seem to fear anything. Three drops down waterfalls, Soviet Firing squads, atomic bombs, killer ants, Angry Natives, Aliens and Spaceships are simply just a mild nuisance to this group.

    Posted by Mighty May 23, 08 11:46 PM
  1. The title of this should have been: Indiana Jones Meets ET. Lots of frantic action, not a lot of story, even less chemistry between the characters. You wait 20 years for this and all I heard walking out of the theater was "weird". Fun to watch once, won't pay to see it again. Indy, phone the home.

    Posted by David May 24, 08 11:54 PM
  1. Leon, I couldn't disagree more--this film didn't have a cgi feel at all. It was definitely NOT filmed in front of a green screen-the stunts had a great old-time feel. I watched Raiders and Last Crusade this week leading up to this one, an the transition was seamless. The best of the franchise? No--but a worthy installment, and worth all the hype.

    Posted by Wil May 25, 08 01:14 AM
  1. Save your money and go rent Friday After Next. The new Indy might be one of the worst movies I have ever seen. The trailer should have gone CGI Monkeys, Nuclear explosions that you can live through, and Jarjar Binks with a little Rocky and Bulwinkle!

    Posted by Mike May 25, 08 11:36 PM
  1. Wil,

    Really? Seamless? I think this is another example of us seeing different films...Since Last Crusade, Lucas has used ILM to throw CGI answers to everything. The problem with CGI is that no matter what, where the tech is right now, it does not look real. Granted there is the angle that since CGI is used to simulate things that we've never seen before like, oh I don't know, flying saucers, CGI is an understandable answer...But with situations like a truck crashing through a stack of boxes, what happened to the traditional common special effects work?
    Looking beyond that, Indy stories have always focused on the supernatural, but the science fiction element of this was too hard to swallow. I feel like that really got rid of the history concepts that made this series so great.
    One other side-note, the alien "archaeologists" who spent their time on earth collecting artifacts of National Treasure proportions, well, did anyone else notice how they were all destroyed when their ship took off? Pretty awful archaeologists. A silly thing to point out, I admit, but it's an example of one of many many ridiculous happenings that I feel Lucas over-looked when making this movie...another, Mutt's Tarzan impression.

    Posted by Leon May 27, 08 04:18 PM
  1. Sad and contrived. I wish Lucas, Spielberg and Co. had left Indy alone until they had a half-decent story to tell. These feels like they were sitting around a table and thought "Lets make another Indy film" then chucked in all the bits they thought that they would need.

    Definitely not a story tellers film.

    Posted by Ranx May 28, 08 02:48 AM
  1. i thought this movie was a bit overrated to be honest. i totally agree about steven spielburg's science fiction theme mixed into a great adventure film . an utter dissapointment. half of the scenes were a bit unrealistic and even indy wouldnt survive them. the first half was typical indiana jones but i dont have a clue what happened to the other half. its alright to watch once but not again :(

    Posted by paris May 28, 08 11:31 AM
  1. I think the movie was good. -_-

    Posted by Bi May 28, 08 11:38 AM
  1. Spielberg can I have my $7.50 back? This movie was horrible. From beginning to end it was just bad. If I didnt have my little sister with me I would have left the theater. I mean did you see that monkey scene?

    One more question... How did the alien lose its skull in the first place?

    Posted by Gert May 28, 08 04:31 PM
  1. Absolutly brilliant. The whole film was amazing and kept me and all my freinds on the edge of our seat. The slight humor from Shia LeBueof and Harrison Ford made this film an exciting and funny film to watch.

    The monkey scene, with Mutt swinging on the vines was brillinant.

    A bit freaky at points, but if those freaky bits were not in the film then i dont think it could be classed as an Indiana Jones film.

    Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is my favorite film of the year so far!!!

    Posted by Nellis May 29, 08 06:42 AM
  1. Machine guns that can hit nothing, giant killer ants, Tazan vine swinging scene (with monkey) , cold hearted Russians, Surviving a A-bomb in a refrigerator, sword fighting between two jeeps in a jungle, a crystal skull that can do something, aliens and UFO's. One of the worst movies since Spielberg's "War of the Worlds".
    I really enjoyed the first three movies, this was just - disappointing!

    Posted by X-Wiles May 29, 08 08:37 AM
  1. This was the worst movie I have ever seen. I love Indiana Jones. This is not an Indiana Jones movie. Crappy CGI dominated 90 percent of the film. The story was soooooo lame I won't even discuss it. Even the acting was clunky. I loved Karen Allen in Raiders, but she hasn't worked in a long time and you could tell. Even Harrison Ford seemed to be mainly going through the motions (I think he realized early that it really didn't pay with the script he had).

    Don't see this movie.

    Posted by Jon May 29, 08 11:23 AM
  1. This was HORRIBLE!! Even going into the theater with low expectations knowing that nothing could match up to Raiders, I was highly disappointed. I wanted my money back within the first 15 minutes. The only good parts were the motorcycle chase and the Indy-Marion bickering towards the end of the movie. The entire opening scene with the Russians felt like Ford wasn't even trying- a B-list actor could have done better. Blanchett's "Russian" accent was painful to listen to. And there were so many holes in the plot! What did the Indians with the skull masks in the gravesite and the Mayans at the end of the movie have to do with anything? So many elements of the movie felt like they were ideas just plopped into the script with no cohesiveness to the story. This movie is much worse that Temple of Doom. Kudos to Connery and Sallah for not reprising their roles- they were the smart ones!

    Posted by Meghan Milburn May 29, 08 02:10 PM
  1. well...after reading all these comments I have to say anybody who can take a step back and really process this movie has seen that it frankly stunk. there are three kinds of movie: 1.The ones you buy the day it comes out on dvd 2. The ones you rent with your friends on movie night. 3. The ones you simply forget. So I ask myself, "Drew how do you rate this movie?" and honestly I have to say "It's a three and please...don't bring up to subject again." what makes a movie? Plot and Character development. Aliens of all things have no place in the history books of Dr. Henry Walton Jones Jr. or better known to those who lack the depth of what could be :Indiana Jones.

    Posted by Drew May 31, 08 01:39 AM
  1. The entire film felt wrong. I kept trying to figure out what it was that felt off.

    1st: Lack of close-up shots. I don't remember a single face only shot. Why?The scene with Indy and two guys in a room early in the movie felt more like I was watching a filmed play. Everything was filmed with the whole room or or scene in the shot. Why?
    2nd: Usually, the actors are in focus and the rest in the background is not as focused. In this film, the images miles away are as clear as the ones in the forferont. No depth. Why? It made the film feel unreal and consequently, difficult to "suspend my disbelief."

    Answer: It is going to become a 3D ride. Think about it. They made decisions about the action and plot to work as a ride. Don't get me wrong, it will be a great 3D interactive ride, like the Mummy ride at Universal, but they sacrificed the movie to save money and make the ride at the same time.

    No place for close-ups in a 3D ride. What would be the point?
    The ants and the scorpions will run across your feet via the blowing air from the seat in front of you. When Natasha shoots her machine gun at the screen, you will "feel" the bullets whizzing by your face then finish the ride with a big splash asyou go down the waterfall. Lots of opportunity already there for 3D effects and interactive effects.

    But, Steven, please...when Indy spits on the ground as he walks with Mutt I really don't want it to spray in my face aka Universal's "Shrek" 3D movie OK???

    My only question now is will it be at Disneyland or Universal? I am going to both in October, with the film part of the ride 95% completed I am hoping to be standing in line for it then.

    PS. Sorry Harrison Ford, I am a big fan, but your lines were spoken too slowly to flow with the scene. Really looked like you were reading them at the cafe scene with Mutt. You were looking off your right, not at him and the lines seemed out of rhythm with Shia's whose conversation speed seemed real--had urgency, anticipation and connection. The scenes with Marian were the only times I felt it was really Indy. You really connected then. Karen Allen was wonderful to see. Where have you been? I wish you had showed up earlier in the film, you made Indy come alive.

    I wish I had brought some 3D glasses to the movie--just to see if it works now.

    Posted by Kim May 31, 08 03:23 PM
  1. You people are so pretentious; the film was fantastic, and has the sense kind of frivilously fun spirit that the other movies had. How can you criticize the film for having characters unrealistically survive obstacles when they did that all the time in the first film? For chrissakes.

    And Kim, what in the world are you talking about?

    Posted by Mikintosh June 2, 08 12:28 AM
  1. This was the worst of the bunch...but it was ok. What was with the refrigerator seen? I know that movies like this are unrealistic but seriously. And the rodents and monkeys. Stop trying to add muppets to everything. And aliens? That was too much. Never would I have thought that Indiana Jones was going to be discovering aliens.

    Posted by Matt June 2, 08 04:06 PM
  1. When was Indiana Jones in the military?

    Posted by Matt June 2, 08 04:09 PM
  1. I kind of expected it to be kind of weak. It’s unfortunate that that seems to be the case. I would have liked a great addition to the Indy trilogy, but that is ok. My expectations arent very high for this film.

    I also would just like to say that I wouldn’t call Iron Man a “homerun”…It was alright IMO. The suits looked great, and it had some pretty good CG, but overall it was just alright..

    Posted by shen June 4, 08 12:52 AM
  1. The framing and focus were weird BECAUSE it's going to be re-released in 3D.

    That's why all the 3D atifacts were there. Remember the giant cutting disks coming right at the amphibious craft? The vines sliding by in the foreground? The motorcycle in the library...

    TY SAYS: For the record, there has been no mention anywhere of plans for a 3D release or re-release of the film. Which doesn't mean it won't happen. But you think the trades would have speculated at least.

    Posted by DrOrb June 4, 08 11:27 AM
  1. It's rather silly that in the year 2008 people expect Spielberg and Lucas to NOT use CGI effects.

    On another note, the first time I saw this movie, I wasn't very pleased. Parts of it felt off, and there seemed to be details and dialogue missing. Or perhaps my deprivation of sleep (due to it being opening "night" at 12:01 of the 22nd) caused me to miss bits, who knows.

    I went to see it once again with a friend, because come on, it's Indy, and I gave it another shot. Everything clicked that time. Everything made sense, the acting and story shone much stronger, and even the implausible seemed exponentially more plausible (the refrigerator is lined with LEAD guys, although the lack of bruises is surprising, considering that rough ride). To me, it's one of those movies that takes multiple viewings to process, but it is very much so worth it.

    The vine swinging and the car-tree-river jump were probably the lowest points of the movie for me, honestly.

    Posted by Elliot June 5, 08 12:57 AM
  1. Evidently the Boston Globe isn't a trustworthy read... After watching this movie and reading the Globe's review, I find it easy to believe that they were paid off to write such great things about a terrible movie... This is the last time I trust you're reviews... And this movie was the final say for me...

    Ty responds: Michael, if you believe we were paid off, then you're terribly naive and you shouldn't be reading movie criticism in the first place. No money exchanged hands and, sorry, I just didn't hate the movie like you did. Here's the thing: Different people have different opinions; that goes for reviewers as well. But by all means go to Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic and find a critic you trust. And while you're at it, ask yourself exactly what the movie is you wanted "Crystal Skull" to be.

    Posted by Michael June 5, 08 02:57 PM
  1. "(the refrigerator is lined with LEAD guys, although the lack of bruises is surprising, considering that rough ride)."

    Sure, lead can block radiation...HOWEVER:

    Because of the tremendous amount of energy released in a nuclear detonation, TEMPERATURES of several crore degrees C develop in the immediate area (contrast this with the few thousand degrees of a conventional explosion). This compares with the highest temperature inside the CORE OF THE SUN! At these temperatures, everything near ground-zero (a few hundred meters) vaporises.

    There's suspension of disbelief and then there's flat out insulting the audience. Sorry, he'd be dead. That's where the movie should end. They "nuked the fridge."

    Posted by jacko June 6, 08 02:52 PM
  1. Actually Jacko, the shockwave hit first, blowing the refrigerator far enough away from the blast location to survive. Realistically speaking, anyone would have died, but then again, in all 4 movies, Indy has survived things that he realistically shouldn't have.

    Posted by whathellman June 13, 08 03:45 PM
  1. Okay.....besides the really unrealistic one has mentioned the horrible plastic looking...cellophane stuffed...glowing, talking alien head!!!! It is so powerful it controls and develops mortal minds...unless stuffed in a potato sack where its powers are rendered useless!.....
    Potato sack is to Crystal Kryptonite is to Superman
    Oh and the Inca's that pop out of the secret stone rock you think they reset the rocks after every visitor? Wasn't ox there the other day? Don't you think they would have remembered him? This movie was a disgrace to all Indy films! I love Harrison Ford, but come on at 80 its time to hang up the whip...

    Posted by Erin June 18, 08 12:56 AM
  1. Mikintosh, Go to Universal studios and watch Shrek, the Mummy ride and the Terminator show. Then watch Indy again. The "aha" moment will be there for you--guaranteed.

    I considered the re-release as3D theory when I opined earlier about the 3-D ride, but I am noty sure that Speilberg would have the nerve to do that. It would be a huge insult to the loyal Indy audience that already went to the movie. I would be very angry; that would really break trust with me.

    Posted by Kim June 21, 08 10:44 AM
  1. I guess I watched a different movie, Same old my a@#. Should have been much better. Aliens...come on!

    Posted by Lucas Stop December 1, 08 10:36 AM
  1. the crystal skull may not be as good as the others, but thats no reason to put this movie down. I watched it in theatres when it came out and I really enjoyed it, people who say it is bad I believe if over critical about movies, can't people just sit relax and enjoy it, instead of looking for all its flaws?? i'd give this movie a 8 out of ten

    Posted by mattias marois May 1, 09 11:59 AM

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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