Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Director    Steven Spielberg
Starring    Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, John Hurt
Release    22 MAY (US) 22 MAY (UK)    Certificate 12A
3 stars


21st May 2008

16 July, 1999. The queue for the cinema spills out into the car park. Crowds jostle with energy and a sense of adventure. The screen is packed to capacity, a quick glance revealing the audience to be a cross-section of both males and females, young and old. The lights go down to giggles at first and finally, respectfully, an awed hush. 133 minutes later, the lights go up and excited chatter fills the room. Backs are slapped, relieved laughter echoes throughout the lobby. The audience file out, satisfied, beaming from ear to ear, still wild-eyed with wonder. "That was the best film I ever saw in my life," I say to no one in particular, before joining the back of the already 50-strong queue for a repeat showing of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Hindsight is a bitch. But how many of you, like me, are easily swallowed by sheer occasion and swept along on a tidal wave of hype? (The several 5-star industry reviews that met Phantom Menace on release suggest I'm not alone.) Star Wars is long gone - but not forgotten - and now we're faced with the resurrection of another sacred cinematic icon; the return of our generation's golden idol in Indiana Jones. There are almost too many caveats to consider before embarking on his latest adventure; the worries almost too numerous to mention; the path to greatness fraught with peril. Is Ford too old? LaBeouf too green? The CG too shiny? It's enough to turn a young man grey.

So here's the bottom line. Despite its obvious flaws, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is a damned enjoyable movie. You can breathe easy.

The story is classic Indy: blistering opening action scene, deserved breather at Marshall college, mythical MacGuffin discussed ("It's just a story, kid...") and before you know it, Indy's riding that map's red line to the darkest corners of the world to retrieve it. The MacGuffin here is a real doozy: an eerie, elongated crystal skull with other-worldly magnetic properties. Indy, now fighting the Commies of '50s America rather than the Nazis, is approached by headstrong greaser Mutt Williams (LaBeouf), who requests the old fart's help to find his missing mother and college professor Harold Oxley (John Hurt) along with the skull. So, it's off to Peru they trot, with vowel-mangling Russki agent Irina Spalko (Blanchett) hot on their trail.

The earring? The young, skinny girlfriend? The recent horrible career choices? All forgotten: Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones and it's an absolute thrill having him back. Sure, he's a little weathered and a little creakier (his clothes sag around his ageing frame) but unlike John McClane's terminator-esque rebirth in Die Hard 4.0, David Koepp's script at least makes concessions to the character's age ("You're pretty good in a fight for an old man," sniffs Mutt. "What are you, like, 80?"). The flesh might be weak but the spirit is willing - there's still plenty of fire in Ford's engine. When he pulls on that fedora and John Williams' Raiders theme kicks in, the goosebumps will shoot up your arm: if your pulse doesn't quicken, you're deader than an Ark-peeking Nazi.

Crystal Skull's story - as ludicrously pulpy as it is - is actually a little foggy. Oftentimes, you'll have to mentally track back and go over the where's, why's and when's of it all, because it's not always obvious. As Indy spouts his trademark historical mumbo jumbo and reels off passages from ancient tomes in crumbling dialects (as he's wont to), it's easy to get left behind. Koepp's screenplay - allegedly a patchwork quilt of scenes lifted from previous unused drafts - doesn't budge an inch either, moving back and forth from location to location, leaving you to rely solely on characters like Hurt's Oxley for navigation, who exists solely as walking, talking exposition.

Spielberg at least ensures the journey is an enjoyable one, peppering the trek with a number of high-tempo action sequences that are in keeping with the series' sensibilities - no fighter jet wrestling here but plenty of boundary-pushing dust-ups directed with a light comic touch. Some scenes play fast and loose with the hyper-reality of the Indy universe - the jungle chase is exhilarating, exhausting and completely ridiculous at the same time - and credulity is often stretched to breaking point, but Spielberg always knows when to apply the lid. There's nothing more ludicrous than Temple Of Doom's dinghy parachute anyway. Disappointingly, after a fantastic opening, Indy gets precious few cracks of his whip, and is reduced to playing the role of observer in the last reel, much like he was in Raiders' final act.

With Ford on otherwise grandstanding form, the supporting cast have their work cut out keeping up with the man in the hat. The biggest surprise is LaBeouf, whose young whippersnapper makes a great foil to Indy's old hand. Spiky, brash and charming in equal measure, he's a vital injection of new energy that keeps the movie's engine throbbing throughout - sooner or later his critics will have to put up or shut up.

The odd beaming smile aside, Karen Allen - returning as love interest Marion Ravenwood - is sadly wasted, functioning more as a plot point than a character, while Ray Winstone as Indy's buddy/adversary Mac is more of a minus than a plus, his over-familiar cries of "Jonesy!" proving irritating rather than endearing. Who does this guy think he is anyway? Blanchett is also given a thankless role as the sexy Commie villain, hamstrung with an odd character quirk that's not explored and required to do little else other than threaten Indy in a laboured (if cute) accent. She's no Belloq, that's for sure.

But by far the biggest flaw with Crystal Skull is that it's just too polished. Spielberg's pre-release guff about "next-to no CG effects" was just hot air, because every scene uses digital effects in some form or another. This is to be expected to some degree - polystyrene boulders would look ridiculous in this day and age - but the FX do tend to take the edge off some of the rowdier fight scenes. What the movie lacks is a bit of dirt under the fingernails. You could smell the stank coming off a dysentry-riddled Indy in Raiders and could taste the dirt kicked up by Last Crusade's tank chase. Here, you never get a true sense of danger: it's far too sanitised an environment. For all of Spielberg's talk of shooting on good old film, Crystal Skull feels digitally composed from its very first shot.

And then there's that ending. Wow. It's either complete and total genius, or demented lunacy, depending on your point-of-view. But hey, at least it's an ending: you can't accuse Spielberg and Lucas of taking the easy road. You may love it, you may despise it, and it'll divide audiences like no other, but it's thrillingly captured, expertly shot and utterly mesmerising. It requires a considerable leap from the audience, but this is Indy - he says jump, you say how high. See this now or risk some faceless internet goober spoiling it for you.

Ultimately, you'll have to ask yourself what you want from a new Indiana Jones movie. If you seriously expected this to dovetail nicely into the original trilogy, then you'll be left wanting; technological advances and Old Father Time practically ensured Indy 4 was never going to 'fit' with the other three. Delve deep and you'll discover that there are no real hidden treasures beneath the surface, the lightweight story and paper-thin villains paling into comparison with Indy's '80s adventures.

But this, more than any other film since The Phantom Menace, requires you distance yourself from it to see the bigger picture. Analyse every minute fault and you'll miss the majestic locales; try to flush it with the other movies in the series and you'll miss the point - consider yourself lucky this movie even got made. There are expertly choreographed action scenes. There are hearty laughs and snarky quips and killer one-liners. There's the brilliant and inevitable snakes gag. It's Indiana Jones. Want some real perspective? Ask me in ten years: hindsight has a nasty habit of being right. But for right now, on May 22, 2008? Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is a movie worth getting excited for. Ali

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